Supposedly, this is a true story (I’ve heard it from two sources, at least): In 1982, Samuel Z. Arkoff, the famous producer of B movies, was in the midst of promoting one of his most recent projects, Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent – in which New York is terrorized by a giant flying dinosaur that may or may not be the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl – when he was approached about the film by critic Rex Reed. Opined Reed: “What a surprise! All that dreck – and right in the middle of it, a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty!” Arkoff is said to have offered a “thank you,” adding, “The dreck was my idea.”
Q, in case the era and plot description didn’t make it obvious, is from the tail-end of what were called “grindhouse movies.” These days, it seems like everybody wants to make grindhouse movies.
Okay, maybe not everybody, but lots of people. Movie people, I mean.
Grindhouse, of course, also refers to that Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez movie that everyone discovered was awesome about a month after it was too late and the thing had already died in theaters. (Way to go, America.) But more importantly, it refers to the movie subgenre it both mocked and celebrated.
For those who have little to no idea what I’m talking about: Back in the day (well before mine, even), instead of multiplexes you had thousands of single-screen movie theaters all over the place. As such, not every theater was necessarily showing the same big new hit every week; instead, some would run older movies (“revival theaters”), others (for a time) would run pornography and some – mostly in sparsely populated rural areas or “unsavory” urban communities – specialized in the type of low-budget/gimmick-oriented work commonly called “exploitation films.” These were the grindhouses, and as such “grindhouse movie” basically refers to any sort of film that would’ve played there. Kung-fu, Italian horror, sex comedy, Mexican wrestling … if it was low-end, it was there.
Mssrs. Tarantino and Rodriguez are, of course, of the generation old enough to have seen grindhouse movies in their native environment, whereas I’m of the second wave: the children of the ’80s who enjoyed grindhouse/exploitation movies on VHS. See, in the early days of video, most big Hollywood movies weren’t available right away. Studios would wait years in between theaters and rental, and some of them didn’t want to do VHS at all for fear of lowering ticket sales. This meant that your average mid-’80s video stores filled their shelf-space with low-budget genre films, including tons of the old grindhouse “classics” plus “new” stuff released straight to video.
That the grindhouse “aesthetic” (or lack thereof) had such a profound impact on two now-adult generations of young movie geeks helps to explain why aping it is such an “in” thing to do. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a major movie (think Doomsday) or videogame (House of The Dead: Overkill, Wet) doing their bloody best to mimic the style. Grainy filters, reel skips and smugly portentous voiceovers are the new bullet time.
Thing is, that’s all superficial. Ultimately, Grindhouse isn’t a truly accurate translation of its own title. It’s too good. See, the real experience of watching exploitation movies was slogging through really, really bad movies for one or two amazing moments. That’s how the hobby got its cult-ish status. It took dedication – or at least the fixation of movie nerds with nothing better to do with their time.
Take, for example, Zombie, a 1970s Italian living-dead flick from Lucio Fulci that’s considered a grindhouse/exploitation classic. After a fairly nifty opening in which an abandoned sailboat pulls into Manhattan Harbor carrying a bunch of dead bodies – one of them still walking and hungry – it settles in to become an utterly routine (but by no means unwatchable) brain muncher. So why the reputation? Well, around the start of Act II, a zombie wrestles a shark underwater; then a few scenes later, a zombie impales a female victim on a splinter through her eye in full-on close-up.
Yes, two scenes totaling about five minutes of screen time. That’s the “big deal.”
That was the real grindhouse experience – enduring 90 minutes of sub-par nonsense for five minutes of a “legendary” scene you read about in Fangoria. Staying awake through a poorly-dubbed, nigh-incomprehensible retelling of Chinese folk-history for a single insane kung-fu battle. The inevitable discovery that an idea that sounds amazing for one shining moment (Killer Santa Claus! Army of giant rabbits!! Vampire gym teacher!!!) isn’t quite as funny when stretched over an entire feature. In the Grindhouse movie, Rodriguez’s Planet Terror episode just has far too much good stuff going on (to the point that it more closely resembles a vintage John Carpenter piece) to be the real thing. Tarantino’s mostly-talk-plus-two-amazing-car-scenes Death Proof has the authentic structure down … except in a real grindhouse flick, the dialogue was never that good and the women never that interesting.
Either way, the faux grindhouse/exploitation thing is probably going to be with us for awhile. Which is ironic, since the Age of the Internet has probably put the final nail in the existence of the real thing.
See, thanks to clip-sharing sites like YouTube, the whole concept of “discovering” obscure movies, directors and styles on a “you’ve got to see this one part” treasure hunt is probably over. Now, just about every infamously oddball sequence of movie legend you can name is viewable somewhere, and any new ones that crop up will soon join them.
The shark scene from Zombie? It’s out there – you can go see it right now. David Hasselhoff fighting robots with a lightsabre in Starcrash? Yep, that one, too. The giant bunny-rabbit rampages from Night of The Lepus? The sheep getting hit by an RPG in Bad Taste? The summer-camp massacre from Piranha? Isabelle Adjani screwing an octopus in Possession? The sundry gunfights of Surf Nazis Must Die? Jackie Chan morphing into Street Fighter II characters in City Hunter? The early pre-fame topless scenes of every noteworthy actress who’s ever lived? All there – though you probably have to pay for some of that last one.
And those are just the famous ones. The truly obscure stuff that in my day you had to pay good money to a shady dealer for a ninth-generation VHS just to glimpse are all at your fingertips – in pieces, at least. In fact, go hit your clip-searching site of choice right now and search for “3 Dev Adam.” Go on, I’ll wait …
… Yes. What you just saw is real: an unlicensed Turkish action movie wherein Captain America teams up with Mexican wrestling legend El Santo to fight the evil crime-boss Spider-Man. Want more? Try “Indian Superman.”
Sure, it’s all very convenient, and maybe I’m being an old fart about it, but I really get the sense that seeing these things piecemeal with such ease is robbing people of the experience of “finding” them, to say nothing of all the stuff you find on the way. To use one now-forgotten example, at a certain point around 1989, everyone just had to see a John Ritter comedy called Skin Deep for its famous scene of two men fighting over a woman in total pitch-darkness, both combatants (supposedly) naked and “seen” only by the glow-in-the-dark condoms (one red and one blue, of course) each is wearing. It’s a hilarious sequence, and yes, you can probably find the clip online, but the folks who tracked it down and watched the whole thing back in the day also got one of the best thinking-person’s sex comedies of the era as a “bonus.”
Believe me, actually watching the entire deliriously terrible Wicker Man remake is funnier than just watching the assembled Nicholas Cage freak-out moments on YouTube. (Just don’t watch either of them until you’ve already seen the magnificent original.) There’s an almost perverse (or maybe “pathetic” is a better word) sense of triumph in discovering some remarkable element of some justifiably-unknown junk movie, and then being the guy who gets to inflict it on unsuspecting others: “Trust me, man … just get all the way to the end You’ll know what I’m talking about.”
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.