Monday, April 02, 2007

The Real Grindhouse: A Double Feature of Sexy School Spirit and Stylish Zombies

By Charles Fontaine

The best movies of all time contain some combination of sex, drugs & death and were produced in the 70's; if you believe this statement, then you probably believe Grindhouse will be one of the greatest movie-going experiences in a decade, and you might not be wrong.
As a second-generation exploitation film junkie with a video stock pushing 1500, I have dedicated thousands upon thousands of hours to wading through the worst, vilest, most shoddily produced pieces of motion picture trash in order to find rare garbage that shines. There are a few gemstones that make the effort worth my time: grade-Z movies produced with enough love and creativity to elicit fear from Hollywood producers and threaten the stronghold of their monopoly.

The quality of grade-Z movies (or "grindhouse cinema" or "exploitation films" or "B-movies") reached its absolute peak in the 70's. Such cinema and its popularity contributed to creating one of the most resonant phenomena of the 20th century: when Hollywood studios turned to the little guys for inspiration, and mainstream theaters sold tickets to an abundance of the greatest motion pictures ever made.

In homage to the movies that created a revolution, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino will release Grindhouse, a back-to-back presentation of exploitation movies, on April 6 of 2007. And in homage to that revolutionary event, here's a back-to-back breakdown of two quintessential Grindhouse genres and summaries of some defining movies: the rare gemstones that shine through the mud.

# 1: The Pom Pom Girls
The 70's teen sex comedy typically created a vision of adolescence like we always wanted it to be. Unlike the sleazy, direct-to-video adolescent sex romps littering New Release shelves of today, 70's sex comedies often presented adolescence as a period of innocence when kids wanted nothing more than sunshine, good times and love. No single film channels this vibe better than The Pom Pom Girls. Produced by Crown International Pictures in '76, PPG was a drive-in smash hit, garnering approximately $20 million. The movie contains very little plot; football players score with the best girls, kids play pranks on each other and question authority, smoke pot, and enjoy life. If this sounds familiar, it's because Richard Linklater copied the concept verbatim when he made Dazed and Confused in '93. While that movie gave us a sense of what it could have been like to be in high school during the late 70's, The Pom Pom Girls presents a near-perfect image of youth in the sunshine era; it's apparent the kids in the movie enjoy life, on camera and off of it, and their love is genuine.

Some other movies produced by Crown International do a similarly amazing job of capturing the essence of youth and love in the 70's, most notably Malibu Beach, The Van, Van Nuys Blvd and The Beach Girls. While Malibu Beach is similar in tone to Pom Pom Girls (very innocent and loving), The Van and Van Nuys Blvd are slightly more sleazy, but still jam-packed with sunshine and good times. Both movies are about a guy who drives a van and uses it to score chicks, but The Van has a few more memorable characters, quotes and moments than Van Nuys Blvd. The Van also contains a cross-over character, the bully named Dugan, who returns in Malibu Beach: a little older and a little wiser the second time around, showing us The Progression of An Asshole over time, how his antics come back to haunt him, and how he must stop humping the dreams of youth and progress into adulthood. But fuck adulthood, because "it's worth every treasure on earth to be young at heart," and youth has never been more beautiful than it was in the 70's, so if you need more memories of good times that you never had, check out Revenge of the Cheerleaders, in which life-loving cheerleaders have an orgy with the football team in the locker-room after spiking the lunch lady's stew with marijuana, cocaine and a variety of other substances. And for further 70's cheerleader antics, see The Swinging Cheerleaders, Satan's Cheerleaders, Cheering Section and Cheerleader's Wild Weekend. If you burn out on cheerleaders, there's always Gas Pump Girls, and if you wonder how or why sex comedies were less sleazy in the 70's than they were in later decades, compare Gas Pump Girls to it's 80's remake, The Bikini Carwash Company, and see where love died and emotionless sex took over...

