Death Proof is a 2007 American action thriller slasher film written, directed and cinematographied by Quentin Tarantino. The film centers on a psychopathic stunt man, Stuntman Mike played by Kurt Russell, who stalks young women before murdering them in staged car accidents using his "death-proof" stunt car. The film pays homage to the exploitation, muscle cars, and slasher film genres of the 1970s, in particular the giallo genre, and stars Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Rose McGowan, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Zoë Bell as herself.
Death Proof was released theatrically in the United States as part of a double feature with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror under the collective title Grindhouse in order to replicate the experience of viewing exploitation film double features in a "grindhouse" theater. The films were released separately outside the United States and on DVD, with Death Proof going on sale in the United States on September 18, 2007. The film was in the main competition for the Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
Three friends: Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and radio DJ "Jungle" Julia Lucai (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) drive down Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas, on their way to celebrate Jungle Julia's birthday. While bar-crawling, Julia reveals that she made a radio announcement earlier that morning, offering a free lap dance from Arlene in return for addressing her as "Butterfly," buying her a drink, and reciting a segment of the poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening". They are unaware they are being stalked by an aging and sadistic Hollywood stunt double, "Stuntman" Mike (Kurt Russell). After trailing them to a bar, Mike follows the instructions from the radio announcement to get the lap-dance. Despite some initial trepidation, due to having seen Mike's car earlier in the day, and asking if he has been following them, Mike puts her at ease (partly by saying she's chicken), impresses her with his smooth talk, and Arlene agrees to the dance (not seen in the theatrical version due to a "missing reel").
The three women prepare to depart with their friend Lanna, whom they met at the bar. Meanwhile, Pam (Rose McGowan), another intoxicated female bar patron, has been impressed by the teetotaler Mike and accepts a ride home from him, considering him to be a safe ride. Mike takes Pam to his matte black 1971 Chevy Nova SS 396, which is a stunt car rigged with a safety cage inside, confirming that his car is "death proof". As Mike drives Pam off, it becomes clear he is trying to kill her, reminding her that his car is "death proof", but only to the driver. Since the passenger seat has no safety restraints at all, he kills her by driving recklessly and then slamming on the brakes, which smashes her skull into the dashboard. Mike speeds off, leaving behind photos he took earlier of the three other women, so as not to get caught with any evidence. He eventually comes on their red 1997 Honda Civic Hatchback on an empty road, and drives at full speed directly into it. The force of the impact kills all four women in the Honda, and also covers up the real reason of Pam's death.
The local hospital finds Mike with only minor injuries (broken collar bone and smashed index finger), and asserts that since Mike was sober while the four women were intoxicated, he cannot be charged. This concerns Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks), who is convinced Mike is guilty but cannot investigate without evidence. Though he chooses not to pursue a long, drawn out investigation, McGraw tells his son (who also happens to be his deputy) that should Stuntman Mike try this again, McGraw will 'make damn sure he don't do it in Texas'.
Fourteen months later, three young women, Abernathy Ross (Rosario Dawson), Kim Mathis (Tracie Thoms), and Lee Montgomery (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), are traveling through Lebanon, Tennessee in their customized yellow 1972 Ford Mustang Mach 1. They stop briefly at a convenience store, where Mike is resting in his new ride, a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T 500, and is intrigued by the women. The women, unaware of Mike, pick up their friend, stuntwoman Zoë Bell, from the airport. Zoë informs them she wants to test-drive a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T, exactly the same type of car from the 1971 film, Vanishing Point, which just happens to be nearby. After they get to the car's location, Abernathy tries to convince the owner, Jasper, to let them "test drive" it alone. He refuses at first, but after Abernathy tells him Lee will stay behind (under the false pretense that they are in town to film a porno, of which Lee is the star), he agrees.
