Biting the bullets: “From Dusk Till Dawn,” 25 years later…


Dawn of “From Dusk…”

I still vividly remember trying to get my friends to come with me to see the new vampire/crime-drama flick from director Robert Rodriguez (“Desperado” “Spy Kids”) and writer/actor Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction,” “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” ) back in February of 1996. I was a bachelor in those days, and I sometimes went to movies by myself (sometimes even catching midnight shows, if I couldn’t sleep), but based on my love of Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” I wanted to see this one with other people. However, none of my friends wanted to go–most of them weren’t into horror, as I was (and am). Contributing to its poor box office, I demurred and waited for its eventual home video release. Renting the movie on laserdisc (the clunky 12″ precursors to DVDs) is how I finally got to see “From Dusk Till Dawn.” The movie did a dramatic genre-reversal about halfway into its running time, switching from black humored, western/crime-drama to full horror at the flap of a bat wing. This wildly divergent film almost felt like a two-films-in-one, or a double-feature, something Rodriguez and Tarantino would later attempt with the cinematic release of “Grindhouse” in 2007 (which featured both “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” on a double-bill, along with trailers for “Machete” “Thanksgiving,” and other then-nonexistent exploitation flicks).

Seth Gecko (George Clooney) is one angry motor scooter…

“From Dusk Till Dawn” soon became a go-to action horror favorite of mine, and while I haven’t closely followed the sequels or the Amazon TV series, the 1996 film has, over the years, became a Halloween staple. Even my wife (who doesn’t do horror) appreciates it. So, for this anniversary retrospective, I wanted to give the movie as close to a cinematic presentation as I could approximate at home.

To do this, I once again broke out my digital projector, unfurled my 7 ft. collapsible screen, and turned off the lights. Time to return to “The Titty Twister”…

“From Dust Till Dawn” (1996).

Michael Parks as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw. The late actor was a true chameleon, playing anything from a redneck lawman to an 80-something year old Mexican pimp (“Kill Bill Vol. 2”).

Right out of the gate, the movie feels like a 1970s exploitation flick, or an updated western. In a dusty, nondescript town, a Texas ranger named Earl McGraw (authentically realized by the late chameleonic character actor Michael Parks) casually strolls into a dusty, middle-of-nowhere convenience store and begins a causal chat with the lone clerk Pete Bottoms (John Hawkes). The clerk and ranger begin the sort of ugly, casually racist conversation that some engage in when they’re in a ‘safe space.’ Their talk ranges from attacking the mentally challenged to the dangers of microwave burritos (very Tarantino-esque dialogue). With seemingly no one else in the store, save for one female customer out of earshot, Earl tells the easygoing Pete about his latest assignment; hunting down the fugitive Gecko brothers; younger brother Richie (Quentin Tarantino) has just broken his older brother Seth (George Clooney) out of police custody, and the two have taken a bank teller hostage, after a bloody bank robbery and crime spree. At this point, Earl needs to use the store’s restroom, and Pete ably obliges.

Note: Having worked in retail many years, I can easily vouch for the authenticity of Pete and Earl’s conversation. While captive Pete is clearly following the ‘opinions are bad for business’ train of thought regarding his loyal but racist customer (esp. when that customer is law enforcement), Earl isn’t so shy with his own views. I remember a few racist customers who would sometimes see my caucasian skin and assume that I aligned with their views. As they’d casually (but softly) bend my ear with all manner of hideous racist slurs, I would give a noncommittal expression, or appear preoccupied with a task. It’s their first amendment right to be creeps, but I didn’t have to agree with, or even pretend to agree with them.

Seth Gecko (George Clooney) is not a nice guy–nothing he does in the movie justifies his survival, yet you root for him anyway.

