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Death Proof

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Quentin Tarantino’s never been shy about his geek love. When the Pulp Fiction director name-checks an arcane samurai import or blaxploitation cheapie in one of his films, it’s a form of video-store semaphore to the droolers in the house. It both signals how big his B-movie brain is and hips the faithful to his cult passions — kind of like the guitarist of an obscure indie band wearing the T-shirt of an even more obscure band on stage.

When Grindhouse hit theaters in April, audiences were given more than just two films for the price of one (Tarantino’s road-rage flick Death Proof and Robert Rodriguez’s zombie apocalypse Planet Terror). They were given a ride — a ride through the infectiously diseased brains of its creators. Vintage promo reels introduced the films; trailers for fake exploitation movies unspooled at intermission; scratchy, hiccuping prints with ”missing reels” gave off a giddy whiff of 42nd Street depravity.

So it’s a huge disappointment that a new two-disc version of Death Proof strips the Grindhouse experience of everything that made it special in the first place. No longer are Tarantino’s and Rodriguez’s films piggybacked as a bloody double feature; they’re being released separately (Planet Terror comes out Oct. 16). It’s a colossal mistake. And if the idea is to bundle them together again at a later date, well, that’s just a cynical rip-off.

So without Rodriguez’s film and those wonderful fake trailers, what are we left with? Basically, it’s the version of Death Proof that Tarantino unveiled at this year’s Cannes Film Festival — an unrated and extended edition that ”finds” the theatrical version’s ”missing reels” and clocks in at 30 minutes longer. The story’s the same: Russell plays Stuntman Mike, a psychotic stunt driver who stalks two sets of gabby, easy-on-the-eyes young women from behind the wheel of a souped-up muscle car.

Aping the Swiss-watch-precision plot mechanics of an ’80s slasher film, Tarantino introduces the victims through talky scenes in bars and backseats, setting the table for the body count to come. As they riff on guys, weed, and movies like Vanishing Point, his tight-T-shirted cast becomes a distaff version of the guys in Reservoir Dogs debating ”Like a Virgin.” A little of this goes a long way.

Still, when crunch time comes, Death Proof kicks into overdrive. The crash and chase scenes are thrilling, especially a bravura 18-minute sequence in which stuntwoman/actress Zoë Bell bucks on the hood of a speeding Dodge Challenger being rammed by Russell. But is that enough? Probably, if we hadn’t already been given more. And a second disc of ho-hum featurettes (a look at the film’s stunt drivers, cast interviews) doesn’t begin to make up for it. In the end, what’s missing from Death Proof is the grindhouse experience. Quentin, where did our geek love go? B-