Death Proof, directed by Quentin Tarantino, was released in 2007 as a double feature called Grindhouse – together with Planet Terror, directed by Robert Rodriguez. As the name suggests, the two movies are homage to the 70s cinema culture of grindhouses and exploitation flicks.
Death Proof is very different from the other Tarantino movies, yet has the director’s signature style all over. It is smart, and it is funny, and it is pure entertainment. However, Death Proof remains to the date one of Tarantino’s least popular and loved movies, for reasons I don’t understand. Personally, it is one of my favorite movies, and I warmly recommend it to all cinema fans.
The Grindhouse experience and the rise of exploitation movies
Grindhouse is a term for a movie theatre showing low-budget films at inexpensive admission fees. The movies shown were mostly exploitation movies of different genres – B-movies full of violence, blood, screams, boobs, and all sorts of weird stuff. They were of low quality, with little to no plot, no sense or style, directed by amateurs and starring amateurs.
One could argue that the theaters were awful, the movies were awful, and probably the audience was awful. So what was all about?
The Grindhouse experience and the exploitation movies were about passion and possibilities. You want to do a movie, you get to do a movie. No matter your money, education or connections. It was a cinema from anyone to anyone, and it was about the pure act of making a movie for the fun of it and for the love of it. No pretentiousness, no expectations.
So if you are a bit familiar with Tarantino’s life, you would not be surprised by his admiration of exploitation movies. He loved watching movies since he was a child. But he never formally studied cinema. In fact, he quit school when he was 15. His film career “started” in a video store where he was working for a few years. Tarantino continued watching movies, loving movies, examining them, learning from them, and eventually started writing and directing them. For him cinema was about expressing your ideas, experimenting and, most of all, enjoying yourself. And, this could be seen in all of his movies. In Death Proof – even more so. The movie is full of ideas, full of passion, full of energy. So much so, that you can feel it in every scene.
The Slasher movie
Exploitation movies were coming in many sub-genres and one of them were the slasher films – a sort of a horror movie of a murderer chasing and killing people. Simply said, that is all about Death Proof is.
A former stuntman, Mike, drives around in his death proof stunt car preying on young women. He targets, stalks and then murders them in staged car accidents so no one would actually suspect him to be a killer.
The choice of slasher movie was kind of random for Tarantino. He was exploring the slasher genre at the time, so he took the classic chasing-murder formula but added his own element, and this is how the death proof car became one of the main characters. Once again he took inspiration from movie history, took whatever he wanted and transformed it into something original and authentic.
He also elevated the genre. It was about the chase, but it was also about the characters, and the interactions. No scene was random. The story has a build up, and a rhythm that makes the movie something more than just a cheap thrill. It is a journey that has to be experienced before leading to a well-deserved culmination.
The stuntman Mike and the love of authenticity
Tarantino grew up with exploitation movies. And he loved them for what they were. Death Proof was his way of re-creating the experience of going to the movies in the 70s once again. The video and audio glitches, the missing frames, the soundtrack, the cinematography, it all adds up to achieve an authentic experience.
So Death Proof is nostalgic. Nostalgia is everywhere. The main character, the stuntman Mike, is a metaphor for these almost forgotten times of physical feats, in-camera effects and creative filming. So no SGI in Death Proof – there are real stunts, and real car chase.
And, I guess, filming Death Proof is not only Tarantino’s way of experiencing the old days. It is also his way of feeling once again as a teenager – full of passions, dreaming big, with no restrictions or obligations. If this makes Death Proof a self-indulgent movie, so be it. But it is self-indulgent in the most selfless way. Imagine taking something personal – an experience that made you who you are – and having the courage to share it with the world? Death Proof is a really personal movie for Tarantino. Every scene of it is a reflection of his admiration for the cinematic art. It is his heart on the screen.
The female character
Is Tarantino a feminist filmmaker? This question has provoked many debates which rekindle with each new movie. Without having the need to analyze his characters, scripts, scenes, I can, without any doubt, say yes. Because, as a woman, I know how his movies make me feel.
I don’t respect or admire all Tarantino’s female characters. I certainly don’t like them all. But I have never pitied any of them. Even when they suffer, or are the victims, they are not a cliché. They are not in the background. And they will not do what you expect them to do. They are complex, empowered, wild, sassy, crazy, stupid, vulgar, classy, free, or whatever they want to be. His female characters are not female characters, they are characters.
Death Proof is a fine example of the above. The movie is a compliment to women.
Why is it worth it?
Death Proof is a beautiful movie with beautiful women, and beautiful cars, and a beautiful setting. It is entertaining and trilling, and super sexy. This movie has it all – cool stunts, accelerating car chase, dark humor, intriguing characters, killer soundtrack. There is style and thought in every scene.
I think Death Proof is as fun to watch as it is artistic. It is a cinematic delight.