Wednesday, October 23, 2019

"From Dusk Till Dawn" - "Psychos do not explode when sunlight hits them."

*I write these articles with SPOILERS.

Once again trying to stick with my monthly routine of late of Van Damme, western, and comedy, I tried to find the closest thing to a horror western in my collection and came up with From Dusk Till Dawn. I would say western is the loosest fitting genre label for this wacky film, but the argument could be made that it’s a kind of neo-western or whatever cool-sounding thing we’re calling modern westerns these days. It’s mostly a campy vampire movie. And it definitely seems like the most fun Tarantino and Rodriguez ever had making a movie. Watching it again for the first time in years, I felt a little bummed out about where both the filmmakers are today compared to their early, more renegade days. It’s not that they’re not making good films (I loved Once Upon a Hollywood, and Alita: Battle Angel looks interesting and expensive [I haven’t seen it yet]) today, but they are certainly not making movies like this anymore. That’s probably a good thing, but I still enjoy this time in their careers quite a bit, even if the documentary accompanying this film sullied it all a bit for me.

I’m Glad They Don’t Put This Many Special Features on DVD/Blu-ray Anymore.

Due to a combination of boredom and morbid curiosity at the ridiculous amount of special features included on the DVD release of From Dusk Till Dawn that I own, I decided to watch every minute of it. All told I spent over six hours with this movie and its features. I watched the movie, then watched it with commentary from Tarantino and Rodriguez (who claimed it was for the “laserdisc” release), then I watched all the behind the scenes/deleted scenes/etc. Stuff, and I finished it off by watching Full Tilt Boogie, the feature length documentary made about the making of the film. 

The standard behind the scenes stuff is pretty good, but that’s always the case with a Rodriguez film. The dude is willing to include everything on his DVD releases, even getting to the point where he was including a cooking class video with every release for a while. Better yet, he knows how to provide good commentary. He gives actual details about the making of special effects and how he films things rather than just making bland comments or, worse yet, explaining the movie to you. Since From Dusk Till Dawn features so much practical creature and gore effects, it was great to see how it all came together, especially since a lot of it includes footage of Greg Nicotero (who has become a major part of The Walking Dead), Howard Berger, and Tom Savini, gods of zombie movie effects. As far as special edition DVDs go, this is a treasure trove of interesting features. If only I had stopped there. 

As a standalone documentary, Full Tilt Boogie is great at showing the lives and work of all the “little guys” in a film production. There are interviews with drivers, production assistants, grips, etc. You typically never see these people even in behind the scenes stuff, so the film does give an insight into that world of filmmaking. It also includes the requisite scenes of the stars goofing off and cutting loose (my favorite moment is of everyone hanging out in a bar in Barstow: you get to see an awkward encounter between a local and Clooney, Juliette Lewis singing karaoke, and Tarantino kind of dancing along like the dork he is). But the documentary also tackles a union issue that occurred during production. 

Before I go any further, I have to point out that I am a member of a union and wholeheartedly support unions in general. Because of this, I came away with a lesser opinion of Tarantino and Rodriguez after watching this film. I won’t pretend to know exactly what was going on with SAG-AFTRA in Hollywood at this time, but based on what was presented in the movie, the union was not happy that Rodriguez and Tarantino were using a non-union crew on such a large production. The documentary filmmakers obviously side with the production, and they eventually storm a union convention in an attempt to get the lead negotiator on camera (they eventually talk to him off-camera, but they still include him snarkily in the credits as a character in the film).

The basic argument from the documentary and from Tarantino and Rodriguez is that they want to do things their way, and the union would keep that from happening. The argument is made that they just do too much, and the union doesn’t like that. The example being that Rodriguez operates the camera, edits, and directs, and the union would want to change that. But I think the issue is more about the smaller people on the set and making sure they are protected. Later in the film, we see that a number of people with lesser roles were given terrible or no food, forced to work 17-18 hours, and were even left behind on the set when the bus took off without them. If that’s not an example of why a union is necessary, I don’t know what is. But they still include an interview with an assistant director who claims unions may have been necessary for his father, who was a “little man,” but now unions only want to tell him what he can’t do, and how is that right?

This brings me to my own experience with a union. In a factory setting, unions are often criticized for allowing lazy workers to stay employed and to keep work from happening. The examples of this are when someone is not allowed to do someone else’s job. This is the case for me. I could be at a machine at work that is down and have very little to do; if I was asked to do a job I was not qualified to do or if I took it upon myself to do someone else’s work, it would be grounds for a grievance. But if I was just sitting around, why is it wrong to work? Because someone else is getting paid to do the other work. If I start doing their work along with mine, what’s to keep the company from deciding that one position should do the work of two, even if the opportunity to do both jobs only happens in rare occurrences? 

It’s about job protection, even if that means someone is sitting around doing nothing. It’s not about protecting someone’s right to sit on their ass; it’s about making an entire job is not done away with because of the circumstances of a single day. So yeah, dude from the documentary, the union will tell you what you can’t do so that the person who’s getting paid to do it keeps their job. 

The problem Tarantino and Rodriguez had at the time was that they were transitioning from independent filmmakers into studio filmmakers. Sure, when you’re working on a tight budget with a skeleton crew, a union will make the production impossible to continue. But Dawn had a budget of $15 million in the early ‘90s. That’s hardly an independent production by the standards of the time. 