As a brief interlude to our double breakdown, here's glance at some classic exploitation genres and suggestions for heavenly viewing:

In you're into post-apocalyptic flicks, and you've seen The Road Warrior too many times, check out Exterminators in the Year 3000 and Warriors of the Wasteland for good gore and action with football pads, spikes and machinery. If you like cheesy entertainment and want the most ridiculous of the post apocalypse, go for America 3000 and Warrior of the Lost World. They're effin woggos! And if you ever wanted to become a vigilante but were too intelligent to get involved in law-enforcement, Young Warriors and Street Law will fill your void. But if you've been raped and seek revenge, you'll want to view Thriller: A Cruel Picture, Ms. 45, I Spit on Your Grave, and Last House on the Left. Some people might want even more demented movies, those should explore SS galore: Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, SS Girls, SS Experimentation Love Camp, SS Hell Camp, and Love Camp 7 (I haven't seen all of these yet, so let me know which are the best, or worst). And if you feel you still haven't reached the hottest seat in hell, and you seek the most depraved, degraded, fucked-up shit ever, you will need to see Emanuelle in America, Blue Movie (1978) and Nekromantik 2. If those movies don't satisfy your urge to taint everything, call me; we'll hang out.

Next up: Zombie (and other Italian horrors)
Thanks to Italian filmmakers, people who loved George Romero's Dawn of the Dead can find about 3 dozen cheap rip-offs if they look hard enough. Of all the zombie movies produced in Italy in response Romero's masterpiece, none has been distributed more thoroughly than Lucio Fulci's magnificent Zombie. The movie pays homage to early zombie movies of the 30's, 40's and 50's, taking place on a deserted island where a mad doctor conducts experiments. Unlike early zombie movies, however, Fulci's Zombie is loaded with gore, style, and some of the creepiest music and zombies ever projected into a theater. Fulci followed zombie with two psuedo-sequels: The Beyond and House by the Cemetery. But Umberto Lenzi took the genre to new heights in 1980 with Nightmare City, perhaps the first movie about zombies who attack their prey with full force and run at high-speeds (this idea would be recycled two decades later in 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead). Though the zombies of Nightmare City look like they have nothing more than mud smeared on their faces, the music and style of the film makes up for it.

Most Italian horror movies of the era are very similar in tone: the music is atypically eerie (synthesized pipe-organ with a slight techno beat); the shot composition is almost always outstanding, and the camera movement is quick and jarring, sometimes exhibiting multiple zooms within a single shot. When style wasn't enough though, the Italians went for shock value. Burial Ground starts out as an average story about zombies hunting humans in an old castle, but the movie progresses into depravity as one of the main characters (a dwarf-like child) reveals his sexual obsession with his mother. Near the end of the movie, he becomes a zombie, his grieving mother offers her bare breast for him, and he bites it off (!). As Italian filmmakers looked for more and more disturbing ways to shock people, director Lamberto Bava found a niche like none other with Frozen Terror (aka Macabro, aka Macabre). The movie begins on a young girl drowning her brother in the bathtub. At the same time, their mother cheats on her husband at a distant residence. The woman comes home and sees her dead son (and her lying daughter gets away with murder), simultaneously, the woman's lover dies in freak motorcycle accident that leaves him decapitated. The film progresses, and the woman continues to dodge her motherly duties, disappearing into an apartment that she rents from a blind landlord; in the apartment, she hides something in the freezer, something the blind man can hear her making love to at night. Can you guess what that object is?

Beyond flesh-eating, beyond incest, beyond sex with death, lies the Italian cannibal movie: the single most shocking genre ever parlayed into money. There are maybe 2 dozen of these, and I won't tell you why they're the vilest, most heinous movies ever made. If you want to find out, you'll see Cannibal Holocaust, the mother of all Cannibal movies, and then you'll want to see more, so you'll probably check out Cannibal Ferox or Eaten Alive (1980), or one of the many others you can find by cross referencing any of these three on imdb. If you're lucky enough to have a father like mine, you can just borrow his book on Italian zombie and cannibal movies. Then all you need is Internet, money, time, and a place where you can sit and watch these movies without people questioning you're sanity.

But forget everything I mentioned above. Just go see Grindhouse this weekend. And hope that the bureaucratic, corporate, Hollywood monopoly wanes for an instant like it did in the 70's, so we can all go to the multiplex once or twice a week to see good movies. It's been awhile.
Charles Fontaine is a writer and video junkie on the Oregon Coast.


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