A one-time wanna-be medical student. A teary-eyed pole dancer. An aspiring would-be stand-up comedienne. The mutilated victim of a crazed zombie attack. A gun-toting heroine. These many facets that combine in the character of protagonist Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) also mirror the broad generic texture of Planet Terror, all at once a sleazy flick with chicks a-gogo, a hospital melodrama, a riotous comedy, a deliriously gory horror and an action extravaganza.
It is an ordinary-seeming night in an ordinary-ish Texan town. Cherry is trying to sort through the wreckage of her working life and her feelings over former flame Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), who has just blown back into town, much to the irritation of Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn). Hague’s brother JT (Jeff Fahey) is hard at work in his obsessive search for the perfect sauce to accompany his home-cooked Texas barbecue for the 25th anniversary of his roadside restaurant. Anaesthesiologist Dr Dakota Block (Mary Shelton) is furtively finalising arrangements to take her young son Tony (Rebel Rodriguez) out of town with her lover Tammy (Stacy Ferguson), but crazed Dr William Block (Josh Brolin) will only let his wife leave over his dead body.
Into this heady mix of hyped-up small-town drama, something truly noxious is about to be released. When he is not literally breaking the balls of his underlings, biochemical engineer Abby (Naveen Andrews) has been producing top secret nerve agent DC2 for Afghanistan veteran Lieutenant Muldoon (Bruce Willis) and his addicted soldiers but three of the experimental subjects escape the military compound, turning anyone they bite into a crazed killer. Chaos of the absurdest order ensues, as Cherry at last discovers her true destiny: to become a postmodern saviour of humanity, with a massive gun fitted to the stump where her leg used to be…
Along with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, Planet Terror was originally conceived as part of Grindhouse, a double-bill experience (complete with mock-up trailers in the intermission) that paid homage to the highs and lows of seventies schlock. Poor returns in the US convinced the Weinstein brothers that the films would play better (and bring in more revenue) if split up and shown in extended director’s cuts for international audiences. Seen on its own, Tarantino’s film turned out to be an over-hyped, over-wordy and over-long effort that would have greatly benefited from remaining both shorter and being part of a double-feature; so you might suppose that Rodriguez’s film too, without Death Proof grinding against it, would be left without a leg to stand on. Still, like its gutsy protagonist, Planet Terror comes back fighting even after an essential part of itself has been brutally torn away.
Taking in everything from redneck-baiting wackiness to paranoid politics to Tex-Mex action to mad scientist mayhem to women-in-chains shenanigans, Planet Terror is never less than over-the-top and that is what both makes it hilarious fun from start to finish, and ensures that it will be a lost memory from almost the moment the final credits start rolling. If you are looking for any kind of depth or substance in your cinema, steer clear of this one like an infectious plague but if your idea of a good time is a genre-savvy trawl through all the silliest aspects of high-octane exploitation, then this is, in its way, as much of a classic as any of the original films (especially those of John Carpenter) that it so lovingly pastiches, complete with distressed film-stock, a missing reel, and deliberate continuity errors. The inclusion of Rodriguez’s spoof trailer for Machete (starring Danny Trejo as the Mexican hardman of the title) may be the icing on the cake but here the filling proves just as sweet.