"Grindhouse." The very name conjures up all kinds of memories of the gloriously lurid exploitation films of the '60s and '70s and fond nostalgia for the fading South Broadway movie palaces that booked them as double features.
Although it was not really a grind house, the Orpheum, now refurbished, was the perfect setting for the recent premiere of the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez "Grindhouse," which ferociously and affectionately evokes the spirit of those movies and those theaters.
Los Angeles has the largest intact, though now dormant, movie theater district in the nation, having lost to the wrecker's ball only three major palaces: the cavernous Hill Street at 8th and Hill; the Paramount at 6th and Hill, a glorious Crypto-Egypto-Mesozoic pile of poured concrete with a Spanish exterior so solidly built that the contractor hired to tear it down lost his shirt in the process; and over on Main Street, the California, its elegant Beaux Arts facade never altered, not even its marquee, until it was replaced by a parking structure.
Latino audiences helped prolong the life of L.A.'s downtown theaters well beyond those in other cities, but dwindling audiences, rising rents, enormous operating costs and home video finally closed them down.
"Grindhouse's" double feature of Rodriguez's "Planet Terror" and Tarantino's "Death Proof," plus hilarious fake previews of coming attractions, elicits memories of reviewing a goodly portion of the movies that inspired them in South Broadway theaters, primarily the Los Angeles and the State; the Orpheum was reserved mainly for major Hollywood releases presented with Spanish subtitles.
Rodriguez has even taken great pains to make his portion of "Grindhouse" look as shaky and scratchy as a Grade C print. "Planet Terror" is so archetypal a mutant monster/action horror picture that it evokes more movies than it is possible for most moviegoers to recall. Even if it is not actually a zombie tale, having to do with the spread of a hideously deforming infectious disease in a small town whose habitants develop a lust for dismembering each other, it is clearly indebted to George Romero's original "Night of the Living Dead" and its sequel, "Dawn of the Dead," and Rodriguez has acknowledged the inspiration of director John Carpenter, notable for his daring and imagination in a series of landmark genre pictures, starting with "Halloween."
"Night of the Living Dead" remains for this reviewer one of the scariest movies ever. It opened sans press preview at the Versailles-like Los Angeles — along with a clutch of drive-ins — in January 1969, teamed with "Dr. Who and the Daleks," a diverting science-fiction fantasy as suitable for family audiences as the George Romero film was not. Its gritty black-and-white images and its humble western Pennsylvania farmhouse setting, where a group of people are desperately hoping to escape a rapidly multiplying army of flesh-eating ghouls, lend the film an aura of remorseless, documentary-like realism. There's no doubt that knowing nothing about this movie in advance, seeing it at a matinee at one's favorite theater since early childhood, heightened its effect.
Another cult film that opened at the Los Angeles five years earlier, Herschell Gordon Lewis' notorious "Blood Feast," has been another big influence on Rodriguez and Tarantino, as morbid as "Night of the Living Dead" was creepy.
But whereas Lewis' tale — of a Miami madman driven to re-create the goddess Ishtar through an assemblage of body parts extracted from voluptuous women, seduced and then murdered in the most hideous manner — is repellent in the extreme, the array of entrails in "Grindhouse" is presented for darkly comic effect.
Rodriguez and especially Tarantino also owe a big debt to Russ Meyer, not so much in regard to their heroines' bust measurements but in their fearless heroics; Meyer would have been tickled with the idea of "Planet Terror's" Rose McGowan's amputated leg being fitted with a machine gun-grenade launcher. Tarantino's "Death Proof" recalls a potpourri of movies that seem to have inspired it, in particular Meyer's "Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" (reviewed as part of a 1966 double bill at the Los Angeles with "Motor Psycho").
"Grindhouse" will surely grab youthful audiences as well as many older cineastes — those with a strong stomach and a sense of humor — but they won't, more's the pity, be seeing it at the State, converted to a church some years ago, or the shuttered, decaying Los Angeles.