The ‘90s were dominated by two directors with unique visions and directing styles...
...They were modern day cowboys of film—instead of pistols and dusters, they wielded cameras and pens. So, it would make sense that these two renegades in filmmaking would not only team up but become friends and mainstays in the world of cinema. I’m talking of course about Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino.
In 1996, Rodriguez was coming off the success of his Mexico Trilogy with El Mariachi and Desperado, while Tarantino was coming off the success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The pair had been part of an anthology film in 1995 entitled Four Rooms, and they would later collaborate in 2007 with Grindhouse (Rodriguez directing Planet Terror and Tarantino directing Death Proof) but it was their 1996 venture, From Dusk Till Dawn, that really showcased what the pair were capable of.
From the beginning, you get the sense from George Clooney’s performance as Seth that he is the cooler older brother that keeps a level head even when the plan goes to shit. Meanwhile, Tarantino’s performance as Richie clues you in on the fact that something isn’t quite right about the youngest Gecko sibling, a suspicion confirmed 20+ minutes into the film.
As the film progresses and the Gecko brothers run out of options in their pursuit of making it to the border to Mexico, Seth and Richie encounter the Fuller family led by the patriarch Jacob (frequent Tarantino collaborator Harvey Keitel), a pastor questioning his faith in God while on a journey cross-country with his kids (Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu).
It is here that the film takes on an almost road trip vibe, giving us the chance to see the brothers interact with the family at their mercy. A particular scene in this sequence, between Clooney and Keitel, is a sure highlight. How often do you get to see two powerhouse actors like them play off each other?
From Dusk Till Dawn juggles many different types of genres at the beginning, but it shines most as a staple in cult film when the group arrives at the Geckos’ destination in Mexico: The Titty Twister, a strip club where Seth and Richie are supposed to meet Carlos (frequent Rodriguez collaborator Cheech Marin, who plays three roles in the film).
The rest of the plot and most of the action happens at the Twister—in more ways than one. The outside of the Titty Twister feels like some sort of neon-soaked Mad Max universe establishment, while the inside looks more like someone decided to set up shop on top of an Aztec temple which, toward the end of the film, makes a whole lot of sense.
It is here that we are introduced to probably one of the most badass characters in the history of film: Tom Savini as Sex Machine, a biker with a memorable weapon akin to Rose McGowan’s Cherry Darling in Planet Terror. Savini steals every scene he is in, and he’s clearly having as great a time playing this character as we have watching him.
But perhaps what most will remember From Dusk Till Dawn for is Salma Hayek as Santanico Pandemonium and her infamous snake dance. That scene, in fact, may have even had a hand in Hayek becoming a more mainstream actress outside of Rodriguez’s Mexico Trilogy. Hayek has explained in several interviews how she had to go into a trance-like state in order to perform the dance, as she suffered from ophidiophobia (a fear of snakes). She does not let her fear show onscreen, however. Instead, she presents a femme fatale that would sooner seduce you…and then eat you for dinner.
Following Santanico’s dance, all hell breaks loose, and we finally get into the good stuff we’ve all been waiting for: the vampires attack and go full force. The special effects are strongest in the creation of the Titty Twister’s monstrous residents, and you can tell the KNB special effects team had a ton of fun creating such varied vamps. Each vampire has a unique set of styles and designs; Santanico’s vampiric form is more reptilian and snakelike, something alluded to in her dance (which is a very nice touch once you realize the connection). The vampires with the ridges and more monstrous appearances, meanwhile, like Danny Trejo’s Razor Charlie, remind you a bit of vampires seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost Boys.
From Dusk Till Dawn has all the trademarks of both famous directors. Rodriguez announces himself with scenes that feel straight out of the modern Western aesthetic and action-packed sequences he’s best known for, like the opening robbery sequence where Seth and Richie stroll away from a local gas station as it burns and the balls-out insane, close-up and smash-cut laden free-for-all that happens at the Titty Twister, with special emphasis given to Sex Machine and his unique weapon.
Perhaps Rodriguez’s strongest style element in his films is his celebration of Latin culture and heritage. One way he weaves this celebration in is through implementing architectural design with deep roots in Latin culture into his set design. From Dusk Till Dawn in particular is littered with tributes to Mesoamerican myth and giving Tito & Tarantula (who had worked with Rodriguez in the earlier Desperado) a cameo as the Twister’s band provides further opportunity to highlight his love for the culture.
Where Rodriguez’s presence is most apparent in set design and editing/directing style, Tarantino is most felt in the script itself. His ability to craft badass dialogue intent on making the characters look and sound cool is obvious right from that opening scene with Seth’s iconic “Everybody be cool” line. Seth and Richie’s debate later in the film feels reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs but, instead of tipping your waitress (which you should btw), the conversation is about Seth referring to Richie as “a nut”. The scene plays out in true Tarantino fashion, ending with Seth chuckling as he renders Richie speechless. If either part of the moment—Clooney’s delivery or Tarantino’s lines—had been different I don’t think the film would have worked quite the same. And fear not, Tarantino fans, even though he didn’t direct Dusk, there is still his bizarre trademark foot shot.
It's no surprise that the film earned over $59.3 million at the box office when it premiered in 1996, more than making back its $19 million budget.
Spawning two sequels and a 2001 video game—with varying degrees of success—the film remained largely dormant until 2014. With the launch of his El Rey Network, Robert Rodriguez would expand upon the world of From Dusk Till Dawn with a television series of the same name, with D.J. Cotrona in Clooney’s previous role of Seth and Zane Holtz taking on the role of Tarantino’s Richie.
The series ran for three seasons and, with no official word as to a fourth, the actors were released from their contracts and El Rey shut its doors in 2020. It is a worthy successor to the film that Tarantino and Rodriguez created and makes strides to both deepen the relationship between the brothers and expand on the Mesoamerican myths surrounding the vampires. It was a fantastic series that anyone who loves the film should check out; the love put into it is evident and it deserves all the praise it's gotten.
From Dusk Till Dawn is a one-of-a-kind hybrid of horror and Western with quotable lines left and right. The action is chaotic and bloody, and you will find yourself having one hell of a good time by the time the credits roll. There’s a reason this film is on so many best-of and favorites lists and has stood the test of time for 25 years.
By Kalani Landgraf