Back in 2007, Tarantino and his friend, fellow director, and frequent collaborator Robert Rodriguez decided to try a cinema experiment based on an obsession the two shared with grindhouse movies of the 1970s.
The term is one for a theater that mostly showed low-budget exploitation films that were full of over-the-top dialogue, violence, and sex—and usually some pretty outlandish plots, special effects, and characters. The name comes from a theater practice known as the “grind policy,” a film-programming strategy dating back to the early 1920s which continuously showed movies at cut-rate ticket prices that typically rose over the course of the day.
Tarantino and Rodriguez grew up in these theaters, absorbing thousands of hours of blacksploitation, horror, women-in-prison, martial arts, spaghetti westerns, samurai, and revenge flicks—an influence that can be seen in early movies from both of their films.
For the Grindhouse double-feature, they simply leaned into it…hard.It was shown in theaters as a complete double feature with two feature-length segments: Rodriguez’s zombie horror flick Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof. Both movies are bookended for fictional movie previews in the grindhouse tradition. Oddly enough, two of those fake movies turned into actual movies in the following years, Machete starring Danny Trejo and Hobo With a Shotgun starring Rutger Hauer.
Death Proof is the story of a retired movie fall guy, who goes by the moniker of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). He’s not quite right in the head and gets his jollies by finding groups of young women, following them for a while, and then killing them on the highway in a suped up muscle car that has been “death proofed” with a roll cage and other modifications typically made by stunt drivers for cars that are intended to crash on screen.
He gets away with it because he has a knack for making the crashes look like accidents.It’s a women’s power movie and it’s also a tribute to classic car chase movies like Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Gone in 60 Seconds (“the original, not that Angelina Jolie bullshit”), and Vanishing Point (1971).
The first half of the movie follows a set of friends who are ultimately killed by Stuntman Mike in a particularly gruesome crash. The second group of women he targets later in another state, unbenownst to him, turn out to be two actresses and two female stunt actors on a break from filming a movie nearby.
He engages them in a wild chase as the women attempt a car stunt that seems to be a begrudging tradition for the two stuntwomen that they call Ship’s Mast, in which Zöe Bell (a real-life stuntwoman who kind of plays herself) lays on the hood and windshield of a 1971 Dodge Challenger as Kim (Tracie Thoms) speeds down a deserted road.
When the chase comes to a stop, Stuntman Mike chides the women, believing he has killed Zöe. In response, Kim draws a Smith & Wesson Model 66 Snub pistol. In an earlier scene, she reveals that she carries the small revolver on her most times, but after the intense chase, the audience has all but forgotten this little detail.
She fires over the roof of the car and hits Mike in the shoulder. After that, the women find Zöe alive and well (“I’m okay!”) and they take off after the wounded Stuntman Mike, who is now the pursued instead of the pursuer. They eventually drive him off the road, drag him from his car, and beat him to death on the shoulder of the highway.