With Earl in the bathroom, things begin to unravel. The young woman in the store is actually the hostage of an armed Seth Gecko, and his psychotic kid brother, Richie. Using the young woman as leverage, Seth holds his gun at the hapless Pete’s face. Richie then tells his brother that he saw Pete mouth the words “help me” to the ranger. Forced to defend Richie’s blatant lie (or hallucination), Seth threatens Pete once again. Earl then steps out of the bathroom and a trigger-happy Richie shoots him dead in a panic. Soon it’s open warfare as Seth and Richie beat a retreat from the store, shooting up liquor bottles as they go. A wounded Pete tries in vain to be a hero by taking a loaded pistol from a safe behind the counter. Shooting Richie in the hand, Pete’s attempted heroism against the raging Gecko brothers earns him a horrifying slow death by immolation, when Seth lobs a flaming roll of toilet paper onto a sea of spilled alcohol surrounding the young clerk. Seth and Richie casually exit the store as it explodes behind them, with Seth lecturing his reckless brother about “keeping a low profile.” The Gecko brothers then roar down the highway in their black 1968 Mercury Cougar, as their terrified middle-aged bank teller hostage Gloria (Brenda Hillhouse) remains stowed in the trunk…

Note: Writer/actor Tarantino and director Robert Rodriquez’s influences for the film are obvious, with the Gecko brothers dressed in clothes very similar to what we saw in Rodriguez’s own “Desperado” (1995) and his earlier “El Mariachi” (1993–the first in that series). Seth’s vintage black Mercury Cougar recalls 1970s car chase flicks, such as “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” (1974), “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971) the original “Mad Max” (1979), and many others of that genre which flooded drive-in theaters of the time. Speaking of exploitation, we see a hilarious news clip covering the manhunt for the Gecko brothers–the late Kelly Preston plays a ditzy onscreen television reporter, who smiles vacantly while reporting on the Gecko brothers’ carnage, as casualties rack up on-screen like a game show scoreboard. The TV clip also costars the late John Saxon (“Enter the Dragon” “Nightmare on Elm Street”) as the FBI agent in charge.

“Shoulda had shotguns for this detail.”

As Richie duct-tapes the massive bullet wound piercing his left hand (!) as he and Seth make their way to a seedy motel near the Texas/Mexican border. An easily irritable Seth tries to calm the neurotic Richie as they open the trunk to check on their terrified hostage. Once they get a room, Seth tries (in his own way) to relax Gloria by assuring her she’ll be freed once they’re safely past the Mexican border. Seth unwisely leaves the woman in Richie’s care, as he goes to get food, maps and other needs for their trek past the southern border. After Seth leaves, a seemingly calmer (though no less creepy) Richie invites a nervous Gloria to join him on the bed to watch television…

Note: Seth is clearly so blinded by love for his crazy brother Richie that he never questions the wisdom of his leaving their female hostage with a murderous, semi-hallucinatory sex offender. Once again, there are really no ‘heroes’ in this movie in the conventional sense–Seth and Richie aren’t even true antiheroes (heroes who use dishonorable means); they’re just rotten to the core. However, Seth is the more rational and levelheaded of the two.

Also of Note: It’s hard to believe it was only 25 years ago we were still relying on paper maps for navigation. My, how things have changed in just two and a half decades…

Scorsese favorite Harvey Keitel is cast against type as faithless pastor Jacob Fuller, who finds his faith in a lair of the undead.

The movie then incongruously jumps to the other set of characters in the story; the Fuller family, with father Jacob (Harvey Keitel), daughter Kate (Juliette Lewis) and adopted son Scott (Ernest Liu). The three of them are enjoying a meal at a diner during their road trip vacation together. Despite traveling in a large RV, an exhausted Jacob wants to sleep one night in a real bed and announces his intention to check them into a motel. When Scott excuses himself to use the restroom (lots of bathroom breaks in this movie), Kate once again questions her dad’s decision to leave his ministry. She asks if he still believes in god. Widower Jacob, whose faith was deeply shaken by the recent automobile death of his wife, replies that he still believes in god…just not enough to be a preacher.

Note: Harvey Keitel has been in other Tarantino movies, including “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), as well as Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) among many others. Juliette Lewis once again plays a jailbait-ish character, as she did in 1991’s “Cape Fear”, when she played a teenager who was curiously drawn to the manipulative, murdering rapist Max Cady (Robert De Niro), whom her lawyer father (Nick Nolte) unsuccessfully defended in court. In this movie, Lewis once again plays a hapless teen who finds herself teaming up with ‘bad boys,’ though against her will, in this case.

