When it was announced that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were going to unleash Grindhouse upon the world, it seemed like a surefire hit. Two of the hottest directors in the country were going to do an homage to the seventies exploitation movies that they grew up watching and present them as a double feature complete with fake trailers (from the likes of Eli Roth and Rob Zombie) and feature attraction bumpers in order to replicate the experience of sitting through a double feature at an old Times Square theater before that area became Disney-fied. Sounds like a lot of fun, right? It was! While neither film, Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Tarantino's Death Proof, was a masterpiece Grindhouse did make for a fun night out at the movies. Sadly, the venture didn't exactly set the box office on fire and as such, the Weinsteins, through Dimension, have opted to release the two features on their own on DVD (at least for now - it would only make sense that a re-release containing the theatrical experience will happen down the road) in unrated and extended editions.
When the film begins, a radio disc jockey named Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) and her friends, Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) and Shanna (Jordan Ladd) are out for a night at the bar before heading out of town for the weekend. The arrive at the saloon run by Warren (Quentin Tarantino) and flirt with a few of the local boys, Omar (Michael Bacall), Nate (Omar Doom) and Dov (Eli Roth). Meanwhile, a rough looking middle-aged man with a scar over his eye calling himself Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) is talking to a foxy blonde named Pam (Rose McGowan). The parties all interact a bit until it's starting to get late at which point Stuntman Mike gives Pam a ride home in his 'death proof' car. It seems Mike really was a stuntman and that his car has been modified to ensure that the driver will not be killed during flips, collisions and what not. The four girls hit the road in their vehicle and Mike and Pam get into his. A few moments later, Stuntman Mike drives head on into the girls' car and everyone dies... except for him.
From here, we meet Kim (Tracie Thoms), Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Lee (Mary Elisabeth Winstead) and Zoe Bell (playing herself). As the three girls sit around a diner we learn that Zoe and Kim are stuntwomen, Lee a model. They've been friends for a long time and are glad to be relaxing for a while. Kim and Zoe find out about a muscle car for sale 'just like the one in Vanishing Point' and head off to test-drive, leaving cute little Lee with the creepy owner as collateral. What Kim and Zoe, with Abernathy along for the ride, don't tell the others is that they're going to ride on the hood of the car, one at a time, before bringing it back. Of course, once Zoe is on the hood holding on for dear life in hope of some cheap thrills, Stuntman Mike shows up and starts to complicate matters for the ladies...
Death Proof has some problems - quite a few of them, actually. The first and primary issue with the picture is the dialogue. Not only is there so damn much of it, but every single line sounds not like a missive from an actual conversation but contrived Tarantino hipster speak. While it's fun to pick up the pop culture references (at one point Stuntman Mike is referred to as Zatoichi) and the tributes to low budget seventies cinema are charming in a rather all too obvious manner, the fact of the matter is that this is a very talky film and we've got to sit through a lot of banter before getting to the two genuine pay off scenes. Some of the references work better than others. Look for a few clever nods to some of Russell's past roles and more than a few winks referencing Tarantino's past films ensuring that we know Death Proof is set in the same universe. A clever reference to Bullitt stands out and there's even a reference to Peckinpah's Convoy.
The other problem is Zoe Bell. While she's certainly easy on the eyes and not at all lacking in enthusiasm or talent as a stuntwoman, her acting here is just a bit too perky and cute. She may very well be playing herself (the opening titles pretty much tell us she is) but maybe there's a reason she decided to be a stuntwoman and not an actress for while she excels with the physical demands required of her role, much of her dialogue feels forced and her performance contrived.
The rest of the cast do fairly well. Tarantino more or less shows up and plays himself, as he always seems to in his films, and Eli Roth is a little annoying as the frat boy (though that's likely intentional and the way that the character was written) but for the most part the rest of the cast do okay. Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms in particular really get into things in the last part of the picture and it's fun to see them embrace the ass-kicking side of their on screen personas. As far as the first part goes, Sydney Tamiia Poitier might be a little too cool for her own good but she's not bad and Ferlito and Ladd are fun in their supporting roles.
