Everyone has one of “those” movies. The one that has cemented itself in your All-Time Top 10 list of favorites not because it was the best movie ever made or features all of your favorite stars, but because it has become a significant reference point in your life. Sometimes this happens because a film is highly quotable. Sometimes it happens out of sheer repetition of viewing. And sometimes it happens because you watch a movie during a particularly formative time in your life. For me, the 1996 crime thriller/vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn is one of those movies.
The year it was released, I spent the summer home from college, living with my mom. Several months earlier, my father had passed away unexpectedly. I momentarily considered not returning to school until my mom snapped me out of it by reminding me that Dad would have insisted I get my butt back to campus and finish what I had started. To make matters more complicated, I was navigating that weird transition between feeling like I’d grown apart from a lot of the friends I knew from high school, but hadn’t yet made the type of unbreakable connections with my new college friends that guaranteed we’d stay in touch after the last keg was drained and we went our separate ways post-graduation. During those three months, I saw FDTD in the theater eight times. Sure, I enjoyed the heck out of it the first time I watched it, but those subsequent viewings were in an aging discount theater where I paid a buck to sit in a cool, dark room and stare at the screen, sometimes because I didn’t have anything better to do and other times because I needed a distraction from everything else weighing on my mind.
In the following years, FDTD became one of those movies that my friends and I would quote to one another endlessly. And since then, I find myself watching it at least a couple of times a year, whether I pop it into my computer for some background noise while I work or stumble across it while flipping channels on TV. I also have become embarrassingly protective of FDTD. I’m constantly telling people who have never seen it that they HAVE to watch it right now or defending it when people try to dismiss it as a box office flop that couldn’t figure out whether it wanted to be an outlaw flick or a horror movie. What is little more than a forgettable movie from the mid-90s to most people has somehow managed to stick with me over the years and become one of my favorite movies of all time.
So you can imagine my reaction when I heard that the film’s director, Robert Rodriguez, was rebooting FDTD as a TV series on the new El Rey Network:
Obviously, as one of the film’s creators, Rodriguez is more than justified in doing whatever he wants with FDTD. But there are several reasons the thought of Rodriguez, or anyone else for that matter, experimenting with a film that I consider to be a modern-day classic makes me nervous.
George Clooney IS Seth Gecko.
The amount of talent involved in the film version of FDTD is pretty astounding. Working from a script written by Quentin Tarantino (who, in 1996, was still basking in the white-hot success of his opus, Pulp Fiction), Rodriguez was fresh off Desperado, possibly the best movie of his career and the well-received sequel to his indie hit, El Mariachi. The film’s cast was packed with solid players from top to bottom — Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Salma Hayek, Kelly Preston, and Cheech Marin (in multiple roles), as well as genre-favorites Danny Trejo, Michael Parks, and Fred Williamson. Heck, even a fresh-faced John Hawkes pops up in the flick’s unforgettable opening scene. But there’s no question the star of the show was Kentucky’s own George Clooney. At the time, Clooney was on the cusp of superstardom. He had established himself as a bona fide TV star with his turn as Dr. Doug Ross on NBC’s ER, but FDTD was his most high-profile starring movie role to date (if you don’t count his pre-Roseanne, post-Facts of Life turns in “classics” such as Return of the Killer Tomatoes and Return to Horror High). Dressed in black bank-robber chic and sporting an elaborate tribal tattoo that ran the length of his left arm, Clooney unveiled the lethal combination of confidence, intensity, humor and all-around badassery that audiences hadn’t really seen from him before but would eventually make him one of the biggest stars in the world. He instantly elevated the role of Seth Gecko from just another B-movie lead to one of the most memorable antihero tough guys of all time. And while I’m sure D.J. Cotrona — the actor who will take over the role of the more levelheaded Gecko brother in the TV series — is a capable actor, there’s zero chance he will deliver a performance anywhere near as swaggerific as Clooney’s. What’s more, the fact that, judging from the trailer, some of Seth’s most quotable lines from the film are being recycled word-for-word in the series just makes Cotrona’s job that much more impossible.
The movie’s sequels were terrible (and that’s being kind).
Did you know there were two sequels to the original FDTD? No? That’s probably because they were both steaming piles of straight-to-video garbage that did nothing but attempt to sully the name and reputation of the original film. FDTD 2: Texas Blood Money is billed as a sequel to the 1996 film and stars the likes of Bruce Campbell, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen (Kelly Kapowski 4EVA!), Danny Trejo (again) and T-1000 himself, Robert Patrick. Although it’s supposed to take place after the events of the first film, the Titty Twister Bar that Seth Gecko blows up in the original is miraculously rebuilt and looks as good as new (but that’s a minor detail the filmmakers just chalk up to good, ol’ fashioned vampire magic instead of trying to explain). FDTD 3: The Hangman’s Daughter is a prequel to the first film set in 1800s Mexico. It’s got more of a Western vibe and kind of focuses on the origin story of Santanico Pandemonium (the vampire princess played by Salma Hayek in FDTD), but it’s such a boring, poorly made tub of yuck that every viewer who manages to endure the film’s entire run-time should receive some sort of award. The only good thing about these films is they were released so quietly and toiled in such obscurity that they’ve been robbed of their ability to do any lasting damage to FDTD. Granted, Tarantino and Rodriguez weren’t really involved in either of these movies beyond lending their names as Executive Producers. But Rodriguez is credited as contributing aspects of the story to the third film, so, again, that doesn’t give me a lot of confidence about what he might be bringing to the table with the TV series.