Seth’s creepy, sex-offender brother Richie (writer Quentin Tarantino) ogles “Gidget”, aka Kate Fuller (Juliette Lewis, from 1991’s remake of “Cape Fear”).

Returning to their room, Seth realizes that Richie–in a fit of psychotic rage–has raped and butchered Gloria. Even hardened criminal Seth is appalled by his brother’s grotesque and monstrous behavior. He grabs Richie and screams for him to stop killing people. Richie tries to defend his sick impulses by insisting it was self-defense; that the late Gloria somehow lashed out at him after Seth left. Seth, of course, isn’t buying, let alone having it. With their room covered in blood, the Gecko brothers need to leave–but first they need to find new hostages. Knocking on their motel neighbors’ door, Richie pretends he’s in need of an ice bucket and meekly asks if he can borrow theirs. When Jacob returns with the superfluous bucket, Seth suddenly appears in the doorway, and the older Jacob is quickly overpowered by the armed duo. Things are made even worse when Kate returns from the motel pool. With a terrified teenaged Kate clad in her wet bikini, sex-offender Richie is sent into a near catatonic state of desire–he imagines Kate asking him to pleasure her, right in front of her family. Snapping Richie out of his hallucinatory state, Seth gets their mission back on point–the Fuller family will be their new hostages, and they will use their large RV to smuggle them across the Mexican border before sunset.

Note: Richie’s hallucination of Kate asking him to pleasure her is the first glimpse we see of Richie’s breaks from reality–he’s not a liar; he literally hears and sees the things he believes. Richie’s hallucinations add plausibility to those prior occasions when he claimed to see clerk Pete mouth the words ‘help me’ at ranger Earl back in the convenience store. Richie probably imagined the utterly helpless Gloria trying to “escape” from their room, as well.

Seth, Scott (Ernest Liu), Jacob and Kate find themselves in the Titty Twister–an oddly ancient-looking biker bar at the ass end of nowhere.

During the drive to the border, creepy Richie is put in charge of watching the kids (once again, Seth shows uncommonly poor judgment when it comes to his brother), while Seth sits up front with Jacob, whom he gains a grudging respect for, as Jacob quietly resists Seth’s taunts with dignity. Seth learns of Jacob’s late wife, and we almost see a flash of sympathy cross his features. With the family cooperating with their captors, a bit of Stockholm syndrome kicks in, as the Fuller family’s initial impulse to resist slowly erodes. At the border, Jacob talks to the border patrol inspector (Cheech Marin), claiming that he’s taking his son Scott to “his first bullfight.” When the agent hears noises in the back of the RV (the sounds of Seth knocking his inappropriately argumentative brother unconscious in the RV’s tiny bathroom), he ‘insists’ on seeing if daughter Kate is really using the RV’s bathroom as Jacob claims. Kate pretends to use the toilet, with her panties around her ankles, as she screams for the inspector to respect her privacy; her indignant diversionary tactic draws attention away from the shower stall where the Geckos are hiding. With a lascivious leer, the agent leaves, and the Fuller family successfully smuggles the outlaws across the border into Mexico. It’s in Mexico where Seth and Richie plan to rendezvous with Carlos–Seth’s Mexican crime boss contact, who will meet the fugitives the following morning at a rowdy, sleazy, biker-trucker bar called the “Titty Twister.” Once that is done, Seth promises Jacob that he and his kids will be free to return to Texas. Just around sunset, they arrive at the bar, which appears to be some kind of gothic, early Mesoamerican architecture bathed in Las Vegas neon. Trucks and motorcycles fill the unpaved dirt parking lot. Immediately Seth breaks the fingers of the doorman (Cheech Marin, once again) for not allowing them entry, while cowardly Richie kicks the man while he’s down–a real dick move.

Note: The Titty Twister, both the exteriors and interiors, is a marvel of production design; it’s a fully realized character in its own right, with multiple layers of meanings and textures. The neon in the main bar is the ‘lure’, the eye candy, but beyond that facade the interior corridors dissolve into ancient, cobwebbed catacombs dimly lit by retrofitted lights. Intentionally dark and sleazy, yes, but enthralling as well.

