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Quentin Tarantino's movies revisited: Death Proof (2007)


In anticipation of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, released on 14th August, we're recapping all his previous films.

Following our recap of Kill Bills Volume One and Two, we're taking a closer look at his gory retro pastiche Death Proof, starring Kurt Russell.

What’s the story of Death Proof?

Stuntman Mike McKay (Kurt Russell) is a charismatic loner with a fast ride and a way with words. He's also a psychotic serial killer, who uses his "death proof" vehicle to stalk and kill women.

When three young women – Abernathy Ross (Rosario Dawson), Kim Mathis (Tracie Thoms) and Lee Montgomery (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) – pick up their friend, stunt performer Zoe Bell (playing herself), they cross paths with Mike. 

However, he gets more than he bargained for from the tenacious quartet, particularly when they test drive the 1970 Dodge Challenger from cult movie classic Vanishing Point, and make it clear he's not the only one who's death proof...

How did Death Proof get made?

Quentin Tarantino's career progression from 1992's Reservoir Dogs through to the Kill Bill films in 2003 and 2004 divided opinion. Whereas he once slyly commented on the very nature of B-movies and trash cinema (as seen in the likes of Pulp Fiction), his films now appeared to be descending into a straight-up pastiche of said films.

In short, did he still have anything interesting to say about the 'grindhouse' (i.e. exploitation) cinema with which he grew up? The question didn't get any easier upon Death Proof's arrival in 2007, arguably Tarantino's most insular film that assumed a level of knowledge on the part of the audience. For fans of pulpy, nasty, violent cinema from the 1960s and 1970s, this particular Tarantino homage would mean a lot – for others, maybe not so much.

The project arose out of a collaboration with Robert Rodriguez, Tarantino's collaborator and co-director on cult 1996 vampire movie From Dusk Till Dawn. Together, the two men would tackle separate halves of a wider salute to the grindhouse cinema of the seventies – broadly defined as cinema featuring salacious content and possessed of a grainy, cheap-looking aesthetic.

Whereas Rodriguez would go on to make Planet Terror, a grisly but dark-humoured zombie invasion movie, Tarantino would make Death Proof. The film-maker's fascination with the way stuntmen 'death proof' their cars led to the creation of the script, in which a serial killer stalks and kills women with his vehicle. However, Tarantino admits he didn't want to make a conventional psychopath movie.

"I realised I couldn't do a straight slasher film," he told Rolling Stone, "because with the exception of women-in-prison films, there is no other genre quite as rigid. And if you break that up, you aren't really doing it anymore. It's inorganic, so I realised—let me take the structure of a slasher film and just do what I do. My version is going to be f****d up and disjointed, but it seemingly uses the structure of a slasher film, hopefully against you."

Tarantino also had a desire to make a truly impressive car chase movie that was entirely devoid of CGI. "CGI for car stunts doesn't make any sense to me—how is that supposed to be impressive? [...] I don't think there have been any good car chases since I started making films in '92—to me, the last terrific car chase was in Terminator 2. And Final Destination 2 had a magnificent car action piece. In between that, not a lot. Every time a stunt happens, there’s twelve cameras and they use every angle for Avid editing, but I don’t feel it in my stomach. It’s just action."

With the script ready, the hunt for Stuntman Mike began, and it wasn't an easy task. A vast array of Hollywood A-listers turned the role down, including John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich and a pre-Wrestler comeback Mickey Rourke. Eventually, Tarantino settled on Kurt Russell, his first collaboration with the actor. (They would later work together on The Hateful Eight and this year's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)

"For people of my generation, he's a true hero…but now, there's a whole audience out there that doesn't know what Kurt Russell can do," Tarantino told Entertainment Weekly. "When I open the newspaper and see an ad that says Kurt Russell in Dreamer, or Kurt Russell in Miracle, I'm not disparaging these movies, but I'm thinking: when is Kurt Russell going to be a badass again?"

Death Proof was also notable for being Tarantino's first collaboration with Hostel director Eli Roth. The former expressed enthusiasm for Roth's gorily sadistic throwback to splatter horror movies, and would later cast the film-maker in the role of Donny the 'Bear Jew' in 2009's Inglourious Basterds.

In post-production, Tarantino sought to emulate the visual style of cheapo grindhouse shockers by deliberately damaging the film stock itself. In the process he made it jumpy and juddery in the manner of movies that would be relentlessly carted from one movie theatre to another and get damaged in the process.

There are also subliminal editing in-jokes and jump cuts – early on in Death Proof, we get a flash of a title screen reading 'Quentin Tarantino's Thunderbolt', before the correct title of Death Proof is restored. This is a reference to the fact that grindhouse movies, particularly those receiving bad press, would often have their titles changed at the last minute.