In the process of all this, Zoë reveals to Abernathy and Kim that she has an ulterior motive in taking the car; she wants to play a game called "Ship's Mast", where she rides on the car's hood using only leather belts to hold onto, while Kim drives it at high speeds. Kim is hesitant, but then agrees to do the stunt. As Kim drives, Zoë goes on the top of the car, while Kim accelerates. The trio enjoys the stunt, unaware that Mike is watching them from the hood of his car. While they are driving, Abernathy notices him too late, and he rear-ends them, causing Zoë to drop one of their belts. He continues to ram the car, intending to kill Zoë. After few collisions, he T-bones them, causing Zoë to drop. He leaves the car, smiling about the events, but Kim shoots him. He escapes. Abernathy and Kim cry over the loss of their friend, but Zoë shows up, not injured at all (she is a professional stuntwoman). They agree to catch Mike and beat him. Zoë takes a piece of pipe and rides shotgun.
Meanwhile, Mike has stopped in a small narrow road to treat his wound with whiskey. The girls drive up from behind his car quickly and rear end him at high speed. Zoë gets out and beats him with the pipe and the girls pursue him while he attempts to escape and plead with them by apologizing. They ultimately cause him to crash, and beat him mercilessly. As the end credits roll, stills and short film clips of China Girls play over the song "Chick Habit" by April March.
- Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike McKay: A sociopathic stuntman/serial killer who kills women in and with his "death proof" car.
- Rosario Dawson as Abernathy Ross: A make-up artist and mother who complains that her friends always use her having a child to exclude her from fun activities that might be dangerous.
- Zoë Bell as herself: A stuntwoman from New Zealand who visits Abernathy, Kim and Lee on their days off from filming.
- Vanessa Ferlito as Arlene / Butterfly: A close friend of Julia and Shanna, who plan to go on holiday together after spending a night out.
- Sydney Tamiia Poitier as Jungle Julia: A popular Radio DJ in Austin, Texas.
- Tracie Thoms as Kim Mathis: A foul-mouthed stuntwoman and close friend of Zoe, Abernathy and Lee.
- Rose McGowan as Pam: A blonde customer at Warren's bar who needs a lift home.
- Jordan Ladd as Shanna: Friend of Arlene and Julia whose father owns a lake house they are intending to use.
- Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lee Montgomery: An up-and-coming actress.
- Jonathan Loughran as Jasper: The owner of the Dodge Challenger.
- Michael Parks as Earl McGraw, a recurring character in Tarantino and Rodriguez's works.
- Monica Staggs as Lanna Frank: A drug-dealing friend of Julia, Shanna, and Arlene.
- Marley Shelton as Dr. Dakota Block: An emergency medicine specialist and Sheriff Earl McGraw's daughter. Like her father, Block is developed more extensively in Planet Terror.
- Quentin Tarantino as Warren: The owner of the bar.
The story for Death Proof developed from Quentin Tarantino's fascination for the way stuntmen would “death-proof” stunt cars so a driver could survive horrific, high-speed crashes and collisions. This inspired Tarantino to create a slasher film featuring a deranged stuntman who stalks and murders sexy young women with his “death-proof” car. Tarantino remembers, “I realized I couldn't do a straight slasher film, 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 realized—let me take the structure of a slasher film and just do what I do. My version is going to be fucked up and disjointed, but it seemingly uses the structure of a slasher film, hopefully against you.” According to Robert Rodriguez, “[Tarantino] had an idea and a complete vision for it right away when he first talked about it. He started to tell me the story and said, ‘It’s got this death-proof car in it.’ I said, ‘You have to call it Death Proof.’ I helped title the movie, but that’s it.” Of the car chases, Tarantino stated, “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.”
Death Proof marked Tarantino's first credit as a cinematographer.
Tarantino attempted to cast John Travolta, Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich, Mickey Rourke, Ron Perlman, Bruce Willis, Kal Penn and Sylvester Stallone in Death Proof, but none were able to work due to prior commitments. In an interview, Tarantino revealed that he decided to cast Kurt Russell as the killer stunt driver because “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. 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?”Eli Roth, Planet Terror leading actress Rose McGowan and Tarantino himself appear in small roles. Roth flew in from Europe, where he was filming Hostel: Part II, to film his scenes, which took one day.