Kneel before Salma Hayek as “Santanico Pandemonium”; the ‘queen of the vampires.’ Hayek is jaw-droppingly gorgeous in the film.

The Fullers and the Geckos arrive at the bar, where Seth orders drinks from the permanently angry-faced bartender, Razor Charlie (Danny Trejo), who refuses to serve non-bikers or non-truckers. Jacob actively intervenes on Seth’s behalf; telling Charlie that since he’s has a license to drive an RV, which in some states, is considered a truck–technically making him, and his passengers, truckers. Surprisingly, Charlie relents, and welcomes the entire group to the Titty Twister. Once seated, Razor Charlie doubles as emcee to announce the evening’s entertainment; a snake dance performed by the “queen” herself, the intoxicatingly beautiful Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek). The house band (Tito & Tarantula) perform a slow, rhythmic bongo ballad to Santanico’s solo dance routine (she quickly ditches the snake), as every pair of eyes in the place–all genders/sexualities, etc–are transfixed to this preternaturally gorgeous woman’s wickedly sensuous gyrations. The dance reaches a climax as she personally caters to Richie, even pouring liquor down her leg as the psychotic man eagerly drinks the booze right off of her foot (!). When it’s over, the entire crowd applauds, as the cloud of pheromones slowly dissipates…

Note: Okay, let’s talk about Salma Hayek; she’s given high-billing in the movie’s posters, trailers, promotional photos, etc. and while her part is relatively small, her role is extremely memorable. I first saw the movie in my bachelor days, and I’d be lying if I said she didn’t get me a little hot-and-bothered. The way Hayek is made-up, lit and photographed are pure erotic magic. Hayek’s movements have a fluidity and grace that reminded me of the late Aaliyah’s body language–playing a similar character–in 2002’s “Queen of the Damned.” The origins of Santanico Pandemonium (curious use of the masculine form in her first name) are part of a complex backstory which is explored in the sequels and TV series, supposedly dating back to the history of ancient Mesoamerican vampire legends.

Cheech Marin (“Chet Pussy”) and Danny Trejo (“Razor Charlie”) clearly aren’t the ‘forgive and forget’ types…

Seth, ever the observer, notices that the doorman they beat and kicked earlier is walking towards their table with the surly bartender/emcee Razor Charlie. A rotund bouncer Seth threatened to kill earlier also joins them. Realizing it’s time to pay for their deeds, Seth tells Richie to “get back on the clock.” The confrontation quickly turns ugly, as the doorman refers to Richie as the “piece of shit” who kicked him while he was down. Not untrue, of course…

Note: The talented actor/comedian/musician/art collector Cheech Marin plays three roles, almost invisibly so; he plays the border patrol agent, the Titty Twister doorman, aka “Chet Pussy”, and finally, Seth’s crime boss contact, Carlos. Having been a huge fan of Marin’s old comedy albums (along with partner Tommy Chong) as a kid, I loved seeing him in a movie where, like his albums, he could play multiple characters–just like Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove.”

Also of Note: Danny Trejo’s recent autobiography, “Trejo: My Life of Crime, Hollywood and Redemption” (cowritten with Donal Logue) is well worth reading–just finished it about a month ago, and it was riveting. Would make a helluva movie in its own right.

Richie and Seth face danger on all sides, as Santanico Pandemonium only has eyes for Richie’s bloodied, duct-taped hand…

Before long, an epic bar brawl breaks out, and is quickly (albeit temporarily) put down when Seth and Richie shoot their would-be attackers–but not before the Razor Charlie plants a knife directly into Richie’s duct-taped hand! Still in pain from the gunshot he took in that hand earlier, Richie emits a loud scream, as Santanico notices the blood gushing from his reopened hand wound…and she is overcome by hunger. Her beautiful face is transformed into a something resembling a cobra as she rushes to bite Richie’s bleeding hand, knocking him to the floor, and ripping open the arteries of his neck! Seth shoots her, but it’s too late, as Richie bleeds out. Before he can fully appreciate the death of his beloved, insane brother, Seth and the other patrons are surrounded by the rising vampire bat-faced forms of the undead doorman, bartender and bouncer. Before long, the club’s strippers also turn into bat-faced demons, as do members of the band (now playing corpses as instruments) as the truth of the Titty Twister becomes clear–the bar is a haven for vampires. This, of course, explains why the place is only open “from dusk till dawn,” and why they only serve truckers and bikers–the truckers carry precious cargos that the vampires can use for themselves, while the bikers are often loners who aren’t readily missed. Seth and the Fuller family, along with quick-thinking patrons “Frost” (Fred Williamson) and “Sex Machine” (Tom Savini) act quickly to dispatch the undead vampires. The creatures are strong, but as Frost notices, they’re also kind of “squishy”–making them easy to impale with improvised wooden stakes (table legs, pool sticks, etc) or set ablaze with alcohol and matches.