The recent track record of Robert Rodriguez.
Much like Tarantino, Rodriguez rose to prominence in the early 1990s as part of the fraternity of DIY directors at the forefront of the decade’s indie film movement. In addition to the well-deserved street cred he earned from El Mariachi, Rodriguez would go on to enjoy more mainstream success with films like Spy Kids and Sin City. But ever since Rodriguez re-teamed with Tarantino in 2007 on Grindhouse — the pair’s homage to the grimy genre flicks of the 70s — he hasn’t produced a single film that convinces me he can do anything but diminish the original FDTD’s legacy. Rodriguez seems to be stuck in full-on grindhouse mode, churning out two Machete flicks that were just OK, but which seemed to be more concerned with stunt casting, crazy effects, and cheeky trailers than actually telling a decent story. He’s currently in post-production on the sequel to Sin City which sounds promising, but I’m not sure audiences are clamoring to revisit that world nearly nine years after the original flick debuted. I’d like to think Rodriguez stumbled upon new inspiration and has some tricks up his sleeve that might make reviving the FDTD universe worthwhile, but I fear the move is more likely about recycling a semi-known cult title to generate buzz for a relatively unknown television venture. Speaking of which…
I’m not sure the El Rey Network knows what it wants to be yet.
Launched late last year, the El Rey Network is a new 24-hour cable channel founded by Rodriguez and partially backed by Univision Communications, a large media conglomerate that focuses on providing TV, radio, and online media for Hispanic Americans. In press leading up to the network’s debut, Rodriguez talked a lot about wanting to create an entertainment destination that celebrates diversity and appeals to viewers who might feel like they are outside of the target demographics of more traditional networks. That’s certainly an admirable and important goal. But new cable ventures are always a bit of a crap shoot (Oprah Winfrey, arguably one of the most powerful and respected media personalities in history, faced a series of challenges in getting her Oprah Winfrey Network off the ground…and she’s OPRAH for goodness sake!), and when a network launches without being able to clearly articulate exactly what niche it will fill, that makes the proposition even dicier. Check out this description of El Rey that comes straight from the network’s press release boilerplate language:
“The network’s action-packed content is anchored by original signature dramas, feature films, grindhouse genre, cult classic action, horror/sci-fi and next-generation sports. El Rey Network awakens the renegade in everyone and has been created for viewers who won’t check a box.”
Oooookaaaayyyy, El Rey Network. Whatever that means. Not only does that description sound exactly like 50 other channels currently swimming around on my cable box, but the whole “renegade viewers who won’t check a box” bit reeks of the “IT’S XTREME!” marketing movement of the mid-to-late 90s. You know where viewers who “won’t check a box” consume their entertainment these days? On the internet. I have no idea how El Rey plans to leverage the power of the internet to reach viewers, but right now their online presence appears to be limited to a bare bones website, the prerequisite social media accounts, and a YouTube channel with a bunch of mini-trailers that use that same “film bubbling and melting” effect Rodriguez has fallen in love with over the last few years.
So far the network has announced that, in addition to the FDTD series, it will air reruns of The X-Files and the short-lived Jessica Alba show Dark Angel, “action sports” coverage, a Lucha Libre wresting series produced by reality TV guru Mark Burnett, and, of course, a bunch of old grindhouse movies. The entire thing feels like a house built precariously upon a cliff comprised of nothing more than nostalgia for the heavily mined decades of the 1970s and 1990s. And that leads me to believe the FDTD series will simply use the memorable moments from the film as posts from which to dangle a bunch of overplayed grindhouse tropes that don’t improve upon the source material in any way. Thanks, but no thanks.
Look, I sympathize with Robert Rodriguez. He obviously is a man who is in love with the past and glamorizes the culture of bygone decades. I loved the 90s as much as anyone (with the possible exception of the writers who work for BuzzFeed), and, to some extent, I’m sentimentalizing FDTD in much the same way Rodriguez is the 90s. The summer of 1996, during which I fell in love with FDTD, turned out to be one of the most memorable of my life. I think about it often, and I’m old enough now to admit that a healthy amount of the affection I feel toward FDTD is a direct byproduct of discovering it during what turned out to be a pretty foundational period of my life. Nostalgia is an amazing force in ways that are both positive and negative; it saturates our memories in the brightest of colors, amplifying the movies and songs and faces we loved, but it also relentlessly and indiscriminately clouds our ability to remember those experiences objectively.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that my relationship with FDTD is drenched in nostalgia for a time and place that meant a lot to me, but which is gone forever. And you could argue that Rodriguez remaking FDTD for TV is no worse than any of the countless film and television remakes audiences have had to endure for the better part of the last 20 years, and you’d be right. But part of me — the part that recognizes the power of nostalgia but can’t force myself to remove it from the equation — is worried that watering-down one of my favorite movies of all time will somehow diminish my memory of that summer or lessen the impact it had on my life. And that makes me really nervous.