FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)

  • Director: Robert Rodriguez
  • Writers: Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, Story by Robert Kurtzman
  • Starring: George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Quentin Tarantino, Ernest Liu, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, and Michael Parks
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on AMC Plus, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Few movies take as hard of a turn from being one kind of movie to being another kind of movie as From Dusk Till Dawn, yet few movies are quite as intensely themselves. The first half of the movie is this very Quentin Tarantino-ish crime movie, which makes sense because Quentin Tarantino both wrote the movie and plays one of the main characters. Then the second half is very suddenly a super-gory monster action movie not so far removed from “The Evil Dead but in a Mexican bar.” Not recalling really how this movie would have been marketed or pitched to audiences, I can’t quite imagine what the experience of watching it would have been like without having any idea what I was getting into. But From Dusk Till Dawn is all presented so confidently that it is perhaps unsurprising that, unlike many of its contemporaries, it survives as one of those movies a lot of the people you know have seen even 25 years later, has had multiple sequels, and even had a spin-off TV series on a TV network that no longer exists.

George Clooney (who was still on ER at this stage of his arc of fame) stars as “Seth Gecko,” a bank robber on the lam with his brother Richie (Tarantino). Seth is the semi-sane one, while Richie wants to shoot everyone they meet and is unable to control himself around any woman. These two take hostage an innocent family consisting of a retired minister who says he no longer believes in God (Harvey Keitel), his daughter (Juliette Lewis), and his adopted son (Ernest Liu), along with their RV, in order to sneak into Mexico. Making it over the border, they intend to meet a contact at what appears to be a raucous biker strip club called the “Titty Twister.” Eventually, however, they discover that the Twister is, in fact, a trap laid by a whole bunch of vampires, and all of them are forced to defend themselves in bloody fashion from hordes of the undead while joining forces with a couple of tough guys (played by long-time make-up artist Tom Savini, whose codpiece pops open to reveal a small pistol, and Fred Williamson, a former NFL player who had appeared in several popular Blaxploitation flicks). 

You know that we generally discuss spoilers freely here, but the “twist” at the center of From Dusk Till Dawn is really the main reason anyone today knows about it, so I don’t have any caveats with putting it up front. Probably the best-known scene is a strip-tease dance performed by “Santanico Pandemonium” (memorably played, without much dialogue, by Salma Hayek, in the role that really brought her to prominence in the US for the first time), involving a few scraps of clothing and a boa constrictor, just before all hell breaks loose. Another is the opening scene in a desert liquor store, where Seth and Richie end up in a gun fight with the nervous clerk (John Hawkes) and unwitting sheriff (Michael Parks). What these scenes have in common is they are when the movie is willing to sit still and let its scenarios and tensions play out, i.e., the same strengths that many Tarantino films have. The latter stages of the movie are a virtuoso display from a special effects standpoint, but honestly are so unidirectional that they may leave all but the most red-soaked gore aficionados a bit cold. 

From Dusk Till Dawn is, as far as I can tell, the first of a series of collaborations between filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, who clearly share a love of old, schocky B-movies. Rodriguez, a Mexican-American, grew up in San Antonio and first came to prominence with the success of 1992’s El Mariachi, an action movie starring Antonio Banderas as a reluctant gunslinger who keeps his weapon in a guitar case, which cost $7,000 and made over $2.5 million. He has since gone on to somewhat of a bifurcated career, alternating between special-effects-heavy mainstream movies, often for kids (such as the Spy Kids franchise), and about as far at the other end of the scale as you can get, including multiple direct sequels to El Mariachi, this movie, and a couple of Sin City films. He and Tarantino now consider themselves best friends. They each directed half of Grindhouse, which Rodriguez has since spun out into at least two more movies with his character Machete. The latter is played with glowering aplomb by the craggy-faced Danny Trejo, who also appears in this movie in an earlier role as the tough-guy bartender of the Titty Twister.

By the time From Dusk Till Dawn came out, Quentin Tarantino was one of the most famous directors in the world, but in fact he wrote the original script many years earlier. Robert Kurtzman, established the cheesy horror realm as a makeup artist, paid Tarantino $1,500 to convert his story idea into a full screenplay. Tarantino used the money to quit his day job and get rolling on his first feature, Reservoir Dogs. The script was then reportedly considered by the team from Tales From the Crypt as part of that TV series’ attempt to create a film brand, but they eventually went with another vampire-related script called Bordello of Blood, which, um, turned out to be the last one of those movies.

The later stages of the movie are gleefully bloody and silly, certainly in the same vein as, say, Grindhouse. If you are a fan of creative, gory practical effects, you will have a great time. This is the sort of movie where people melt into goo and meet various other horrid fates, without, seemingly, much benefit of computer graphics. At one point Tom Savini’s character (who is named, um, “Sex Machine”) gets turned into a vampire, then gets his head pulled off, then makes a bone-crunching transformation into some sort of giant rat character. The weapons are also enjoyably over the top, including a massive stake that spins around like a pneumatic drill, for reasons, and a cross-shaped shotgun.

From Dusk Till Dawn is not high art, nor will anyone ever accuse it of restraint. It is so utterly weird from a structural standpoint that its very existence seems barely justified. But at the same time, everyone involved seems to be having a ball, even if many of them are eventually torn limb from limb on screen. There’s also a rockabilly band (it was the 90s) that turns out to all be vampires, with one of them playing a guitar that seems to be made out of a human body somehow. If you have seen it, I’m pretty sure you remember it.

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