Note: Fred Williamson (“Frost”) is a former American football star and actor whose career dates back to the late 1960s, with roles in Star Trek TOS (“The Cloud Minders”) and the original “MASH” movie (1970), where he played Dr. Oliver Wendell “Spearchucker” Jones–a ringer for the movie’s final football game. Williamson also had a long career in 1970s blaxploitation movies (“Black Caesar,” “Hell Up In Harlem”); the sorts of films that helped inspire Tarantino’s career (“Jackie Brown,” “Django Unchained”). Horror movie makeup legend Tom Savini (“Sex Machine”) did makeup for the famed George Romero zombie movies, beginning with 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead” (where he also played a biker character dressed very much like Sex Machine–a minor role that he reprised in 2004’s “Land of the Dead”). The talented Savini, whose service in the Vietnam war gave him a grisly firsthand knowledge of human anatomy, also directed the 1990 remake of “Night of the Living Dead,” starring Tony Todd.

Quentin Tarantino’s successes have clearly gone to his head.

Frost and Sex Machine’s resourcefulness in destroying the vampires (using methods they’d gleaned from old horror movies) buys precious breathing time for Seth, Jacob, Kate and Scott, as they collectively try to assess how their world has suddenly changed (just as the movie itself jumps tracks from western/crime-drama to balls-out horror fantasy). The vampires, when killed, melt into a waxy goo and/or burst into flames, as the house band does, when threatened by Sex Machine and Frost. Meanwhile, a grieving Seth removes debris off the corpse of his bitten brother–who suddenly reanimates into a newly born vampire. Vampire-Richie now has a freakishly enlarged head–an exaggeration of his own human features, as he hungrily attempts to bite anyone within range. As Jacob encourages Seth and the others to kill the turned Richie, Seth refused to allow it, threatening to shoot anyone who tries. As it becomes clear this newborn vampire is not his brother, Seth reluctantly asks the others to pin Richie down. Promising his violently disturbed brother “the peace you never had in life,” Seth impales Richie himself–with the immolated form leaving a puddle of waxen blood and viscera in its place. Frost also takes out the rotund bouncer vampire by reaching into his ‘squishy’ chest and yanking out his still-beating heart–which she squashes with his fist, killing him instantly; but not before the bouncer took a chunk out of Sex Machine’s arm during combat…

Note: One of the other murdered human patrons of the bar is a long-haired blonde biker played by another makeup genius, Greg Nicotero (“Day of the Dead”), who has since graduated from head makeup artist to producer (and occasional director) of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Nicotero also produced a full-sized head mockup of “Bruce, the shark” for the “JAWS: The Art of Fear in Filmmaking” exhibit that I saw on Catalina Island several years ago. Nicotero has since supervised the creation of a full-length version of the JAWS prop shark for a new Hollywood museum opening later this year.

Jacob, Frost (ex-NFLer Fred Williamson), Seth and Sex Machine (FX makeup legend Tom Savini) face off against strong, squishy vampires.

The following scenes see Seth acting as unofficial group leader as they pool their collective knowledge of vampire mythology; they know that stakes work, as well as crucifixes (Kate killed “Chet Pussy” by stuffing her crucifix in his open mouth and forcing him to swallow). Sex Machine is convinced that silver is good for something, until Scott corrects him–that’s for werewolves. Seth also realizes that they have a ringer in the form of (ex) preacher, Jacob. Problem is, Jacob’s faith level is a bit low these days, but he promises to be a mean “motherf–king” (mumbled) soldier of god. Good enough. They get to work on turning wooden chair and table legs into stakes and improvising other weaponry… as the sound of bats, feverishly flapping their wings, are heard just outside the heavy wooden doors. This is the group’s ticking clock.

