Hot on the heels of the 'un-rated and extended' two-disc release of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof comes the 'un-rated and extended' cut of Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror. While it would have been nice to see the theatrical experience that was Grindhouse maintained, that didn't happen and the two films have been given individual releases. So with that said, let's take a peek at what we have been given, rather than lament what we have not.
A go-go dancer calling herself Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) leaves the club she dances at and winds up at a BBQ joint run by J.T. (Jeff Fahey) where she runs into her old flame, El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez). He gives her a ride and on the way they roll his truck. When they get out of the vehicle, some infected people have chewed off Cherry's leg, promptly destroying her dreams of becoming a stand up comedian. El Wray takes her to the hospital where Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin) and his wife, Dakota Block (Mary Shelton) are dealing with some unusual marital issues. It turns out that the hospital is overrun with people arriving with strange growths and infections and before you know it, there's an outbreak. The local Sheriff (Michael Parks), who happens to be J.T.'s brother and who desperately wants his BBQ recipe, arrests El Wray but as the outbreak spreads, everyone soon has to band together to survive against the hordes of the infected. If that weren't bad enough, a covert military group (lead by Bruce Willis) is involved in a struggle with a shady 'scientist' named Abby (Naveen Andrews), whose hobbies include collecting the testicles of his enemies. It seems there might be an antidote available...
By taking all the insanity of zombie/infection films like Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City and turning things up about two hundred percent, Rodriguez has made a deliriously fun splatter film that takes itself just seriously enough to work but not so serious as to overshoot its intentions. This is an homage to films from the likes of Romero, Fulci, Lenzi and even Antonio Margheritti (parts of the picture feel a little bit like Cannibal Apocalypse) with a dash of John Carpenter thrown in for good measure, and on that level, it works quite well. The film doesn't shy away from the gore or the gratuitous language and it peppers the film with clichés and outlandish characters (the marketing material, even the DVD cover, completely give away what happens to Cherry once her leg is gnawed off) and if the whole thing feels like cheap exploitation, well, so much the better. There's no real deep subtext to Planet Terror nor is there really much of a message to the picture - but sometimes there doesn't have to be. What Rodriguez has crafted here is plainly and simply a fast pace, bloody, bullet riddled horror thrill ride that starts with a bang and holds the breakneck pace for its duration.
As far as the performances are concerned, we're given an interesting cast to watch with Rose McGowan stealing the show. She's sultry, sexy, and sympathetic enough to work as the female lead but when it comes time to tear it up towards the end of the film proves equally capable in an action intensive role. Freddy Rodriguez is likeable enough as the mysterious El Wray, and if we never find out exactly what his back-story is, that's half the fun. He's great in the action scenes - just watch as he takes out some unlucky infected types with a butterfly knife - but he's also well cast as the anti-hero who never misses. Surround them with a supporting cast like the one assembled here and throw in some fun cameos from Tom Savini, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Parks and you've got yourself a fun bunch of performers who are obviously having a ball with the material and with their roles.
From the intentionally degraded look of the print to the well placed 'missing reel' gag (note: the missing reel has NOT been restored in this un-rated version) Rodriguez has done a good job of replicating the fleapit theater experience - this big budget Hollywood film looks like a worn out print you'd see at a second run inner city movie house. He's given us characters to like, a story that provides tension and gore galore to provide shock value - and in the end, has crafted an insanely entertaining film. Who cares if it's deep when it's this much fun?
With that said, what differs in this un-rated cut compared to the Planet Terror that played in North American theaters? Honestly, not a whole lot. As noted, the missing reel is still missing and the vast majority of the new material is simple, superficial bits and pieces like extended bits of gore, short character bits, and slightly lengthier action scenes. The pacing of the film isn't altered much, and basically what we've got here is a gorier version of what we saw in theaters without any major changes having been made.
Anyone who saw Grindhouse theatrically knows that Planet Terror was intended to look rough and beaten, like a worn drive-in film print, and that's exactly how it looks on this DVD, presented in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen, strangely altered slightly from the 2.35.1 theatrical aspect ratio but not enough to really hurt anything - compositions look fine. There's a little bit of picture information missing on the sides but noticeably more on the top and bottom of the frame - compare the feature to the trailer, which is 2.35.1 - the differences are there, but they're minor. If Rodriguez shot the film in 1.78.1 and then reframed it at 2.35.1 for theatrical play alongside Death Proof, the aspect ratio on this DVD would make sense Either way, the picture looks good in terms of framing.
