“Just Reach Up”: The Power Of Dr. Dakota Block in ‘Planet Terror’ [The Lone Queer]

Planet Terror

With it being Women in Horror Month, my brain went through many queer women in horror. It landed on one within a film—or rather, two films—that features a character I’ve always loved. And yep, she appears in two films within the same universe. Infected people, an abusive husband, and a psychotic stunt driver didn’t keep her from being a kick-ass queer. That character is Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) from 2007’s Grindhouse double feature, Planet Terror and Death Proof

Dakota’s story takes place wholly within Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. Her appearance in Death Proof is slight, and doesn’t add anything to the story. The focus will be on her own gory, outlandish, and sometimes heartbreaking story that unfolds in Planet Terror. That story, I’ve found, is one of strength and mirrors Dakota’s own journey of coming to terms with her sexuality. 

She begins her story as an anesthesiologist at a hospital where she works alongside her husband, Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin). That husband is a conniving, manipulative piece of shit. Ya see, Dakota once had a fling with another woman, Tammy (Stacey Ferguson aka F to the E to the R-G-I-E). It’s not quite said if it was before or during her marriage with William, but we’re led to believe that it was during. 

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William’s major icks lead Dakota to get back in touch with Tammy. But not for another tryst. Instead, Dakota wants help to take her son Tony (Rebel Rodriguez) away from their terrible life. But, the night that Tammy is to pick them up is also the night that a toxic gas is released. That gas turns the town’s residents into infected, bubbly agents of chaos and violence. This, of course, stalls Dakota’s plans with Tammy as Tammy is attacked and killed while she’s on her way to them. And granted, since Tammy is a physical presence in the film, it doesn’t necessarily make Dakota THE lone queer of Planet Terror. But, Tammy’s physical presence makes up about four or so minutes of the film, so we’ll make an exception.

Writer and director Robert Rodriguez doesn’t strike me as one to write a full-fledged queer character. Dakota’s plight is based on being stuck in a patriarchal marriage while she works in a male-dominated workspace. Plus, Planet Terror is chock-full of testosterone-filled sequences of action where the women are incredibly sexualized. There’s also a scene where she, along with Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), is put in very real danger of being sexually assaulted. So all of the usual male-written and directed situations are there, plus there is a massive reliance on queer stereotypes. But, there are still queer stories being told, so that’s better than nothing, right?

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The first is the aforementioned Dakota’s secret relationship with Tammy. Not very much information is given concerning their relationship, how they met, or how involved they are. We just know that Tammy cares enough about Dakota to drive many miles to rescue Dakota and Tony from Dakota’s current situation. Plus, William somehow knows what’s going on. His retaliation? Showing Dakota Tammy’s mutilated body in the hospital. Then, he injects Dakota’s body-numbing medicines into her hands and locks her in a closet. Literally, the husband locks his queer wife in a closet. See the connection, there?! That doesn’t stop Dakota, though. She escapes, makes it home to her son, and attempts to go through with her own plan to escape William. 

It’s during this plan that Tony, her son, accidentally shoots himself with a gun. Completely tragic. So we now have a Dakota who doesn’t have the use of her hands, has lost her lover and the chance of getting away from an abusive relationship, witnessed her son accidentally kill himself, and must traverse through infected humans as well as her now infected husband to somehow survive.

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She runs to her father Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) with her dead son in her arms. He greets her with, “God damn it, I thought I told you I didn’t want to see you, again.” There’s no legitimate reason as to why he says that—it’s never mentioned within the story. As a queer watching, we assume that maybe it’s because he knows of her sexuality. How the hell are you going to look your daughter straight in the eyes while she’s holding her dead son, and say that? Because that’s what close-minded parents are prone to do. Another tragic queer story often seen throughout cinema, genre or otherwise.

I’d love to pick Rodriguez’s brain as to exactly what was meant when McGraw said that to Dakota. But, again, as a queer who went through a period of that kind of shit with their parents, that’s where my brain went. It occurs during a very heightened scene with Dakota being pursued by the infected and her husband so there’s not much time to really dig deep into it. But I dug deep enough to get that out of it. 

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After this occurrence, every character in the film gathers, and without another moment between Dakota and her father, they bid farewell as he stays behind. They do have a moment during their goodbye, but there’s no in-between. Honestly, perhaps it would take a zombie apocalypse for some queer people to come together with their close-minded parents. It would have been nice to see Dakota and her father come to terms with her life. But in 2007 within a film satirizing and paying homage to a period where queer people weren’t included, it’s no surprise. 

I do give 50/50 props to Rodriguez’s story when it comes to Dakota and her father. Within the film’s final act, Dakota faces William. She cowers as an infected William advances towards her with a syringe filled with what seems to be the infected juices. She’s saved by her father who shoots William multiple times, and lets Dakota know that he never did like “...that son of a bitch. He’s as useless as a pecker on a pole.” Would it have been better for Dakota to take William out on her own? Yes. Was it nice to see her father take him considering how he disowned her? Yes.

Dakota’s sexuality isn’t further explored during the film’s moments afterward. The only moment we do get is a slight quip when Dakota gets on a motorcycle behind Cherry (Rose McGowan). Cherry introduces herself as Cherry, and Dakota wraps her arms around her, and says “You sure are.” It’s a great moment, and further solidifies Dakota’s queerness.

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But is Dakota lesbian? Is she bisexual? Who cares. She’s a queer character within a film that is male-skewed, and she’s treated with more respect than expected. While the queer part of her isn’t as fully explored as it could have been, Dakota is given some of the most badass moments within the film. While almost every other character is making it through the infected in a big group, she goes through a whole lot of ick, tragedy, and gore by herself. 

During a moment with Cherry Darling before the aforementioned sexual assault scene, Dakota does give a line read that resonates with both what she’s gone through as well as the queer experience: “A girlfriend of mine had a theory. She said, at some point in your life, you find a use for every useless talent you ever had. It’s like connecting the dots … She’d say, when you’re stuck in that spiral, reach up” Cherry responds with, “What if there’s nothing out there?” Dakota’s solution. “Just reach up.” 

At the end of Planet Terror, the survivors have created a new world. In the final shot of Dakota, she’s standing to the side strong, powerful, and full of spirit. So in a world of shit, chaos, patriarchy, and bigotry, follow the advice of Dakota Block. Just reach up. 



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