Contains mild spoilers.
I went into this film with no expectations; I knew nothing about it other than the tagline 'action sci-fi horror' so if anything I thought it was an action sci-fi shooter set in space; marines or space misfits pitted against a zombie threat. I really couldn't have been more wrong.
What I didn't expect was a highly stylised Tarantino-esque un-pigeon-hole-able twisted dark action horror-thriller with fucking Bruce Willis. Yes, fucking Bruce Willis. Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror I discover is the first in a Grindhouse double tribute, the second being Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof; Grindhouse referring to particularly low budget, low value exploitation films from the 70s. For Planet Terror this exploitation is the overuse of excessive violence and the ridiculous amounts of blood and guts to shocks and provoke the audience. In all honesty, us zombie film aficionados are quite used to films that instil these ideals whether we'd ever thought about it under these terms or not.
It's Texas. Go-go dancer (not stripper she insists) Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) which I'm sure is her birth name, has quit her job and whether deliberately or, not, has bumped into her ex boyfriend El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez). At the same time and unknown to them, an altercation at the nearby US military base between Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) and chemical engineer Abby (Naveen Andrews) has lead to great quantities of a deadly biochemical agent, codename "Project Terror" being released into the atmosphere.
Project Terror is gaseous, green and like what was released from power plant in The Return of the Living Dead causes a particularly nasty set of symptoms. As the first cases of exposure start appearing at the hospital with increasingly extreme sores, mutations and chemical burns it's clear the small town is in trouble. I won't be spoiling the film if I tell you all this is really just a first stage in everyone's problems...
So are they zombies? Kind of. The biochemical agent certainly turns people into brain eating homicidal monsters but it also horribly mutates and disfigures them and doesn't demand that the victim actually dies. It's all quite ambiguous though as there is an instance early at the hospital where three declared dead bodies rise up and leave the morgue and there's certainly an emphasis on head shots, though this doesn't seem strictly necessary. If I had to call it? Probably not if I'm honest and we'll have to chalk another film up as infected.
As the trouble ramps up and the infected start to take over the town the fight back headed by El Ray and the Sheriff becomes increasingly violent and fast paced. It's all lavishly over the top with oodles of brilliant highly choreographed mayhem and carnage all accompanied by a stonkingly strong sound track that perfectly captures the Southern American vibe. The main characters are all very strong; there are no clichés or two dimensions and they possess great back-story and secrets. Rodriguez managed to assemble a fabulous array of talent, possibly the strongest I've yet seen in a film I've reviewed, to play them and all the performances are of the highest calibre despite the often ridiculous over the top story line.
Planet Terror is a big budget spectacular with a very strong script and cast. The story may be a bit formulaic and hackneyed but it's never slow or boring and never, ever stops to take breath. Rodriguez obviously had a clear vision as to what he wanted and pulled it off at a canter. I've not yet mentioned the over lay of lines and static to further cement the idea that this is a film on a tape from the 70s or the fantastic unrelated Grindhouse action trailer before the film or the missing reel gaff half way through which all add to the atmosphere. I really did enjoy this film and there's not a lot to criticise, maybe it's a tad misogynist but it all kind of fits with the theme of the film; is it still sexism when you're deliberately poking fun and paying homage to a time when everything was sexist? I'll leave that debate for another day. It would also appear the general public was not really interested in reliving this kind of film with lacklustre box office receipts despite generally good reviews. It's a non-zombie zombie film more people should watch 8/10.