From Dusk Till Dawn – Still Biting 20 Years Later

Like the mythological Chimera, the many faceted thrill ride From Dusk Till Dawn is an amalgam of many parts sewn together to make a brand new creature. Part Crime caper, part Vampire flick, part Western, and part Exploitation, Quentin Tarantino’s script was the first of its kind and still stands as a favorite for both Horror and Action movie lovers alike ,even now, twenty years after its theatrical debut on January 19, 1996. Tarantino (Pulp Fiction 1994, Kill Bill Vol. 1 2003) was paid $1,500 for his services by makeup artist Robert Kurtzman (Army of Darkness 1992, John Carpenter’s Vampires 1998) in 1990, and in exchange for writing a script that would showcase the talents of Kurtzman’s group, Kurtzman, Nicotero & Berger EFX Group, Inc., the special effects company would provide the FX makeup for Tarantino’s debut film, Reservoir Dogs (1992). Once Tarantino mentioned the script to his director friend, Robert Rodriguez (Grindhouse 2007, Machete 2010), the rest fell neatly into place.

From Dusk Till Dawn still
From Dusk Till Dawn still

Rodriguez would direct while Tarantino took a turn in front of the camera, acting opposite George Clooney (ER TV series, Oceans 11 2001), Harvey Keitel (Taxi Driver 1976, Reservoir Dogs 1992), Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear 1991, Natural Born Killers 1994), Danny Trejo (Planet Terror 2007, Machete 2010) and Salma Hayek (Frida 2002, Once Upon A Time in Mexico 2003). Both special effects artists Greg Nicoterro and Tom Savini also had bit parts as bikers. This rated R film was produced  by Gianni Nunnari (Se7en 1995, Shutter Island 2010) and Meir Teper (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape 1993, Crazy in Alabama 1999) to music composed by Graeme Revell (Sin City 2005, Planet Terror 2007). The set even had their own tattoo artist!

Ever wonder why the Vampires had green blood? It was not to make them seem more reptilian – it was to get the gushing fountains of gore through the censors. Tarantino also included his own writer’s trademarks, from Richie’s obsession with bare feet, to a shot from inside the trunk as the hatch is being opened, and even take out from Big Kahuna Burger. The name of the exotic character Satanico Pandemonium was not a random choice by Tarantino. She was actually named after the title of a gory Mexican Horror movie, Satanico Pandemonium: La Sexorcista (1975), that Tarantino had seen on the shelves of the video store he once worked in, switched it out from the rather boring Blonde Death.

From Dusk Till Dawn still
From Dusk Till Dawn still

The movie title itself comes from signs posted at drive-ins that explained how long the movies would show every night, from dusk till dawn. The movie is chock full of nods and winks to the films specifically made for the teenage, drive-in set. The band playing at the desert bar, The Titty Twister, is a real life group called Tito & Tarantula that features Rodriguez and Oingo Boingo drummer Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez.

The story begins with brothers Richie (Tarantino) and Seth Gecko (Clooney) on the run to a safe house in Mexico after robbing a bank. When they stop at a liquor store to buy a map, a run-in with a Texas Ranger (Michael Parks) sends their escape plan into a tailspin, with the Ranger getting killed, the store burning down, and Richie getting shot in the hand. The brothers stop at a motel where they open the trunk to reveal a kidnapped bank teller (Brenda Hillhouse), who Richie then rapes and murders while Seth is out getting burgers. This, of course, pisses Seth off to no extent. Also arriving at the hotel is the Fuller family – lapsed Pastor Jacob (Keitel) and his two children, Kate (Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Lui). The family’s camper seems to be the perfect way for the Geckos to get across the border sight unseen, so they kidnap the Fullers, forcing them to drive the two brothers into Mexico.

Once over the border, the next stop is The Titty Twister, an isolated biker bar where Seth is supposed to meet his safe house contact. As they wait, a floor show starring the beautiful Satanico Pandemonium (Hayek) starts, enthralling Richie but pissing off the already irritated doorman. A fight ensues, and when Richie is stabbed in his wounded hand, the bloodletting causes Satanico to transform into a Vampire, where she immediately rips out Richie’s throat. This begins a carnage that lasts throughout the night and leaves only two exhausted survivors in the morning.

From Dusk Till Dawn still
From Dusk Till Dawn still

No one can ever say that Tarantino’s limit for gore is endless. After a special effect prop was made of a giant mouth that opened in one of the Vampire stripper’s belly that she was to use to bite off a biker’s head, it was so gruesome that the scriptwriter did not even want to see it, although the scene itself can be accessed on the special edition DVD highlights. Also included on the DVD is Full Tilt Boogie, a making-of documentary that is a must watch for any From Dusk Till Dawn fan. The special edition laserdisc contained extended scenes of the bloody Vampire feast in the bar, along with a scene where Sex Machine (Savini) offs two Vamps before snapping a momentous photo of them.

The love for From Dusk Till Dawn did not stop once the credits rolled in 1996. Although the film barely squeaked by in the black after earning a mere six million dollars over budget at the box office, the sensational film was soon to become a cult hit and blasted both Rodriguez and Tarantino into the mainstream. Two poorly received, direct to video prequels were also filmed: From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money and From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter, both released in 1999.

Rumors flew in late 2010 about a possible fourth film, although it has yet to be greenlighted. The film finally met its match in the El Rey channel TV series of the same name which expands upon the characters and story from the first film, a fantastic series that premiered on March 17, 2014 and stars DJ Cotrona and Zane Holtz as the infamous Gecko brothers. In 2001, French video game developer Cryo Interactive Entertainment released a first person shooter based on the film, the plot of which followed Seth Gecko after his being arrested and having to contend with Vampires attacking him and his fellow prisoners on their floating boat jail. Unfortunately, the game fell into almost immediate obscurity.

From Dusk Till Dawn still
From Dusk Till Dawn still

The film is either loved or hated pretty evenly by critics, although in his review for the Austin Chronicle, Marc Savlov’s wrote, “Fans of Merchant-Ivory will do well to steer clear of Rodriguez’s newest opus, but both Action and Horror film fans have cause for celebration after what seems like a particularly long Splatter-drought. This is Horror with a wink and a nod to drive-in theatres and sweaty back seats. This is how it’s done.”

Robert Rodriguez won a Silver Scream Award at the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival for Best Director, while both the film and George Clooney himself won Saturn Awards in 1997 for Best Horror Film and Best Actor respectively. Clooney also won a Fangoria Chainsaw Award for Best Leading Actor that same year. The film was nominated for Best Movie by the International Horror Guild and garnered Saturn Award nominations for Best Makeup, Best Writing by Tarantino, Best Supporting Actors for Tarantino and Harvey Keitel, Best Supporting Actress for Juliette Lewis, and Best Director for Rodriguez. But despite the awards and accolades, genre fans know a great, action-packed, bloody testimony to Horror and Action when they see one, and From Dusk Till Dawn sits a well-deserved head and shoulders above all the rest.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) 1
Buena Vista Pictures

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