With that out of the way, there are some areas where Death Proof really does impress. Casting Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike was a brilliant idea. Not only does he completely look the part but he's got the right voice, the right mannerisms, and the perfect tough guy acting style to pull it off and make it look easy. While his performance here may not become the stuff of legend like his work with John Carpenter has, it's not because he doesn't deserve it - Russell is phenomenal in this part.
The other key factor that makes Death Proof worthwhile is the stunt driving scenes. Don't look for any fake CGI here - Tarantino wisely opted to use real cars and real stunt drivers the way films like this were made in decades past and the results are fantastic. The two key car scenes are also exceptionally well edited and really drive home the impact of the collisions and the balls out dangerousness of what we're seeing on screen.
So, as stated, this release contains the unrated and extended version of Death Proof (there is no option to watch the shorter theatrical cut) only, it is not paired with Planet Terror and we don't get the fantastic trailers that played with Grindhouse theatrically. We get the feature attraction bumper and the 'this film is restricted' opening cartoon. So given that this is the unrated and extended version of the film, what differs from the version of Death Proof that we saw in the theaters?
The main differences are the inclusion of the infamous missing lap-dance scene and a black and white scene that plays out in the second act. Without wanting to head too far into spoiler territory, the lap-dance plays out exactly where you would expect it to. It doesn't get explicit, there's no nudity involved, but it's still pretty hot stuff and it does improve the film. The black and white scene in the second part of the film also improves the picture as it gives us a bit of background information pertaining to how Stuntman Mike has been following the girls.
Minor differences include a fair bit more dialogue for Jordan Ladd in the first half of the picture and considerably more dialogue for Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the second part which enlarges her role and her importance in the second half of the movie. There's also a title card that appears in between the two sections stating 'Fourteen Months Later' which should pretty much lay to rest the theory that the theatrical version of the film played out in the wrong order.
Despite the fact that Tarantino has essentially added more dialogue to an already very talky movie, these additions do help the picture quite a bit by filling in just a bit of the back story a little bit. That's not to say that some of the dialogue scenes aren't still too long because they are but at least the additions have some substance to them and they do serve to flesh out some of the characters a little bit more. These additions, coupled with seeing the film solo (and therefore judging it as a separate entity as opposed to half of a double feature) make Death Proof easier to appreciate despite its obvious pacing issues.
Death Proof hits DVD in a pretty spiffy 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves the film's original theatrical aspect ratio and which is properly flagged for progressive scan playback. As those who saw the film during its short theatrical run know, Tarantino applied some fake grain and print damage to the picture in order to give it a vintage feel and to allude to the audience that they weren't watching a new feature but an old beat up film print. These effects are still here and, just as in the theatrical presentation, they're most noticeable during the first half of the film. Once the film switches to the second set of girls, the image gets much, much cleaner and the fake print damage more or less disappears.
So with that said, how does the transfer hold up? Quite well to be honest. Despite the applied defects to the picture the image looks very strong. Color reproduction is quite strong and the black levels are pretty solid. There aren't any problems with fine detail in either the foreground or the background of the picture nor are there any problems with heavy edge enhancement or aliasing. Mpeg compression artifacts are a non-issue and flesh tones look lifelike and accurate. All in all, Dimension has done a fine job ensuring that Death Proof looks right on DVD.
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound options are made available in English, French and Italian while sub-titles are provided in English and Spanish. Despite the claim on the packaging, there is no Spanish audio track on the disc.
The English track on this release is great. The surround channels really kick in during the car chase and crash scenes and even during the more relaxed moments, like when the girls are at the bar in the first half of the movie, you'll still pick up some ambient noise and background activity. The mix sounds very good, it's properly balanced and the levels are all fine. There are no problems with hiss or distortion to report and the dialogue is always clean and clear. There are a few spots where you'll hear a pop on the soundtrack or a little bit of hiss here and there, but this goes hand in hand with what was done to the video - it's there on purpose to replicate the 'grindhouse experience.'