Note: Scott is half-right; there is extensive lore, including Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (1897), where vampires can change into werewolves–or even mist. Some vampire mythology, including Mesoamerican folklore, cites examples of vampires being natural shapeshifters. Even in the movie, we later see a decapitated vampire version of Sex Machine grow another lupine head and elongated, hairy legs in place of its arms. Then again, as Sex Machine says earlier on, it isn’t as if there’s a Time-Life book on vampirism.

Makeup legend Tom Savini gets a taste of what he’s been dishing out to other actors for decades.

Sex Machine puts his leather jacket back on, trying to hide the bite mark on his arm, as Frost enthralls the group with a long, overly dramatized Vietnam story of his, meant to inspire Kate and the others to fight. As Frost goes into his long-winded tall tale, Sex Machine begins to change–his teeth grow sharp, and his hands begin to grow into long-fingered claws. As Frost’s Nam story reaches its climax, a fully vampirized Sex Machine jumps him and bites his neck. Vampire-Sex Machine is eventually destroyed, but not before taking a chunk out of the group’s single ace in the hole–man of god, Jacob. Heartbreak ensues as Jacob realizes his time is limited before he turns into “a lapdog of Satan,” and he begs his children to promise that they will kill him before he goes full-Dracula on them. Reluctantly, his kids agree as Jacob puts a gun to his own head to make them swear. Making their situation even worse, a quickly turned vampire-Frost shoots a hole in the heavy front doors, allowing the vampire bats to flow in like blood through an artery…

Note: Makeup artist (legend) Savini, having done minor roles in the George Romero zombie movies, for which he also oversaw makeup duties, is actually a talented comedic actor as well. His nervousness during his involuntary vampiric transformation is timed like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. His character of Sex Machine also has a hilarious bit of prop comedy during his initial introduction in the movie, where he stares down angered fellow makeup artist Greg Nicotero, also playing a surly biker; as Nicotero pulls a knife, Sex Machine responds with a twin-chambered gun that springs from his iron codpiece–a literal erection of the ‘guns-as-iron-penises’ metaphor.

The Fuller Family went vampire slaying in Mexico for vacation…

Beating a retreat through the ancient catacomb back corridors of the Titty Twister, Kate, Scott, Jacob and Seth figure Jacob has less than an hour before he turns (how he determines this, I have no idea), so the group gets to work on fashioning weapons from huge stores of supplies in the Twister’s back rooms–no doubt looted from the abandoned trucks of the bar’s countless victims over the decades. Kate trains with a crossbow using wooden arrows as stakes, Scott rigs a grenade launcher weapon that will lob condoms full of holy water, blessed by Jacob. Guns are filled with cross-tipped bullets, and Seth rigs together a motorized impaler, improvised from a chainsaw.

Note: How they did all of that weapons prep and testing in under an hour is anyone’s guess–the magic of movie time? Then again, how exactly did Jacob know he had roughly an hour remaining before he turned into a vampire? All of the vampire transformations we’ve seen in the movie to date happened in minutes, sometimes seconds–so how exactly did Jacob know when his number would be up? Once again, movie’s gotta movie…

No shoes, no shirts, no pants, no service.
Someone shoulda hung a sign…

Ready to go on the offensive, the armed group opens the door to face their demons (literally). These vampires, who’ve just reverted from their bat-forms, are naked, pale and more animalistic than the others. Naturally, things don’t go well–at all. The group tries to form a loose defensive circle, but it falls apart when Jacob predictably turns. The kids honor their promise to kill their vampirized father–but not before Scott is bitten and taken away by a pack of hungry vampires. The boy pleads for his sister to kill him, and she tearfully complies. Soon, it’s just Seth and Kate remaining as vampires completely surround them … that is, until a shaft of early morning sunlight pours in through one of the many bullet holes in the wooden doors.

Kate and the unworthy Seth are the only two to make it out of the Titty Twister alive.

