If you’ve seen the trailer for Planet Terror, you’ve probably seen Rose McGowan with a machine gun for a leg, and you’ve probably wondered both how that happened and why it worked. You’ll also probably wonder if it’s like that for the majority of the movie. I’ll answer two of these questions for you, but the middle one will have to be left up to your imagination; I don’t actually know how it works.
The “how” requires a little bit of back-story. There’s some sort of chemical that gets released into the air at the beginning of the film. (Well, not the very beginning — that’s a 3-minute pole-dancing scene featuring McGowan.) There’s a reason for its creation given later on, but the explanation is superfluous. All you need to know is that it turns anyone, except those who are immune, into zombies. These zombies are slow, but if you get bitten, you will turn into one. McGowan’s character “Cherry Darling” is apparently immune, because she has her leg bitten off by a couple of these zombies.
So that’s how she loses her leg. She, and a group of other people eventually end up just trying to escape the area, because the zombies are swarming from all sides. That’s how most of the film sets up, even if the first half or so is dedicated to having the virus spread amongst the populace of the town, and introducing us to the survivors (and some of those not so lucky). The most surprising part about Planet Terror is how it shows us characters and gives them some depth, and then it turns them into zombies. Nobody is safe, which is a nice change from typical survival flicks.
Now you’re probably wondering about the gun that is attached to her now stump of a leg. Well, despite what the trailers and promos want you to believe, this doesn’t happen until about the last 15 minutes of the film. (And I’m probably being generous with the time here; it’s probably actually more like the last 10.) After the amputation, she actually first gets a table leg to hobble around on, meaning the amazing action scenes that have been heavily advertised don’t come along until much later. At least, her action scenes don’t come along until then.
The other characters, led by Cherry’s ex-boyfriend El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), get plenty of time to kill zombies. It’s almost like a sport for him, and like his signature phrase goes, he never misses. He has a couple of moments when he uses a knife, (at one point even doing a wall-run for some reason), but his weapon of choice is a gun, just like everyone else. More guns are fired here than in most zombie films, as other zombie films typically have their characters running instead of fighting back all of the time. And other zombie movies are often more creative.
The only creative part of Planet Terror is the much-hyped leg-gun. That’s it, and it makes a lot of sense why that weapon is featured in the advertising so heavily. If the majority of the film were to be shown, you’d see a gory, over-the-top zombie film that isn’t much different from standard gory over-the-top zombie films. The key difference here is that it’s supposed to be paying homage to exploitation films of decades past.
It does this by intentionally adding film grain, having incredibly choppy editing, poor gore effects, over-the-top situations and characters, incomprehensible acting, and even a “missing film reel”. One of the most important parts of the film, one where we learn exactly who El Wray is, is cut. It was never even filmed. Director Robert Rodriguez just decided to leave it a mystery, and instead of having the character be interrupted or something like that, he just cut the film at one point, added in a “missing reel” title card, and then picked up where I can only assume would be about 20 minutes later.
Unfortunately, making Planet Terror like an 80’s exploitation film makes it almost critic-proof. Almost anything you’d want to say about it that makes it a terrible film, by conventional standards, is done intentionally. You can say that the editing is bad, that the gore looks laughable and that all of the male actors are talking in a deep voice to make them sound tougher than they actually should be, but since that’s the entire point, all of that criticism is null and void. Well, it is if you’re talking in terms of pure criticism, but if you’re talking about how enjoyable the film is to watch, that will be determined on how much you enjoy and can tolerate a cheesy film.
That’s really what Planet Terror turns out to be: Incredibly cheesy. But it’s also a lot of fun and all of the things done to make it look terrible actually turns it into something that’s enjoyable to experience. There’s something compelling about watching a complete train-wreck, especially when the train was intentionally derailed. And of course, the opening dancing scene is better than all of Grindhouse‘s other half, Death Proof. (And yes, I’m including the dance scene included in that movie in that conclusion).
Don’t get me wrong, Planet Terror is really well-made, it’s just that it’s made in a trashy way, and that could easily turn away some viewers. If you absolutely cannot enjoy B-movies, then this film will repulse you and make you feel like you’ve wasted an hour and a half. Oh, and just a personal recommendation: Don’t be eating a big meal while watching this film. You might not be able to hold it in.
Planet Terror is a fun film to watch, and was probably even more fun to make. I see the appeal in paying homage to 80’s exploitation films, but the thing is, some of them were so bad that watching them isn’t an enjoyable experience. Planet Terror seems to have found the right mix between being terrible and being brilliant, with enough laughs and entertainment scattered throughout to keep me entertained. Unless you detest B-movies, I say give it a look.