Dimension has wisely split the extra features for Death Proof up and spaced them out over two discs. Here's what you'll find and where you'll find it:
The extras on the first disc are slim but you'll find a couple of little treats starting with the Death Proof International Trailer (2:22) which is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. Don't confuse this with the Grindhouse trailer as there's no mention of Planet Terror anywhere to be seen but it is a pretty effective promo spot that makes the movie look like more of a horror picture than it really is. You'll also find a still gallery of twenty-six images consisting of international Death Proof poster art and lobby cards from European and Asian markets.
Also included are trailers for Planet Terror (2:15, the international one, again in non-anamorphic widescreen), Black Sheep (2:01, anamorphic widescreen...get ready for the violence of the lambs!), 1408 (2:33, anamorphic widescreen) and Feast (1:57, non-anamorphic widescreen). Disc one includes chapter stops, an audio setup menu, and a animated anamorphic main menus screen.
The bulk of the extra features are stashed away on the second disc starting with a documentary entitled Stunts On Wheels: The Legendary Drivers Of Death Proof (20:38). This segment starts off with some behind the scenes footage that shows the stunt drivers at work. Interviews with Tarantino, stunt coordinator Jeff Dashnaw, Kurt Russell, and a few of the drivers like Buddy Joe Hooker make up the bulk of the material but some of the stunt footage, particularly where we see Stuntman Mike's car flip, is pretty damn impressive. Tarantino talks about films like White Lightning and Vanishing Point which inspired his film, and the stuntmen discuss the intensity and complexity of the work that they were required to do on the picture. Stuntwoman Tracey Keehn Dashnaw shows up and talks about her stunt work and Tarantino and her fellow stunt workers gush about her job. Chrissy Weathersby discusses how important it was to see some of the other drivers prepare for their work and Tarantino explains how and why he wanted a black, female stunt driver in his picture. Terry Leonard also appears on camera, referring to Tarantino as the 'John Ford of this era.' The featurette ends with everyone recapping how much they enjoyed working on the film and with some footage of Tarantino thanking his stunt crew.
Introducing Zoe Bell (8:58) begins with Quentin talking about how he met Zoe Bell and how he wound up using her in Kill Bill. Zoe talks about what it's like to take direction from Quentin, who responds by discussing how he wanted Zoe to play herself in Death Proof and she mentions how she was quite taken aback when she read the script and found out how Quentin had actually written her into the film. Mary Elisabeth Winstead talks about how it was cute that Zoe wasn't really aware that she was acting and Zoe responds in kind by praising her female co-stars. Rosario Dawson discusses how Zoe would freak out over the 'talky' stuff rather than the stunt work. Kurt Russell talks about how Zoe was comfortable with the physical side of her performance and Buddy Joe Hooker refers to her as a female Steve McQueen. The segment ends with Bell talking about how Tarantino changed her life and how much she enjoys working with him before finishing off with some on set clips where Tarantino thanks her for her efforts.
Kurt Russell As Stuntman Mike (9:33) starts off with Tarantino saying 'Snake Plissken' before Rosario talks about how creepy Kurt can be. From there, Tarantino talks about how and why he cast Russell in the lead roll and Kurt talks about why he took the part. From there, Tarantino explains how he grew up watching Russell, and what it was like working with him from the director's point of view and how Kurt understood the character perfectly and how all the veteran stunt workers on Death Proof had met someone like Stuntman Mike in real life. Kurt talks about collaborating with Tarantino and what it was like working on the project, wrapping things up by describing working on Death Proof as 'a truly great experience.'
