In Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, the windshield becomes a widescreen that frames the world. The window of a Chevy Nova borders the opening credits, and the feeling that the film was shot from a driver’s POV continues, thanks to the film’s anamorphic format.
Tarantino thinks Death Proof is his worst film, but this exploitation flick is pure trashy fun, a treasure trove for gearheads, and an oddly touching tribute to stunt work that combines the slasher genre, pinky violence, hang-out movies, and the films of Russ Meyer. As Zoë Bell described it to The Hollywood Reporter, Tarantino made Death Proof as “a kudos to the hidden heroes” of filmmaking.
The film’s first hour follows pals Julia (Sydney Poitier), Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), who have the misfortune of crossing paths with Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike, a sadistic serial killer who stalks them as they traverse the city of Austin, Texas. After they leave a dive bar, Mike crashes his 1971 Chevy Nova into the women’s ’96 Honda Civic on a dark road—he’s promised his passenger Pam (Rose McGowan) that his car is reinforced to be “death proof;” but it turns out you have to be in his seat to get the “full benefit.” His car lives up to its hype, and Mike survives. The women aren’t so lucky.
The head-on collision is a grisly spectacle—and an impressive stunt.
Production had four Chevy Novas on hand, and they called the most functional of the four “The Jesus,” which was made specifically for the rollover stunt. A second roll-caged car, “The Prius,” was destroyed during the stunt. Buddy Joe Hooker, Kurt Russell’s stunt double, executes the cannon roll that follows the crash in just one take. (Hooker bought The Jesus for $500, and it became his son’s first car.)
As Hooker tells it, they blew the cannon, which propelled and rolled the Chevy Nova forward about 160 yards down the road until it stopped just in front of the camera—an incredibly difficult feat to achieve, but Hooker pulled it off.
Fourteen months later, Stuntman Mike makes the mistake of tangling with Zoë Bell (playing herself), makeup artist Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), actor Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and stuntwoman Kim (Tracie Thoms), who are in Lebanon, Tennessee for a film shoot. These girls drive a bright yellow ’72 Mustang Grande, like the original Gone in 60 Seconds’ Eleanor, and its bumper sticker reads “Pussy Wagon” like Kill Bill Vol. 1’s yellow Chevrolet Silverado. Zoë Bell finds a Dodge Challenger for sale in the classifieds, and the women ditch the Mustang to take the Challenger for a test drive.
After Stuntman Mike wrecked his Chevy Nova, he replaced it with a 1969 Dodge Charger, the car he drives to stalk these women. He interrupts their fun as they drive the Challenger and pursues them on Lebanon’s dusty roads, a chase made more dangerous by the fact that Zoë Bell is playing a game called Ship’s Mast on the car’s hood.
Mike tries to run the Challenger off the road, smashing it repeatedly and terrorizing Abernathy, Kim, and Zoë, who’s defenseless as she clings to the hood of the car.
When both cars finally crash, Zoë flies off the hood of the Challenger, and Mike pops out of his car to announce, “Ladies, that was fun.” The ladies don’t agree, and, after Kim shoots him in the shoulder, they decide to “kill the bastard” and turn the tables on Stuntman Mike. The chase starts anew, and Stuntman Mike gets what’s coming to him.
Quentin Tarantino described Death Proof’s action as, “real cars, real shit, at full… speed.” Those speeds were often up to 80, and even 100, mph. It took six weeks to shoot a chase sequence that ultimately clocked in at a formidable 20 minutes.
Production assembled the best in the business, such as stunt coordinator Jeff Dashnaw, the legendary Buddy Joe Hooker (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, To Live and Die in LA, Scarface, Terminator 2) and Terry Leonard (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Blues Brothers, Apocalypse Now). Tracie Thoms, whose character Kim drives the Challenger, had two stunt doubles: newcomer Chrissy Weathersby and Tracy Keehn-Dashnaw. Tarantino bragged that one of the stunts in Death Proof “put all four stunt greats in one frame together”—Terry Leonard, Buddy Joe Hooker, Tracy Keehn-Dashnaw, and Zoë Bell—who all worked together to pull off a near-miss where the speeding Challenger and Charger flip an oncoming truck.
During the chase, the women smash into a boat (“Did you just hit a boat?”), another reference to Gone in 60 Seconds. The film is full of winks and tributes to other car films: the Charger’s license plate, 983-DAN, is the same as the Charger’s in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry; Stuntman Mike’s favorite rubber duck hood ornament is an homage to Convoy; and his Chevy Nova’s license plate is JJZ-109, like McQueen’s Bullitt Mustang.
The ’71 Dodge Challenger is made up to look like a ’70 Challenger R/T as an homage to Vanishing Point’s hero car. Vanishing Point is the subject of a lengthy, passionate discussion among the girls, and Zoë tells her friends: “To me, there’s no point in being in America unless you can drive a Detroit muscle car. And I wanna drive a Dodge Challenger.” Tarantino’s abiding love of cinema is evident in all his movies, but Death Proof specifically reveres car chase movies of the ’60s and ’70s, a golden age of real and dangerous stunts.
Tarantino’s commitment to doing stunts for real creates a chase that feels urgent, heightened, and more involving than modern CG-heavy car action. Zoë Bell’s vulnerability as she hangs on to the Challenger’s hood with a homicidal maniac in pursuit raises the stakes and amplifies the tension.
“Quentin [Tarantino] would love to tie in the road and the wheel moving with [the shot of] me being on the car and then [have the camera] going wide so you could see it,” Zoë Bell told RogerEbert.com. “And that’s a perfect example of the reason people have such a visceral response to that sequence, because there is no bullshit. There’s no double, there’s no CGI, it’s all practical, and you’re seeing that the person crying is the same one [who’s] falling off the car. I think, on some deep, subconscious level, [it reads as] ‘real’ to the people watching.” Tarantino’s no-bullshit approach makes for one of the best chases of the 21st century.