A movie like From Dusk Till Dawn doesn’t have any right to be as good as it is. Released in the middle of January in 1996 in what is traditionally the “Dump Months” by studios, it starred a hot actor, George Clooney riding high from the TV drama ER; written by a hot screenwriter, Quentin Tarantino, who had just won an Oscar for writing Pulp Fiction; and directed by a hot director, Robert Rodriguez, who subjected himself to lab tests to raise money for his debut movie El Mariachi.
You had three of the baddest motherfuckers of the mid-1990s altogether on what looked like if John Steinbeck had written Of Mice and Men at a Mexican bar with hordes of blood-thirsty vampires in vein of Mexican horror from the previous decades. Oh, and it has a very nicely underrated performance by veteran actor Harvey Keitel and the very sexy Salma Hayek.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The $64,000 question was why was this movie released during the dead of winter. It was either a smart move or just dumb luck that the movie was released picking up good reviews and a big chunk of money. Made on only $19 million, it grossed about three times that. Released through Dimension Films division of Miramax, it was probably done to attract the audiences who don’t care about Oscar-bait material or the holdover from the Christmas season releases.
The plot involves Clooney and Tarantino playing the Gecko Brothers (Seth and Richie), two criminals on the run. Imagine George and Lenny from the Steinbeck classic if George was a suave killer and Lenny was a psychotic sex offender.
But the movie starts out in a very odd way with an aging Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) stopping at a liquor store out in the middle of the Texas desert along an empty road. He begins to start bullshitting with the clerk, Pete Bottoms (John Hawke) as they air their grievances at each other in chitchat as Earl is upset over getting sick from breakfast. They exchange some derogatory words about a developmentally disabled person who works at the restaurant and in a smooth segue, Earl talks about the Gecko Brothers caused a bloodbath up in Abilene earlier.
The conversation between Bottoms and McGraw is so genuine anyone coming into the theater late would’ve assume they walked into the wrong movie. This is about vampires, right?
We soon find out the Gecko Brothers have taken some young women hostage as they told Bottoms to get rid of the Ranger. But Richie is quick to shoot McGraw dead and then a fire fight erupts between Bottoms and the Gecko Brothers in which the store explodes as the Brothers casually leave arguing.
The Gecko Brothers take refuge in a run-down motel with a female hostage that Richie later sexually assault and murders as Seth goes to check out the border. Back at the motel, Seth is almost hit by a motor home driven by Jacob Fuller (Keitel) a middle-aged former Baptist pastor whose wife was killed in a traffic accident. He’s taken his daughter, Kate (Juliette Lewis) and adoptive son, Scott (Ernest Liu) on a road trip in the aftermath. Jacob also is suffering from grief and questioning his own faith.
With a dead hostage and no bargaining chip, the Gecko Brothers kidnap Jacob, Kate and Scott as it’ll be easier to cross the border into Mexico. But Richie almost gives it away they are hiding. They are able to cross the border and go to a bar called The Titty Twister, which looks like a bar you’d find in a post-apocalyptic waste land. Bikers cruise around outside revving their engines. Truck drivers high-five themselves as pyrotechnics explode off the neon signs.
After assaulting a barker (played by Cheech Marin in one of three roles) who sexually harassed Kate, the Gecko Brothers take Jacob and his family in where scantily clad women dance around the men’s amusements. The band plays loud and lively. A bartender played by Danny Trejo is at first resistant to allowing them service but after Jacob shows him his driver’s license, he says he’s a trucker too technically. The bar only caters to bikers and truckers.
Everyone soon learns why. After an unforgettable dance by Santanico Pandemonium (Hayek) with a huge python snake, it’s revealed that the bartender, barker, bouncer and dancers are all vampires and they slaughter almost everyone, including Richie.
A biker, Sex Machine (Tom Savini) and another bar patron, Frost (Fred Williamson) are able to stay alive and help slaughter the vampires in the bar as do Seth, Kate, Jacob and Scott. Richie transforms into a vampire, forcing Seth to drive a stake through his heart to put him out of his misery. As vampire bats gather around outside, everyone decides to drive wooden stakes through the hearts of the dead patrons to keep them from turning.
Eventually they have to face off against the hordes of vampires who have returned to the bar as Jacob is forced to come to terms with his faith. Seth tells him that Jacob can bless the tap water and turn it into a weapon against the remaining vampires. The interaction between the two is funny as Seth asks him if he’s “a mean motherfucking servant of God.” Jacob replies he is but leaves out a certain word.
Yes, it’s outrageous, bloody and at the most entertaining. A movie like this is a risky gamble as it was only Rodriguez’s third full-length movie. He had directed a TV movie and a segment of the poorly received Four Rooms.
By the time it was released, Tarantino had almost used up his street cred as he had directed a segment of Four Rooms too and an episode of ER. But he was also in some movie call Destiny Turns on the Radio that came out in the spring of 1995 and made just $1.17 million at the box office and received mostly negative reviews. For what it’s worth, his performance here as Richie is not too bad. It’s not the best. (Come to think about it, I don’t even know if he’s done anything good acting wise.) But I find him most believable as the creepy sex offender that Richie is. Tarantino’s foot fetish is apparent in all his movies and here he drinks champagne off Hayek’s foot.
The movie spawned two prequels which went direct to video and a TV series. I haven’t seen any of them, but I’m told the prequels were poorly received.
I don’t know how they could’ve topped the outrageousness of the original. Even though I watched it twice in the theaters in the winter of 1996, when I watched it later in college, I was surprised of how much I had forgotten. At one point in the movie for no other reason, a vampire turns into a giant rat-like creature after behind beheaded.
Savini was already known among horror fans for his make-up work. Here, Greg Nicotero, who’d later become more famous for his work on The Walking Dead, gets his feet wet with supervising the make-up. He also appears in a memorable scene with Sex Machine who shows a unique firing weapon. Robert Kurtzman, who is also known for his work in special effects receives a “Story By” credit for coming up with the idea.
Hayek who turned people’s heads when she broke through on Rodriguez’s Desperado is willing to go under the make-up to appear as a snake vampire creature. As for Marin, he seems to have a ball. His barker role in which he talks about the variety of “pussy” the bar offers I’m sure had him wanting to do multiple takes to get it right. Marin also appears as a border guard and Carlos, a Mexican crime boss who offers the Gecko sanctuary in his city.
As for Clooney, you can clearly see how he became one of the biggest stars following this movie. This wasn’t his first role as he had appeared in many low-budget movies (Return to Horror High and Return of the Killer Tomatoes) and a number of TV shows, including one season on The Facts of Life and a recurring role on Roseanne. Clooney had what became his “Caesar haircut” at this point. He drops hints that even though Seth is not the best person in the world, he’s not a complete psychopath. It’s an anti-hero role and Clooney plays it perfectly.
Rodriguez, himself, shows off his style in this movie. Some critics haven’t been too kind saying he’s all style but no substance. I feel directors should tell the stories they want, not the stories film critics want them to. Considering in his career spanning almost 30 years, he has made violent action comedies and family-friendly blockbusters. Not too bad for someone who was just a 23-year-old kid who wanted to make a movie anyway he could.