Tarantino and Rodriguez argue in the documentary that they simply like doing things their way with their people, and the union was using their high profile at the time to make a stand. They argue that the union doesn’t actually care about anyone working on Dusk, they just want to go after the filmmakers. That may be true, but if they are going to make studio films, then they need to use union crews. They can still hire who they want, and they can still handle as many responsibilities as they want to handle, but some workers’ roles will be reduced to create a job for someone one else. I don’t see a problem with that, but I get that some people would argue that when you’re dealing with art, you can’t take an industrial, union mentality to it. 

But in a lot of ways, Tarantino and Rodriguez are CEOs, and they need to be held in check like any other job providers. They are making substantially more money than the workers on the film, and if left to do whatever they want, some workers may be forced to work in unfair conditions for too many hours, not to mention many jobs that could have been created are instead done by a single person. As much as Tarantino and Rodriguez want you to think that they’re just two dudes trying to make movies like they used to in their backyards, the fact of the matter is they are making millions of dollars and are in control of even more money in the budget. Sure, they may still have an independent spirit, but the budgets of their films are far beyond independent. Part of having a lot more money to work with means having to make sacrifices to make your bigger films. 

I can see both sides of this argument, and I clearly side with the union because of my own experience and beliefs about unions in this country. But I cannot abide the presentation of Tarantino and Rodriguez as victims of a strong-arm union. They just wanted to keep doing things exactly how they had been doing them, but just like how a business ran in a garage must adapt when it becomes a full-blown corporation, these filmmakers needed to adapt as well.

All the union stuff left a sour taste in my mouth after everything, but I do appreciate that this film and its special features could bring about this response in me. Despite all this, I do still find this film entertaining.

Grindhouse Before Grindhouse.

Tarantino and Rodriguez are obviously fans of B-movies, George Romero, and John Carpenter movies, which is why they made Grindhouse a few years after From Dusk Till Dawn, but this film is the beginning of it. John Carpenter’s influence is the most evident since the film becomes a bit like Assault on Precinct 13 in the second half, and one of the characters even wears a “Precinct 13” t-shirt. 

The gore effects are reminiscent of The Thing as they are mostly practical and very disgusting. There is even a deleted scene in which one vampire’s stomach opens and bites off the head of someone, much like the chest cavity that bites off arms in The Thing

Overall, the film simply has a Carpenter feel to it, though both filmmakers would eventually lean even more heavily into Carpenter territory in future films. I think Planet Terror is even more of an homage to Carpenter, and The Hateful Eight is a borderline remake of The Thing when you break it down to the essential plot of not knowing who is really who they say they are (not to mention it stars Kurt Russell).

Once again, it’s just a fun movie because these guys are making their version of the films they love. I prefer Tarantino’s latest films (I think I like ‘90s Rodriguez more, that current Rodriguez, though), but I will always have a soft spot for this moment in his career. A moment when he could make a vampire movie and just have fun and not have every single frame and plot point analyzed.

Why Do I Own This?

I own everything Tarantino has been a part of, so that’s the main reason for this. But I do really enjoy the one-two punch of Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn. Rodriguez was just firing on all cylinders at this time.

Random Thoughts

Why the fuck is the documentary "Disc One" and the actual movie is "Disc Two"?

Holy shit, John Hawkes! It's been so long since I've seen this that this is the first time I realized he is the clerk at the beginning.

The IMDb trivia is vast, but the most interesting thing I came across is that Joe Pilato was going to play Seth. Man, I want to see that version of this movie.

In fact, in many ways this movie is connected to Day of the Dead: the almost casting of Pilato, Tom Savini is in it, and Howard Berger (Bub, the zombie) has a cameo, as well.

My God, what a great picture they created for John Hawkes on the newscast.

I don't think Tarantino is doing much "acting" when he's staring creepily at Juliette Lewis's feet.

I think every viewer wanted to knock Tarantino out when Clooney did in the RV.

Cheech's pussy soliloquy is one for the ages.

The bloodbath is pretty damn great: it's gory and goofy.

That corpse guitar is gross...and no way that thing is functional.

I always appreciate a vampire movie that treats them as monsters and not tragic heroes.

Some of George Clooney's line delivery comes off a bit flat (for instance, any of the Tarantino-isms like "Okay, ramblers, let's get ramblin'"), but he is perfect for lines like: "Peachy, Kate. The world's my oyster, except for the fact that I just rammed a wooden stake in my brother's heart because he turned into a vampire, even though I don't believe in vampires. Aside from that unfortunate business, everything's hunky-dory."

Any monster movie that acknowledges movie versions of the monsters is good in my book. The conversation Clooney has about accepting that they are dealing with vampires followed by everyone mentioning what they know about vampires from movies is great. It's always annoying when characters don't know what famous monsters are. Like on The Walking Dead, it seems as if zombies didn't exist in pop culture in that world. Why? Why would it be bad for the characters to say, "Holy shit! Zombies! Head shots only, people! And if you get bit you're as good as dead!"? 

I love that half of Fred Williamson's Vietnam speech is muted as Savini turns. The physical comedy of him slashing around is great, and it upends the audience expectation of a Quint-like Jaws speech. Easily the funniest moment in the film for me.

“Psychos do not explode when sunlight hits them. I don’t give a fuck how crazy they are!”


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