Realizing that the onset of dawn is the answer, Seth and Kate begin shooting more holes into the doors–which creates even more shafts of daylight streaming into the bar. However, the vampires begin crawling close to the floor to avoid the deadly light. It’s about this time when a loud knock identifying as Carlos is heard at the door. Seth screams for him to shoot the door down. Carlos’ gang blows down the doors. Morning sunlight floods in, striking a disco ball which reflects the light everywhere–instantly reducing the remaining vampires into exploding blobs of waxy mush. They step outside of the now-smoking bar, where crime boss Carlos (also played by Cheech Marin) meets his associate Seth. Seth, covered head to toe in vampire bodily fluids, stands with an exhausted, traumatized Kate, who is spattered in blood. Carlos wonders aloud if perhaps the things they saw were just “psychos”? Seth duly reminds him that psychos don’t burst into flames, no matter how insane they are. Carlos admits he chose the meeting place at random (“one place is as good as any other”), which so angers Seth that he abruptly renegotiates their once ironclad 30 percent deal contract down to 25 percent. Carlos honors his end, providing Seth with a car and a new life in (the fictional) El Rey, Mexico. A used (nearly-new) Porsche is there for Seth, but before he can leave with Carlos’ posse to El Rey, he feels guilt over everything poor Kate has gone through in the past 24 hours. He hands her a thick stack of cash from his cut, and wishes her all the best. Kate suggests coming with Seth (Stockholm syndrome much?), but he wisely rejects her offer–knowing that the life ahead of him is not for her. Forced to start over herself, Kate accepts the cash and takes her late father’s RV back to the US. Seth takes his slightly-used Porsche and heads off to his new life in El Rey…

Note: How Kate will explain her return home to the authorities, without her family and spattered in blood, is anyone’s guess. Of course, she can always say she bravely fled the Gecko brothers (who were holding her hostage), but that her brother and father weren’t so lucky. She could also say that she palmed the cash when the Geckos were distracted, and made a run for it.

The Titty Twister is only the top of an ancient Aztec pyramid–a pyramid potentially filled with Mesoamerican mythology to explore in the sequels and TV series.

As Kate and Seth go their respective ways, the camera pulls back for a wide shot matte painting from behind the Titty Twister (courtesy of Syd Dutton, from Illusion Arts), where we see a steep trench filled with the rotting metallic husks of abandoned vehicles, some makes and models dating back to the 1930s. It’s also clear that the Titty Twister is but the top level of an ancient Aztec pyramid. The bar’s architecture and redressing allows it to go virtually unnoticed at the end of its lonely Mexican dirt road…

The End.

From “Full Tilt Boogie.”
Robert Rodriguez consults with his collaborators on how to shoot the “Titty Twister” facade on location in Barstow, California.

Note: For additional information, and some very candid, behind-the-scenes video diaries on the making of “From Dusk Till Dawn,” I highly recommend the 1997 documentary, “Full Tilt Boogie,” which chronicles the bonding of the cast and crew during the making of the film in the California desert town of Barstow (aka, the pit stop on the way to Las Vegas), as well as locations in Chihuahua, Mexico, and other places. Some of the troupe’s antics (particularly Quentin Tarantino’s relentless macho-posing) are a little hard to take sometimes, but it’s still a worthwhile look at how Robert Rodriguez and company put this horror opus together (Selma Hayek, the ‘vampire queen’ herself, is the godmother to Rodriguez’s kids…!). The movie is usually available as a bonus feature on the BluRay or DVDs of “From Dusk Till Dawn,” but can also be rented on YouTube or other streaming services (prices vary).

Summing It Up.

“You know what they say about me–I SUCK!”
Cheech Marin as the Titty Twister’s carnival barker/doorman, aka “Chet Pussy”; one of three roles he plays in the film.