After being impressed by stuntwoman Zoë Bell, who worked as Uma Thurman's stunt double in Tarantino's earlier film Kill Bill, Tarantino wrote her the leading female role. This was her first on-screen acting which Bell initially thought was going to be a cameo role. The character Zoë was based on the stuntwoman herself and includes small stories based around her real life experiences, some with Tarantino. When her name was featured on the film posters opposite Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson and Rose McGowan, she realized how big the role was.
Death Proof uses various unconventional techniques to make the film appear more like those that were shown in grindhouse theaters in the 1970s. Throughout the feature, the film was intentionally damaged to make it look like many of the exploitation films of the 1970s which were generally shipped around from theater to theater and usually ended up in bad shape. A notable example of one of the film's deliberate jump-cuts is seen at the beginning, when the title Quentin Tarantino's Thunderbolt is shown for a split second before abruptly being replaced by an insert with the title Death Proof, appearing in white lettering on a black background. (Exploitation films were commonly retitled, especially if they received bad press on initial release.)
On the editing of Death Proof, Tarantino stated “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.” An extended, 127-minute version of Death Proof was screened in competition for the Palme d'Or at the 60th Cannes Film Festival. Tarantino is quoted as saying “It works great as a double feature, 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.”
The soundtrack for Death Proof consists entirely of non-original music, including excerpts from the scores of other films. It was released on April 3, 2007, alongside the Planet Terror soundtrack. Both albums featured dialogue excerpts from the film.
Death Proof was released in the US and Canada alongside Planet Terror as part of a double feature under the title Grindhouse. Both films were released separately in extended versions internationally, approximately two months apart. The additional material includes scenes that were replaced in the American theatrical release version with a “missing reel” title card, such as the lap dance scene. A total of 27 minutes were added for this version. One of the first screenings of Death Proof was made at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on August 20, 2007, with star Zoë Bell attending the screenings. The Dutch poster artwork for Death Proof claimed that the film would feature “coming attractions” from Robert Rodriguez. In the United Kingdom, Death Proof was released on September 21, 2007, and in Australia on November 1, 2007. Explaining the split in foreign releases, Tarantino stated “Especially if they were dealing with non-English language countries, they don’t really have this tradition … not only do they not really know what a grindhouse is, they don’t even have the double feature tradition. So you are kind of trying to teach us something else.”
Death Proof has received generally positive reviews; earning a score of 67% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Empire magazine gave the film four out of five stars and a mostly positive review, describing the film as "Tarantino driving wildly under the influence" and "seriously entertaining". The BBC's Anna Smith said that while there was "fun to be had" with the film, "its imitation of a defunct, low-budget style of movie-making is perhaps too accurate when it comes to the genre's flaws", and gave the film three out of five stars. Roger Ebert gave Grindhouse 2.5 out of 4 stars, arguing that while Death Proof was the more enjoyable half of the bill, it was still marred by overlong scenes of expository dialogue. On the more negative end of the scale, The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw expressed admiration for the car crash scene, describing it as "a lethal roar of entertainment", but said that the film was padded with "long, long, long stretches of bizarrely inconsequential conversation […] which are a big comedown from the glorious riffs from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction", and that overall "Tarantino's twisted genius is there for all to see - but, it must now be admitted, all too briefly".
Fan reaction was mixed, but more positive than negative. Death Proof is generally considered to be Tarantino's weakest film, a sentiment that Tarantino himself agrees with.
Death Proof was released on DVD in the US on September 18, 2007 in a two-disc special edition featuring the extended version of the film, documentaries on the casting of the film, the various muscle cars and Tarantino's relationship with editor Sally Menke, trailers, and an international poster gallery. On December 16, 2008, a BD release of identical content followed.
A Japanese DVD release has the films Grindhouse, Death Proof and Planet Terror, with extras and fake trailers, in a six-DVD box set (English with optional Japanese subtitles). Death Proof was also released as a German HD DVD, believed to be the last film published in the now-defunct format.
The Grindhouse double feature was eventually released on Blu-ray Disc in October 2010.
- List of American films of 2007
- Planet Terror
- Hobo with a Shotgun
- at the Internet Movie Database
- at AllMovie
- at Rotten Tomatoes
- in (English)