Planet Terror (2007)
A while back, one of my colleagues on this site wrote a review of Death Proof, the second half of Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s double-feature homage to low-budget horror and action flicks of the 1970s. I’m now going to look at Grindhouse’s first half, the enjoyable (if overblown) zombie flick Planet Terror, which was written and directed by Rodriguez.
We begin at a go-go club in Texas one night. Already, Rodriguez is hammering in the homage to drive-in flicks of the ‘70s, because he makes damn sure that the film has that grainy look, with visible scratches to complete the effect. And in the sleazy spirit of its predecessors, the go-go club owner encourages his dancers to make out on stage. One of the dancers, Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), decides to follow through on her oft-repeated threat to quit, just like many heroines of horror flicks past.
As Cherry walks off into the dead of night, a convoy of trucks almost runs her over, knocking her down and causing her to cut her leg on a garbage can. We then follow this convoy to a nearby military base. An engineer named Abby (Naveen Andrews) gets out and banters with a nameless scientist, then shows off a container that turns out to be filled with amputated testicles. And just for the sake of gratuitous violence for shock value, Abby has his men use a knife to relieve the nameless schmuck of his own balls.
The sinister Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) then appears and asks Abby, “Where’s the shit?” No, he’s not asking about all that Hudson Hawk merchandise nobody wanted. Rather, he’s talking about a special chemical that Abby has engineered. Muldoon pins him down and repeats his question as boils appear on his face, which we later learn means that he’s becoming a zombie. Abby responds by shooting at a tank full of the chemical, releasing it into the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, a car drives up to a restaurant called the Bone Shack. Its driver Tammy (played by Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson) tells the Bone Shack’s owner J.T. Hague (Jeff Fahey) that her car is overheating. As they talk, Cherry limps past her toward the restaurant. When Tammy asks if Cherry’s fine, she replies, “I’m just cherry.” (I guess Michael Caine would have sued her if she said she was just peachy.)
Elsewhere, we meet Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) and her husband, fellow doctor Bill (Josh Brolin) as they get ready to work the night shift at the hospital. Bill sits down to eat with their son Tony (Rebel Rodriguez), who’s got a box of a Lucky Charms-esque cereal called Great White Bites. I wonder if its slogan is “Just when you thought it was safe to reach inside for the prize”?
While this is going on, Dakota secretly texts her lover, to say that Bill has discovered their illicit affair and is on to them.
Back at the Bone Shack, Cherry meets up with her former flame El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez). She tells him that she’s no longer a go-go dancer, and plans to be a standup comedian. El Wray tells her that she isn’t funny, to which Cherry replies that people tell her she’s hilarious. Which I guess means that El Wray didn’t see Scream. They engage in typical love/hate banter before El Wray agrees to give Cherry a ride to wherever she wants to go.
Meanwhile, Dakota and Bill arrive at the hospital, and she tells him goodbye. He replies, “Don’t you mean, ‘See you later’?” To which she responds, “Of course.” These two put the Kardashians’ dysfunction to shame.
Bill then examines a guy named Joe (Nicky Katt) who has a wound on his arm. Bill and his disinterested partner look at the wound, and then also notice Joe’s puss-filled tongue. They inform Joe that his arm needs to be amputated before the infection spreads to his chest. Bill sternly calls in Dakota, who arrives with a pocketful of multicolored syringes that she calls her “friends”.
She explains that her first “friend”, the yellow one, takes the sting away. The second, the blue, is something he’ll barely feel. When she injects Joe with the third, a red-capped syringe, Dakota quietly tells Joe as he loses consciousness, “You’ll never see me again.” Dr. Kevorkian has nothing on this girl.
Next, we see Tammy having car trouble again, and as fate would have it, she’s near that military base. After failing to hitch a ride, she’s grabbed by zombies, who proceed to make her their dinner. El Wray and Cherry drive past the carnage, with El Wray simply blowing this zombie attack off as roadkill being dragged away, even though it was quite obviously a person.
Suddenly, human forms appear out of the darkness, and El Wray violently swerves his truck in order to avoid hitting them. The truck rolls over and gets attacked by zombies, who rip off Cherry’s leg before being chased away by El Wray’s gunfire.
El Wray takes Cherry to the hospital and explains to Dr. Bill how the zombies took her leg. He says that shooting them didn’t slow them down, adding, “I never miss!” Get used to that line, by the way, because El Wray keeps repeating it, hoping it’ll become his own personal “Go ahead, make my day”.
Then we meet the sheriff (Michael Biehn). He and his deputy (Tom Savini) arrive at the hospital, and begin to give El Wray crap because of their vague past dealings. El Wray notices that more people in the hospital are displaying those same zombie boils on their faces, and more wounded people start pouring in. But this doesn’t stop the sheriff from handcuffing El Wray for unclear reasons, and hauling him off to the station.
