'Death Proof,' Grindhouse, and the Women of Exploitation Cinema

Tarantino's love for grindhouse movies is on full display in his sixth feature.

Death Proof

Despite Quentin Tarantino‘s bold insistence that Death Proof (2007) is his worst movie (“limp” and “flaccid dicked” are his words), it certainly offers a compelling portrait of the director’s cinematic obsessions and affinity for writing badass (but by no means perfect) women. In honor of the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it’s pertinent to look back on Tarantino’s first movie explicitly about actors and stunt people.

While Once Upon a Time in Hollywood transports us to the world of forgotten Westerns and ’60s hippie culture, Death Proof attempts to recreate the style, tone, and sleazy feeling of ’60s and ’70s grindhouse cinema. The film was originally released as a double feature alongside Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror under the befitting umbrella title Grindhouse. Planet Terror evokes low-budget zombie horror movies, while Death Proof offers a meta-cinematic rainbow of B movie tropes, from car chases to sensual lap dances.

According to the Grindhouse Cinema Database (GCDB), “exploitation films” refer to low-budget B movies that use sensationalist advertising to promote their lurid subject matter and/or content, specializing in sex and nudity, violence, gore, and depiction of taboos such as incest (see: Pink Flamingos). Such films have always existed, but they had their heyday in the late ’60s and early ’70s when cinematic censorship was becoming more relaxed due to the influence of European art cinema.

The GCDB notes that the term “grindhouse” refers to specific theaters that mainly (or only) show exploitation films and utilize the “grind policy” of offering cheap ticket prices and more screenings per day than mainstream theaters. Grindhouses are the sleazy cousins of arthouse theaters, and both offer alternative programming to mainstream Hollywood fare, usually featuring more sexuality and violence. Exploitation films, however, aim to titillate and thrill their audiences, and any thought-provoking or artistic elements are merely a bonus.

Tarantino loudly and proudly adores exploitation movies. According to the GCDB, most classic grindhouse and exploitation flicks known to aficionados are championed by the director, and Tarantino himself has brought attention to movies that would otherwise be forgotten. Looking through the list of his 20 favorite grindhouse pictures brings his inspirations for Death Proof into clearer focus. Female-centric pictures such as the blaxploitation film Coffy (1973), crime drama The Lady in Red (1979), and the rape-revenge thriller They Call Her One Eye (1973) provide the framework for the fast-talking tough-girl heroines who dominate both halves of Death Proof and are not afraid to kick the shit out of those who have wronged them.

As FSR’s William Dass writes, Death Proof offers a strange meta-cinematic diptych and plays as though it is Tarantino’s attempt to remake an old grindhouse classic and a follow-up revenge tale. The first half of the film focuses on best friends Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier), Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and Arlene/Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito) as they make their way up to Shanna’s father’s cabin, stopping for drinks, weed, and Mexican food (and some flirting) along the way. From the opening title card announcing “Our Feature Presentation” to the grainy film stock, missing footage, and occasionally warped soundtrack, Tarantino strives to evoke the low-budget feeling of late ’60s exploitation cinema.

Yet this is no ordinary exploitation picture, despite what it looks and sounds like on the surface. The technical errors are clearly the filmmakers’ way of winking at the audience, and these characters are by no means empty and stilted as they tend to be in typical grindhouse fare. The women engage in endless banter (in typical Tarantino fashion), swapping quips and seemingly mundane observations about sex, men, work, and the people they know. The men around them are leering and mean-spirited, none more so than Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), whom they approach with bemused caution.

The centerpiece of this half of the film is a titillating lapdance that Butterfly gives Stuntman Mike in an attempt to prove she is not “chickenshit” (and also because she wants to). This scene points to the complex interplay between empowering female sexuality and exploiting it, a key tension within grindhouse cinema. Butterfly is slightly coerced into giving Mike this lapdance, but she is ultimately the one who agrees to it and she seems perfectly comfortable flaunting her beauty and sexuality in the bar for everyone to see. While most exploitation films do not explicitly (or even implicitly) question gender inequality and power dynamics, Death Proof opens space for such critical thinking as the women themselves question the ways they are treated by the men in their lives.

Also in typical Tarantino fashion, some truly gruesome things happen. Stuntman Mike, with his perfectly styled mullet and Icy Hot Patch leather jacket, reveals himself to be a sadistic killer who preys on young women. His weapon of choice is his menacing “death proof” stunt car, itself a quirky grindhouse reference to “carsploitation” films such as Mad Max (1979). The first half of the film ends in horror as overlapping editing replays Stuntman Mike driving straight into the women’s car four times to demonstrate the uniquely gruesome fate of each woman (thrown from the car, face ripped off, leg torn from a body and flung across the road).

After a short black and white transitional sequence, the film switches to crystal-clear color stock to introduce a new group of women. Zoë (Zoë Bell, playing “herself”), Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Kim (Tracie Thoms) drive Kim’s yellow car (with a subtle “Pussy Wagon” sticker on the back) through Lebanon, Tennessee, bantering in much the same way as the women in the first half. These women, however, all work in the film industry: Lee is an actress, Abby does makeup, and Zoë and Kim are professional stuntwomen.

The film begins to spiral in on itself as the women discuss the 1971 film Vanishing Point, alongside other “classic” car movies such as Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974). Death Proof itself pays tribute to exploitation cinema in its style and content, but takes it a step further by having its characters work in the film industry and explicitly discuss their own reverence for grindhouse films. Tarantino cannot help but imbue his characters and settings (the women sit in a diner surrounded by old movie posters) with the same reverence for cinema that he has.

Stuntman Mike reappears throughout this half of the film, taking photos of the women and spying on them from afar, before violently attacking them as they play “ship’s mast” with a borrowed 1970 Dodge Challenger, the same car driven by one of the characters in Vanishing Point. Roger Ebert wrote that Planet Terror and Death Proof play as if “Night of the Living Dead and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! were combined on a double bill under the parentage of the dark sperm of vengeance,” and indeed, Death Proof resembles Russ Meyers’ 1965 Pussycat, wherein smart-talking women drive fast cars and hurt men who try to hurt them.

As is the case with some of the best exploitation films, Death Proof ends with vengeance, as the women catch up to Stuntman Mike and destroy both him and his car. It is clear from his other works, such as Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003-4) and Inglorious Basterds (2009) that Tarantino is preoccupied with the idea of female revenge, where women dole out violent justice to the bad men that have tried to kill them. It is admittedly satisfying to watch Abby, Kim, and Zoë kick the shit out of Stuntman Mike, especially after their earlier discussion on women’s safety and carrying weapons.

Death Proof has everything a good exploitation movie has: sexy heroines, fast cars, ’70s title card fonts, burnt/scratched/missing footage, and a kickass revenge sequence in the end. Yet the movie is more than a mere imitation of the grindhouse tradition. Instead, it demonstrates Tarantino’s take on how exploitation cinema shaped his own filmmaking and his perception of female characters. Death Proof, while not a perfect film, is heightened by the brilliant performances by its lead actresses and the flawlessly sleazy and horrifying character Kurt Russell creates, and it deserves continued critical attention in order to situate it within Tarantino’s ever-growing body of work.

Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.