The movie complete, it was packaged up with the aforementioned Planet Terror, while sandwiched in-between the two films were a host of trailers for non-existent grindhouse movies. One of these, 'Don't', came from the Shaun of the Dead team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, whereas another, 'Hobo with a Shotgun' featuring the late Rutger Hauer, was later expanded into a feature-length movie.

So, would audiences pay to see any of this? Would they care? Evidently not – upon its release in early 2007 in the USA, the movie turned out to be a rare Tarantino flop. The film-maker then responded by releasing a full two-hour cut of Death Proof at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, his original version having been curtailed slightly to sit alongside Planet Terror.

Tarantino told The Telegraph at the time: "There is half-an-hour's difference between my Death Proof and what is playing in Grindhouse. […] I was like a brutish American exploitation distributor who cut the movie down almost to the point of incoherence. I cut it down to the bone and took all the fat off it to see if it could still exist, and it worked.

"But I'm just as excited if not more excited about actually having the world see Death Proof unfiltered. […] It will be the first time everyone sees Death Proof by itself, including me."

This extended version of Death Proof, running at 127 minutes, would later play at the 2007 Edinburgh Film Festival with star Zoe Bell in attendance. The movie was released on its own in the UK on 21st September 2007.

What music is on the Death Proof soundtrack?

The Death Proof album is another eclectic excursion into Tarantino's record collection. The songs are mixed in with dialogue excerpts as a further evocation of retro sleaze cinema, while plenty of orchestral score excerpts are also liberally sprinkled throughout in Tarantino's usual style.

'Jeepster' from T-Rex frontman Marc Bolan delivers an infectious contrast to the scenes of body-mangling bloodshed, while Burt Bacharach's 'Baby It's You', performed by rock band Smith, is an aggressive update of the kind of nostalgic pop heard in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

Elsewhere, Tarantino indulges in his love of great Italian composer Ennio Morricone, utilising his 'Paranoia Prima' from 1971 Dario Argento horror movie The Cat O' Nine Tails. And he also incorporates Pino Donaggio's haunting 'Sally and Jack' from Brian De Palma's acclaimed 1981 movie Blow Out (of which Tarantino is an avowed fan). There's also room for Willy DeVille's theme from notorious 1980 Al Pacino movie Cruising, an inclusion that caused director William Friedkin to single out Tarantino for praise during the film's Cannes premiere.

What are some quotes from Death Proof?

Stuntman Mike: Alcohol is just a lubricant for the individual for the individual encounters that a bar room offers.

Stuntman Mike: "You know how people say 'you're okay in my book' or 'in my book, that's no good'? Well, I actually have a book, and everybody I ever meet goes in this book, and now I've met you and you're going in the book. Only I'm afraid I must file you under chicken s**t."

Stuntman Mike: "This car is 100% death proof. Only to get the benefit of it, honey, you really need to be sitting in my seat."

Stuntman Mike: "We're both going left. You could've just as easily been going left too, and if that were the case, it would've been a while before you started getting scared. But since you're going the other way, I'm afraid you're gonna have to start getting scared... immediately!"

How was Death Proof received?

By Tarantino's usual standards, Death Proof received fairly lukewarm reviews, and currently stands at 65% on reviews aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes (the director's lowest-rated movie by some distance).

"No need to buckle up, Death Proof is stuck in the slow lane," wrote Film4's Ben Cobb. "Self-indulgent and uninspired, bankrollers Bob and Harvey Weinstein should have reined in Tarantino with a genuine Grindhouse-sized budget."

The London Evening Standard's Derek Malcolm also was not a fan: "The dialogue with which Tarantino is usually adept is disastrously clunky, the filmmaking largely without flair and even the apeing of the smears and scratches of the schlock originals seems ridiculous."

That said, the movie also had its supporters, including Empire Magazine's Damon Wise who gave it a four-star appraisal: "Seriously entertaining American filmmaking and definitely not the half-serious pastiche it could easily have been. No seatbelt, no airbag, no nuthin’ — just Tarantino driving wildly under the influence."

In 2012, the movie was re-appraised by Indiewire, who cited it as one of Tarantino's best. They described it as a "glorious gesture in defiance of the end of celluloid," and a "tribute to the unkillable greatness of classic stunt work". 

What movie did Tarantino make next?

Revisionist World War II thriller Inglourious Basterds starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Michael Fassbender is the next instalment in our Tarantino retrospective – coming soon here on the blog.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
is released on 14th August, so tweet us @Cineworld with your favourite Tarantino moments.