Down at the station, we meet another officer named Earl McGraw, a shared Rodriguez/Tarantino character previously seen in From Dusk till Dawn, Kill Bill Vol. 1, and of course Death Proof, played once again by Michael Parks. A phone call then reveals that the sheriff happens to be the brother of J.T., proprietor of the Bone Shack. Over at the Shack, J.T. wonders why there are so many people outside his restaurant door, not realizing that they’re zombies hoping to make him their next blue plate special.
Meanwhile, Cherry wakes up in her hospital room, and is shocked that one of her legs is now gone.
As it turns out, one of the wounded in the hospital is Tammy, whose brain has been ripped out of her head. In a lame moment, an orderly describes her as a “no-brainer”. Bill makes a point of showing Dakota the body, which horrifies her.
Bill traps Dakota in a back room, and uses her own syringes on her. As she starts to go numb, Bill grabs her cell phone, compares it to Tammy’s cell phone, and confirms that Tammy is the person she was having an affair with. Just as he’s about to do her in with the red syringe, the orderly barges in to report that all the bodies have disappeared.
At the police station, Deputy Savini runs in, pissed off because one of the zombies chomped off his ring finger. According to him, the zombie is still sitting in his patrol car. This prompts the sheriff to send another nameless deputy out to check, but there’s nobody in the car.
Zombies then appear and make short work of the nameless deputy as quickly as if he were wearing a red shirt. Savini and the sheriff shoot other random undead down as more police arrive. El Wray helps out, and tells the sheriff that he’s going back to the hospital to get Cherry. A moment later, the sheriff’s car randomly blows up, so he decides to join El Wray in his big truck.
Despite the fact that there are now zombies roaming around the hospital, Bill calmly walks back to where he left Dakota. Along the way he encounters Joe, now a one-armed zombie who proceeds to wipe puss and crap all over his face.
To demonstrate how far the zombie virus has spread, we visit Earl McGraw in his home as he feeds his elderly wife some soup. After the sheriff calls him to ask him to bring ammo to the hospital, Earl realizes that his wife now has a taste for something a little different than soup, and she lunges at her husband, who’s presumably forced to take her out.
The next scene is where the film really starts becoming too bonkers for its own good. Dakota escapes from the hospital by crashing through a window and landing two stories down. Amazingly, she walks away without so much as a scratch on her (at least when the heroine of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did the same thing, she was covered with cuts and bruises). She then attempts to get into her car with her still numb and useless hands, breaking her wrist in the process. Then sloppy editing shows her just getting into the car, as an explosion from who-knows-where is heard.
Dakota drives off as El Wray and the sheriff arrive at the hospital. Wray does some kung fu on the zombies, while the hospital goes up in flames. He meets up with Cherry, who’s mourning her lost leg. She says, “I’m going to be a standup comedian? Who’s going to laugh now?” Nobody watching this movie, that’s for sure.
El Wray has an equally lame retort: “Would you quit crying over fucking spilt milk?” Somehow, that lacks the punch Indiana Jones brought to the line “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.” In Evil Dead style, El Wray sticks a table leg on her, somehow allowing her to walk. They head back to the truck, and as El Wray fights off zombies, Cherry limps around and delivers the understatement of the film with, “This is ridiculous!”
We then see why Dakota makes for great Mother of the Year material, when we meet her babysitters and see that she’s entrusted her son’s care to bitchy, sex-crazed twins (Electra and Elise Avellan). Dakota arrives and kicks them out after they complain that Tammy didn’t show up when she was supposed to.
Dakota plans to drive her son to safety, but first we get to watch as the kid packs up his turtle, scorpion, and tarantula. As they drive away, the car is suddenly attacked. Except it’s not zombies, but rather those two pissed-off twins. Eventually, Dakota gets away.
Back at the Bone Shack, the sheriff deputizes the gathering crowd, except for El Wray. Sure, that’s logical.
Meanwhile, Dakota takes her son to her estranged father’s home, and it turns out her father is Earl. But before Dakota goes to meet him, she gives her son a gun for protection, and tells him to shoot anyone he sees. The kid asks, “What if it’s Dad?” To which Dakota replies, “Especially if it’s your dad.”
Unfortunately, just as Dakota gets out, the kid ends up shooting himself in the head. His zombie dad Bill then shows up, with more zombies in tow. Luckily, Earl lets her inside just in time.
Back at the Bone Shack, El Wray and Cherry do the same thing every couple does when the world is going to hell: have sex. This ends with more grainy-looking film and, mercifully, a “Missing Reel” card.