In Finding Quentin's Gals (21:18), Quentin talks about how he wanted to cast the women in the film like he was casting an old slasher film which is why they're hanging out and talking about boys. From there he explains how and why he chose each of the women in the cast for their respective roles. Sydney Tamiia Poitier talks about how Tarantino explained her role to her as 'Jungle Julia is to music as I am to movies.' Vanessa Ferlito explains that Quentin sent her the script and told her to read it and Tarantino talks about how he met her and why he wanted her in the part and why he built certain parts of the movie around her, including the lap dance scene. From there we learn that Tarantino knew Jordan Ladd through their mutual friend, Eli Roth and why she was perfect as Shannon. She explains what an honor it was to work with the cast and the director, and from there Tarantino explains how he and Rodriguez bantered back and forth about whether Rose McGowan should have appeared in both pictures or not and Rose talks about how Tarantino was excited that she showed up looking like Barbara Bouchet. Rosario Dawson refers to the movie as 'Quentin's bad ass chicks film' and Tracie Thomas talks about how she got the part using a specific auditioning process alongside Dawson and Tarantino talks about what it was like working with the two of them on the second part of the movie. Mary Elizabeth Winstead explains how excited she was to be on board with the group that got to 'do a lot of ass kicking' and Tarantino tells us why he chose to not write her character so specifically so that he could cast anyone he wanted. Quentin rounds things off by talking about Zoe Bell but considering that this is covered in the Introducing Zoe Bell featurette it makes sense that she only gets a minute or so here.
The Uncut Version Of Baby It's You Performed By Elizabeth Winstead (1:48) is essentially just a longer take of Winstead singing along to 'Baby It's You' on her iPod while sitting at the wheel of her car.
The Guys Of Death Proof (8:14) is a shorter piece where Quentin talks about why he cast James Parks and Michael Parks and why he chose to play Warren himself. Eli Roth talks about how amazing it is that Quentin cast him as a weird Jewish guy, explaining how it's been the part he's been preparing for his entire life and what an honor it was to work with Kurt Russell -there's some amusing footage of Roth and Russell goofing off in the bar. Omar Doom explains how Nate is the one guy in the movie who actually gets one of the girls and Tarantino explains how he was the perfect 'dream boat' for the job. Everyone expresses admiration for Michael Bacall
Quentin's Greatest Collaborator: Editor Sally Menke (4:38) is a featurette where Tarantino talks about how Sally is, as the title says, his greatest collaborator and how she's worked with him on every project since Reservoir Dogs. Quentin tells a few stories about working with her and then from there we see a bunch of clips that were cut from the feature where various performers on camera talk to Sally, knowing she'll see it in the editing room and have to cut it out.
Last but not least is a Double Dare Trailer (2:36) which promotes the documentary on female stunt performers starring Zoe Bell. Animated menus are included on the disc and English closed captions are provided for all of the supplements.
How do the extras fare? There's a fairly diverse range of subjects covered in these documentaries and while listening to Quentin ramble on and on can get tiresome after a while he and the other interviewees do a pretty good job of covering the production history of Death Proof and the stunt work and casting in particular. That said, it would have been nice to see something on the different cut of the film here and maybe a featurette on Grindhouse as well. Despite the fact that it failed to set the box office on fire, you can't help but feel that it's been swept under the rug a bit. Likewise, Dimension really should have included the fake trailers that played with the movie in the theaters, especially when you consider that many fans felt that these were just as good, if not better, than the movies themselves. Complaints aside however, this is a pretty well rounded batch of supplements and those who dig Death Proof should find quite a bit to chew on.
Death Proof does play better on its own than back to back with Planet Terror but it's still overly talky and a bit too long for its own good, particularly in this extended format. That said, there's enough here that works that the movie is worth a watch primarily due to Kurt Russell's great performance and the genuinely thrilling stunt work. Dimension's two-disc set looks and sounds quite good and the extras are substantial and interesting. Despite the fact that this will probably see a double-dip down the road, simply by judging this release on its own merits it does come recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.