Having just rewatched “From Dusk Till Dawn” yet again on a biggish screen, what strikes me most is how much it really captures the feel of a high-end “grind house” movie–the kind we used to see in double, or even triple-features when I was a kid. They were generally crap, but they were usually entertaining crap. “From Dusk Till Dawn” doesn’t attempt anything terribly deep, nor are any of its characters stalwart heroes, either. These aren’t just antiheroes–they’re terrible people (much like characters in 1970s exploitation movies), but that also adds to the movie’s unpredictability factor; all of these characters could be on the chopping block, because most of them kinda ‘have it coming.’ The only characters who make it out alive are a man too handsome to die (Seth) and the ‘final girl’ (Kate). Everyone else, including the preacher and his adopted son, are up for grabs. Director Robert Rodriguez and writer/actor Quentin Tarantino created a macho, swaggering, bikers and strippers-populated fever dream that does its very damndest to keep an audience in their seats–even if it means abruptly switching genres mid-movie.

25 years later, “From Dusk Till Dawn” still runs like a finely-tuned angry motor scooter. To my readers, I wish you a Happy (early) Halloween!

“From Dusk Till Dawn”: The Sequels and the TV Series.

Kudos at least, for an original story, and not a repeat of the original.

There were two made-for-video sequels. The first, “From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money” (1999) starred Robert Patrick (“Terminator 2: Judgment Day”), Bo Hopkins, and Danny Trejo returning as Razor Eddie, not Charlie (Razor Charlie was killed off in the first film, of course). The film also featured prologue cameos from horror-comedy icon Bruce Campbell (“Evil Dead”) and Tiffani Amber-Theissen (“Saved by the Bell” “Beverly Hills 90210”). For full disclosure, I’ve only seen parts of the film; lacking the star power of its predecessor, it simply failed to hold my attention. However, kudos are given to director/cowriter Scott Spiegel and writer/costar Duane Whittaker for not lazily repeating the beats of the first film, which would’ve been a safe-enough route for a direct-to-video sequel. I need to revisit these sequels someday.

Rebecca Gayheart would return in the sequel, making her the second alumnus from “Beverly Hills 90210” to grace the franchise (Tiffani Amber Theissen would make a cameo in FDTD 2).

The second sequel, “From Dusk Till Dawn 3: Hangman’s Daughter” (2000) was another made-for-video sequel, though original cowriter/director Robert Rodriquez has a hand in the story this time around. Danny Trejo is, once again, the only familiar face from the franchise, returning in flashbacks as “Razor Charlie” (not Eddie). Once again, credit is given for trying to explore the mythology behind the vampire strippers of the Titty Twister, which relates how the infamous den of vampiric evil once served as a brothel. The movie also offers backstory of the vampire who would become queen–Santanico Pandemonium (now played by Ara Celi, who, interestingly, also played the titular “Inca Mummy Girl” in an episode of TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” three years earlier).

Amazon Prime’s series would use the movie’s story as its first season arc, while greatly expanding the mythology of the FDTD universe–yes, Robert Rodriguez’s crime-horror B-movie is now a universe, folks– like “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings.”

“From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series” lasted for three seasons on AmazonPrime streaming, but was not renewed for a fourth. The first season essentially retells the events of the movie, but offers deeper insight into a prophecy where the Gecko brothers are part of a greater plan between humankind and the vampires–who are now more deeply rooted in Aztec-Mesoamerican mythology. Once again, I’ve not seen this series, but by secondhand accounts, I’m told it is fairly faithful to the original film, while greatly expanding its universe. Producer Robert Rodriguez has written and even directed some segments as well. The franchise’s faithful costar Danny Trejo once returns in Season 2 as “The Regulator,” while Robert Patrick (in a bit of interesting casting) now plays ex-minister/widower “Jacob Fuller” in Season 1. The series also stars D.J Cotrona as “Seth”, Zane Holtz as “Richie”, and Eisa Gonzales as “Santanico Pandemonium” (though I doubt if anyone else can truly fill Salma Hayek’s–er, shoes).

Where To Watch Safely.

“From Dusk Till Dawn” can be streamed or rented via HBOMax, AmazonPrime, iTunes, PlutoTV (with ads) or YouTube (pay-for-streaming). All three seasons of “From Dusk Till Dawn” The TV Series can be streamed on AmazonPrime as well. Please remember that COVID-19, particularly its Delta variant, have already killed over 4.5 million people worldwide (over 643,000 in the US alone), so please continue to wear a mask in crowded spaces, and get vaccinated as soon as possible. 

Be safe!

Images: Miramax, AmazonPrime.