When we return from this interlude, the Bone Shack is up in flames, zombies are approaching, and the sheriff has been shot by one of his own incompetent underlings. Dakota and Earl also arrive together with those crazy twins (what’s a smashed car between friends, right?).
As the sheriff is dying, he says that they should give all their guns to El Wray. Well, I feel better already. The zombies burst in and rip Savini to bits. Our heroes then blast their way through more zombies before they pack up the survivors and head out.
Our intrepid bunch gets a few miles away, but are stopped at a bridge by more zombies. The sheriff says that they don’t have enough ammo to deal with all of them. Fortunately, they get rescued by Lt. Muldoon and his men, who take them into custody.
Next thing we know, our heroes are in a prison cell with Abby, who explains that the substance in the atmosphere is part of something called “Project Terror”. He also explains that constant inhalation of the gas delays mutation.
Cherry and Dakota are taken into an elevator by two soldiers. As the elevator heads down, we see one of the soldiers is played by Quentin Tarantino. He taunts Cherry, and this conversation proves once again that, as an actor, Tarantino’s an awesome director. And oh yeah, boils are developing on his face, too.
Upstairs, El Wray shoots the guards watching over his cell. He and Abby then track down Muldoon. During this conversation, Muldoon has a bizarre monologue that includes him explaining that he secretly killed Osama bin Laden, and his story is eerily similar to the actual assassination that didn’t happen until four years later.
Bad editing and grainy film take over the narrative again, as Muldoon transforms into the most ridiculous looking zombie ever. Finally, El Wray shoots him.
Meanwhile, Cherry and Dakota engage in girl talk. Tarantino returns to give Cherry more shit, so she snaps off a piece of her wooden leg and jams it into his eye. Being a zombie, however, he shrugs this off and takes off his pants so he can presumably sex her up, but it turns out his junk has been affected by the virus and is melting off. Dear God. Dakota then regains the use of her hands, and pulls out syringes she had stashed away and uses them to incapacitate Tarantino. So I guess that broken wrist healed itself.
El Wray and Abby arrive, and now El Wray attaches an M4 Carbine assault rifle to Cherry’s leg. And not only is she able to walk around on the rifle, but she’s also somehow able to fire it without pulling a trigger. I guess the thing reads her mind?
The four break out the other survivors. J.T. says that there are helicopters nearby they can use to escape, and he and the sheriff stay behind to heroically sacrifice themselves.
Our band fights their way out of the facility, with Abby getting his head blown off. We then get a moment where Cherry launches herself into the air with an M203 grenade launcher attached to her gun leg, in a gag that’s even dumber than that “nuke the fridge” thing.
Zombie Bill arrives to threaten Dakota one last time, before Earl does the fatherly thing and kills him. But it seems El Wray is mortally wounded. He tells a crying Cherry not to worry though, because she won’t be alone. He then points to her (presumably now pregnant) belly and again says his awful “I never miss” line. Geez, enough already!
The film ends with our survivors setting up shop on a beach in Mexico, for all the good that’ll do them, and sure enough, Cherry is now a mom. A quick post-credits scene shows Dakota’s son alive again, and playing with his turtle, scorpion, and tarantula. Because why not?
Planet Terror is certainly entertaining, with Rodriguez’s love for zombie films shining through in the same way that Sergio Leone’s love for westerns shined through in his movies. The cast is game as well, with Biehn and Fahey being their usual dependable selves, and McGowan and Shelton playing more appealing characters than the ones they respectively played in Scream and Valentine.
The only weak link is Freddy Rodriguez, who tries to make El Wray an Eastwood-esque rogue, but instead comes off as an annoying prick.
The real problem with the movie is that its tongue is a bit too firmly in its cheek. The zombie films of George Romero were flamboyant, to say the least. But those are beloved films (well, the first three, anyway) because there’s just enough seriousness injected into the proceedings to make audiences want to follow things through to the end.
I also disliked the zombie makeup of Planet Terror, which was way too over the top. In fairness, monster makeup can be a tricky thing to pull off, but instead of being scared, my first thought at seeing the zombies was to pity the actors buried under all that silly putty.
I know there will be people who will argue that the film’s flaws are intentional, in that they’re supposed to resemble similar Z-grade films of the ‘70s. But homages can only carry a movie so far before they overwhelm the narrative of the movie itself.
For example, I know that many will point out that those films of the ‘70s also had that grainy look, and that it’s part of their charm. And I would actually be inclined to agree with that sentiment. However, I wonder if it ever crossed Rodriguez’s mind that the grainy film and “missing reel” scenes of such movies were not put in there intentionally.