by Norm Nielsen
Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 Death Proof gets an A+ on the Bechdel Test. It’s a female talk fest punctuated by two exceptionally well-crafted car stunt sequences. Death Proof‘s eight female leads talk to one another at length about their careers, their friendship with one another, their sex lives, their tastes, and their pasts. They enjoy hanging out with one another. This being a Tarantino film, their talk is profanity riddled, politically incorrect, and often really funny. The women are badass. To emphasize the point, one character, Shanna (Jordan Ladd), wears a t-shirt emblazoned with BADASS CINEMA under an image of Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill’s Tura Satana. Shanna’s t-shirt is a metaphor that neatly summarizes Death Proof. It is a 113-minute rock-n-roll infused homage to many genres of 1960s and 1970s badass exploitation film.
Death Proof was originally released as the 90-minute second half of Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s three-hour recreation of a low-budget double-bill feature complete with fictitious trailers (for example, Werewolf Women of the SS).
Tarantino intentionally scratched the print, washed out the colors and included severe jump cuts to give Death Proof a grindhouse film look. Grindhouses were tacky urban theaters that featured low budget, much-handled, well-worn exploitation films, usually as double bills. The grindhouse formula was action, sex appeal, revolt against cultural norms, violence, and lots of talking to fill time between action sequences. American International Pictures‘ publicity department perfectly summarized grindhouse strategy:
—A younger child will watch anything an older child will watch
—An older child will not watch anything a younger child will watch
—A girl will watch anything a boy will watch
—A boy will not watch anything a girl will watch; therefore
—To catch your greatest audience zero in on the 19-year old male.
AIP was the first company to use focus groups, polling American teenagers about what they would like to see and using their responses to determine titles, stars, and story content. AIP would question their exhibitors (who often provided 20 percent of AIP’s financing) what they thought of the success of a title. AIP would then would have a writer create a script for that title. The task sequence in a typical AIP production involved creating a great title, getting an artist to create a dynamic, eye-catching poster, raising the production cash, writing the script, casting, production, publicity, and finally distributing the film. Often the movie posters were better than the films.
Does this formula sound familiar as we approach the summer blockbuster season? Death Proof easily passes the Bechdel Test, but is far, far from being a woman’s film as that term contemporarily implies. Death Proof was not made to appeal to a female audience….unless the audience is badass women.
Grindhouse was not commercially successful in its theatrical release. Within months after its release, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino each augmented their separate Grindhouse contribution and released it as a stand-alone feature. Rodriguez’s feature was the zombie gore-fest Planet Terror. Tarrantino added 23 minutes to Death Proof to improve character development and plot structure and make it sexier.
Death Proof is 100 percent a Quentin Tarantino film. Which is a good thing if you are a Tarantino fan and maybe a bad thing if you are not. Tarantino was the film’s director, screenwriter, and director of photography as well as one of the producers. Death Proof is a dialog driven, blood splattered, genre mash-up typical of a Tarantino film. It comprises elements of stalker, slasher, car chase, revenge, and chick-flick films with a bit of martial arts thrown in. It is also a film about making stunt movies. References to notable exploitation films are abundant. Among the references are Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill, Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Death Race 2000, Gone In 60 Seconds, Escape From New York, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, and Cat O’ Nine Tales. Check out these films in Scarecrow Video’s vast inventory to fully appreciate the cinematic brilliance of Death Proof.
At its core Death Proof is about the misogynistic psychopath Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) whose sexual fetish is stalking young women and then murdering them with his “death proof” stunt car. The first half of the film slowly introduces four sexy, talkative young women friends (Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Poitier (Sidney Potier’s daughter), Rose McGowan, and Jordan Ladd) to Stuntman Mike. We follow the women as they drive around Austin, Texas looking to score pot and bar hopping as they get ready for a girls-only weekend at a cabin in the country. At one bar they meet Mike, a 1970s anachronism in look and manner with a long scar on the left side of his face who claims to be a TV stuntman. Stuntman Mike at first scares the women but then charms them over, and eventually is even treated to a lap dance for correctly answering a quiz. After leaving the bar, Stuntman Mike kills all four women in a spectacular high-speed head-on crash on a dark country road. The crash is real, not computer-generated imagery. Stuntman Mike survives the crash because his car, a 1970 Chevy Nova muscle car, is “death proof” due to the safety harness and roll cage inside.
