Quentin Tarantino has been very vocal of his love and support for exploitation grindhouse cinema and this in-your-face way of filmmaking has been an integral part of his directing style since the very beginning. With his fifth film, Death Proof, he would commit to the genre and narrative of this very particular type of film and the result would be an extremely original and gonzo horror movie.
Two separate sets of voluptuous women are stalked at different times by a scarred stuntman who uses his “death proof” cars to execute his murderous plans.
Along with good friend and fellow filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, Tarantino decided that it was time to resurrect the classic grindhouse cinema of his youth and the result was Death Proof. This slasher film involved a deranged stuntman, plenty of voluptuous women and all kinds of twisted metal. Fed by his mastery of dialogue, Death Proof takes its time to build to the gore, but when it does it delivers with plenty of blood. Tarantino dives headfirst into the grindhouse genre here, scarring up his footage, and adding a grain into the film to highlight it’s lower quality style. But this film’s key plot of vehicular murder by a homicidal maniac comes at you by complete surprise and it doesn’t stop for a moment.
Of all of the director’s films, Death Proof, to me, feels like it’s Tarantino’s most personal thus far. Not only did he write and direct it, but he also stepped behind-the-camera to serve as cinematographer and in doing so audiences are offered a completely unfiltered vision up on the screen. Packed out with a diner sequence that riffs off of Reservoir Dogs, dialogue sequences that recall both Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, a colour pallette that recalls the vocal hues of Kill Bill and plenty of feet, Death Proof is the total QT package. Narratively it’s also one hell of an original concept as Tarantino uses his vast knowledge of Hollywood cinema to resurrect the car chase movie and he comes up with a thoroughly original slasher film in the process.
At the center of Death Proof is the great Kurt Russell and it’s a complete return to form for the action star. Tarantino decided to resurrect Russell as the badass that he was in the late 1980s and early 1990s and he succeeds here with the character of the homicidal Stuntman Mike. Scarred up and smoking cool, with a seriously shiny jacket, Stuntman Mike is one dangerous dude and his particular talents behind the wheel lead him to cause plenty of damage on the roads of Austin, Texas and Lebanon, Tennessee. It’s a great role for Kurt Russell to play and the veteran actor does a terrific job as he pulls out plenty of menace, and gives this deranged character a sinister charisma that manifests in a total villain package as this slick automotive serial killer.
Alongside Russell, Death Proof is also the perfect showcase for Kiwi stunt woman and Tarantino’s new muse Zoë Bell. Having established herself on the set of Kill Bill as the chief stunt double for Uma Thurman’s The Bride, Bell plays herself here and gets to engage in all kinds of crazy stunts for this gonzo feature film. Chief among them involves a 1970 Dodge Challenger, the featured car from cult classic 1970 car chase film Vanishing Point and a game of “Ship’s Mast”. Bell has plenty of fun displaying her talents here, and alongside co-stars Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms, these three women get to put a hell of a beatdown on Stuntman Mike!
As a horror film, Death Proof stands out for its uniqueness. I mean how many times have you seen a slasher film where the main villain kills people by the way of a death proof car? It’s a concept that pops, and Tarantino gets to try something new here. While horror cinema had always had a strong influence on Tarantino, he’d never really jumped into that arena before. Yes there were shout outs, such as in Kill Bill Volume 1, but Death Proof was his chance to go for it. And it’s all about the throwback here. With the use of a synthesized score and plenty of creepy camera angles to highlight Russell’s sadistic glee, there are a whole heap of moments when the horror gets under your skin with its creepiness here.
Death Proof is also a complete and total love letter to classic car chases and auto fans certainly had a fun time here. Tarantino has long talked of his disdain for all things digital, and that includes what he refers to as the ‘digitization of stunts’. In Death Proof the director goes back to basics with a film that is all about the reality. We’re talking full-on American muscle cars that are supped up, stripped down and ready for the backwoods blacktop of America. Serving as his own cinematographer, Tarantino is able to capture all of these high speed chases with full-frame precision that allowed audiences to feel the rush of these crash and bash car chases that involved a slew of classic cars including a 1971 Chevrolet Nova and a 1969 Dodge Charger.
While Death Proof is not the most standout of Tarantino’s film credits, it’s a film that certainly has plenty of visual zeal and it’s bold car chases and menacing performance on the part of Kurt Russell gives audiences plenty to look at it. It’s also a film that should be watched at the dead of midnight to heighten it’s 1970 exploitation scares and is another interesting addition to the director’s long list of credits.