Whereas Death Proof started off looking scratchy and worn and then cleaned up during the second half, Planet Terror is constantly showing scratches, cigarette burns, print damage, grain and debris - of course, none of it is real, it's all artificial, but the effect that Rodriguez worked for in post production is maintained for the DVD release. Despite all the intended wear to the image, the colors look quite good and there's a fair bit of detail to notice underneath the digital manipulation. There aren't any noticeable problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement and there's only a slight bit of aliasing to note. Flesh tones look strong and the black levels are solid.
Audio options are supplied in English and Spanish language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound with optional subtitles available in English and Spanish. How does the audio fare? Very well! Plenty of rear channel action makes the action and attack sequences come to life while some fantastic low end rumble from your subwoofer will make sure you feel it when the guns fire and the engines rev up. Dialogue is never problematic despite a few instances where pops and crackles have been intentionally put into the mix to make it fit with the visuals, and the stellar score comes through with some nice, dramatic punch.
The supplements on disc one start off with a great commentary track from director Robert Rodriguez which is one of those rare tracks that finds a nice place somewhere between education and entertainment. With Rodriguez himself having not only directed the film but also worked on the score, the screenplay and much of the post-production work he's able to do a fantastic job of talking about how certain scenes were shot and how certain effects set pieces were constructed. He covers casting the film, where some of the ideas came from, and just gives a really well rounded look at the history and genesis of the project.
Also included on disc one is an Audience Reaction Track. While this isn't likely something that you're going to listen to over and over again, it's an amusing diversion and might be of interest to those who didn't catch the film in theaters as it does a decent job of recreating the sounds of the theatrical experience. Basically, this is exactly what it sounds like - the recording of an audience as they watch the film - so you're going to hear people laugh at the gags and 'eewwww' at the gore scenes.
Rounding out the extras one the first disc are trailers for the feature and a few other Dimension releases, animated menus, and chapter selection sub-menus and a still gallery consisting of international poster art. It should also be noted that the excellent Machete trailer starring Danny Trejos precedes the feature presentation.
The second disc contains a few featurettes, most of which are fairly brief and unfortunately don't go as deep into the production as we might have liked. That said, they're still worth a look starting with the 10 Minute Film School With Robert Rodriguez (11:50) featurette. This segment explains how the director tried to save money on a few different aspects of the production, including the machine gun leg. There's some amusing footage of Rodriguez trying this out on his own at his house, as he explains how Rose had to restrict her movements so that the gun could be imposed over the green cast they used on her leg. Using behind the scenes footage and footage from the film, this featurette turns out to be a pretty interesting look at a few of the more memorable moments in the picture. On of the more interesting points that he makes here is that he feels the intentional degradation of the film makes it appear even more violent than it is.
From there, check out The Badass Babes Of Planet Terror (11:45) and The Guys Of Planet Terror (16:30) which focus on the cast that star in the picture. Interviews with pretty much all of the principal male and female performers can be found in here alongside thoughts from Rodriguez and Tarantino. There are some clips from the finished version of the film along with behind the scenes clips, but neither feature go that in-depth and they're not as interesting as you'd expect them to be. That said, it's fun to see Savini and Fahey show up and talk about their bit parts and some of the behind the scenes footage is kind of neat.
Up next is Casting Rebel (5:33) is an amusing discussion with the director who explains his reasons for casting his young son as the boy in the film who meets a rather unfortunate end. He talks about some of the moral dilemmas he faces as a father and also what it was like working with his son. There are some interviews with the cast members who all express their fondness for the boy, as well as with Rebel himself, in addition to some behind the scenes clips.
Sickos, Bullets And Explosions: The Stunts Of Planet Terror (13:18) is exactly what you'd think - a look at the stunt work used to make the action scenes in the film come to life. The cast members discuss their experiences with the stunt team, Rose McGowan in particular professes her admiration for the role and the physicality of the part. Freddy Rodriguez shows up and talks about the knife scenes, and while everyone rambles on about how cool everyone else is, we're treated to some genuinely interesting behind the scenes footage of the stunt team doing their thing.
The Friend, The Doctor And The Real Estate Agent (6:44) is a featurette where Rodriguez discusses a few of the bit part players in the film, his friends Felix Sebates, Tommy Nix and Skip Reissig.
Judged on its own merits, Planet Terror is a gooey, gory good time. As over the top as anything to come out of Hollywood in the last decade the film is exactly what it should be, and that's sheer entertainment. The disc looks and sounds very good and the commentary is strong even if a few of the other supplements are a little on the shallow side. Ideally, the Grindhouse double feature that fizzled in theaters will hit DVD in the version fans want sooner rather than later, but until then this un-rated cut of Planet Terror comes highly 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.