The second half of the film takes place 14 months later in Lebanon, Tennessee where four sexy, young film industry women are in town on a cheerleader film location shoot. One woman (Rosario Dawson) is a make-up artist named Abernathy. The second is newcomer actress Lee (Elizabeth Winstead). And the other two are professional stuntwomen Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoë (real life stuntwoman Zoë Bell in a role Tarantino wrote specifically for her). Zoë has just flown into the U.S. from New Zealand and wants to do a stunt called “Ship’s Mast” as a busman’s holiday. Zoë’s vision of the “Ship’s Mast” stunt is riding on the hood of a white 1970 Dodge Challenger with a 440 Magnum engine while Kim drives at speed. Why a white 1970 Dodge Challenger with a 440 Magnum engine? Because that is the car Kowalski (played by Barry Newman) drove in 1971’s existential car chase classic Vanishing Point (as if you need to ask about this widely known cultural reference). In New Zealand Zoë subscribed to the local Lebanon, Tennessee newspaper for months before travelling to America; in the classified ads she found the Dodge Challenger of her fantasy for sell. Zoë, Kim, and Abernathy concoct a story to tell the car’s lecherous redneck owner, Tom Joad (a reference to The Grapes of Wrath), so they can test drive the car while Lee is left alone with Tom. Zoë, Kim, and Abernathy set up the stunt and roar down a country road having a great time. Zoë rides on the hood of the Dodge Challenger hanging on by belts secured to the front window frames – a great stunt on its own. But Stuntman Mike has been stalking the women all afternoon in a very mean looking black 1969 “death proof” Dodge Charger muscle car. From seemingly out of nowhere, Mike rams the Dodge Challenger from behind. A 20 minute high-speed car duel ensues. Zoë struggles to stay on the Challenger’s hood. Zoë survives a crash. The women duly exact revenge on Stuntman Mike. The film ends.
Scarecrow Video’s copy of Death Proof is a two-disk set. The second disk is devoted to very informative special features. Via Quentin Tarantino’s encyclopedic knowledge of film, the special features viewer learns about the history and importance of grindhouse films, particularly car chase films, their stuntmen and stuntwomen. The viewer learns that low-budget exploitation films were vehicles for film makers and actors to learn their craft. For example, Roger Corman, a long-time producer at American International Pictures and New World Pictures, mentored the early careers of directors Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese and James Cameron. Corman helped launch the careers of actors Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. Stuntmen, stuntwomen and their support crews once made good livings that computer-generated image technology now endanger, as across America, many blue collar film industry jobs are vanishing.
Death Proof and its special features lavish considerable attention on New Zealander Zoë Bell, perhaps today’s foremost film stuntwomen. Zoë started out as Lucy Lawless’ stunt double in Xena: Warrior Princess and then landed a prime role as Uma Thurman’s stunt double in Quentin Tarantino’s two-part Kill Bill. Tarantino was so taken by Zoë that he built the second half of Death Proof around her – Zoë’s first starring role (to her astonishment). The excellent documentary film Double Dare chronicles Zoë’s rise in the film industry while illuminating the lives of stuntwomen and stuntmen. Viewing Double Dare is good homework in addition to watching the several exploitation films listed previously to fully appreciate the brilliance of Death Proof. Scarecrow Video has all titles of course.
Yes Death Proof aces the Bechdel Test. Is it a great film? Hardly. Reviews are largely unfavorable although not universally so. The knowledgeable critics at France’s Cahiers du cinéma voted it number two in their list of the 10 best films of 2007. Tarantino himself stated that Death Proof has got to be the worst movie he ever makes. However, he intentionally made Death Proof a bad (badass?) film. It is, after all, a faux-exploitation film. Is it a good film? Definitely, in my opinion. It is well produced and features stunts that should be special exhibits in the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame (in Moab, Utah of all places). For me it evokes the memory of seeing Vanishing Point in 1971 at a drive-in theater on a hot summer night – anarchistic, heart-pounding, sexy, rebel highway thrills. Death Proof is not for everyone, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Norm Nielsen is a Scarecrow Project member and volunteer.