When Zombie unleashed House of 1000 Corpses upon the world in 2002, he made a statement. The film was both loved and loathed by genre aficionados. Regardless of personal opinion, however, it was still the product of a director with a unique uncompromising vision. The movie might have been a pastiche of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), but it was a carnivalesque slice of cartoonish exploitation that could only be conjured up by the mind of a visionary filmmaker operating on his own wavelength. For a jigsaw puzzle of other movies, it still felt original — an exercise in neo-Grindhouse before the term “neo-Grindhouse’’ was even a label that was slapped onto any self-aware homage to films which tried to evoke the spirit of drive-in theatres.
House of 1000 Corpses was a fascinating experiment, its best quality being that it’s highly entertaining and downright bizarre. It’s not a film that bears any real substance outside of sheer unbridled lunacy (which in itself is an unappreciated skill); it’s a messy, grotesque marvel. House of 1000 Corpses introduced us to the Firefly family and their zany murderous past-times, which seemed to go over audience’s heads at first. Derided upon release, it has since gone on to develop a strong cult following, but it wasn’t until Zombie’s next film where he’d start to find his footing as a director — and when the menacing pantomime villains of his debut would come into their own as both sleazy reviled filth and a celebratory guilty pleasure.
The Devil’s Rejects (2004) was something else entirely, and it proved many of Zombie’s detractors wrong. It was make or break time for the rocker-turned-director to prove that he had the chops to make it as a filmmaker — and he did. Like its predecessor, The Devil’s Rejects was not a for everyone— and it further established the nature of Zombie’s flicks as polarising— but if anything, it showed that he was a filmmaker capable of progression. The reaction of the genre world suggested that Zombie had the right to make movies just as much as anybody else. In this writer’s humble opinion, The Devil’s Rejects is a bona fide masterpiece which proved that Zombie is a born filmmaker, even if the films themselves are for acquired taste buds.
If House of 1000 Corpses is Zombie’s love letter to Wes Craven and Jim Sharman, then The Devil’s Rejects is his ode to Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn and Don Siegel. The film evokes vintage outlaw westerns, gritty 70’s crime films, and the great American road movie. At its core, the story is a basic on-the-run tale, fuelled by cold, Texan revenge. In many chase stories, in film and literature, there’s a sense of freedom imbued throughout. The romanticism of the open road is a carefree notion in which the shackles of societal norms no longer apply, as inhibitions are abandoned or there’s an end in sight across the border where law can’t reach. It’s a place of danger and excitement, almost like a world unto itself. In The Devil’s Rejects, the loss of inhibition is pure primal savagery, and the end in sight is a tad more nihilistic than some of the stories Zombie was inspired by. Yet it’s still a world where laws no longer apply, and the stunning desolate landscapes is enough to make even the most ardent Zombie hater want to grab the keys and hit the highway.
The character arcs of the Firefly family villains in The Devil’s Rejects marks a significant reversal from their roles in House of 1000 Corpses. Not only are they portrayed as grittier and more three dimensional as opposed to the camp caricatures they were before, but their status is turned inside out. It’s a case of the hunters becoming the hunted, their decline apparent as they no longer occupy the position of power and control they once held in their beat down old farmhouse. The movie was both praised and criticised for its sympathetic portrayal of despicable human beings. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Firefly family’s laundry list of transgressions —which includes rape, necrophilia, cannibalism, and vile humiliation of their victims — then you could even view them as victims themselves. It’s a film which poses some thought provoking questions about the glorification of villains and the nature of violence (as evidenced with William Forsythe’s character becoming as vicious and corrupt as the criminals he’s chasing) —and even Zombie can be accused of being in love with his deviant creations. Nonetheless, The Devil’s Rejects made Otis, Baby and Spaulding a family of icons; the latter’s face still cropping up on many an internet meme in 2016. That’s how you know you’ve made it.
Zombie, to this day, still takes a lot of flak for his adoration of the psychopaths in his movies, but the horror genre has a long history of iconography attached to its antagonists. Zombie, in those first two movies, captured lightning in a bottle with his. However, for his next film, he was about to reinterpret one of the most beloved icons in all of pop culture.
Already ingrained with controversy, 2007’s remake of the seminal slasher Halloween took Zombie’s notoriety to a whole new level. To remake what is arguably the most beloved horror film of all time would have been an arduous task for any director, but a Rob Zombie interpretation was destined to incur the wrath of fandom which spanned generations before a single frame had been shot. But appointing Zombie to direct the remake was a brave and interesting choice. From his career outset, it was plain to see that he’s a filmmaker with a specific vision — and if remakes have to happen why not give the job to someone who will at least try to do something different, especially if they have a built-in fan base and prior commercial success? With Halloween, Zombie made a Rob Zombie movie — one which contained the same DNA as John Carpenter’s seminal slasher, but was nonetheless his own body of work.
By taking the now much explored “back story’’ route like many remakes have ventured for, Zombie gave the Michael Myers character some exposition in a bid to explain what made him the William Shatner mask-wearing, knife-wielding maniac he turned out to be. In the film, Myers is the product of a broken home, a convenient route to explaining psychopathy if there ever was one. But it was an interesting alternative to the ambiguous depiction of Myers in Carpenter’s film, and while Zombie’s approach was nothing more than a white trash exploitation soap opera, it presented the theme of regression as by-product of upbringing, albeit overshadowed with shlock entertainment.
Zombie’s Halloween is an enjoyable film. Some view the added layers he gave to Michael as the antithesis of the mystery which made the character so effective in the first place; but after a slew of repetitive Halloween sequels following the 1979 original, it was intriguing to see this new take on an established character. Furthermore, as a slasher movie it delivered the goods when it came to slaughter, and a good bloody kill is always welcome. What it lacked in the tension and pure filmmaking of the original it more than made up for in being passable mainstream junk food. There’s enough of Zombie’s vision there to conclude that he left his own stamp on the Halloween franchise, even if it does feel like a film slightly beleaguered by being a studio movie.
After Halloween, Zombie planned to make a 70’s set exploitation action movie called Tyrannosaurus Rex, about a wrestler taking on a gang of Satanic bikers. If it happened it’d probably have been the best thing he ever made, because who doesn’t love wrestling and Satanic bikers, right? When it was announced Zombie seemed enthused again, as unlike Halloween it was clearly a passion project for the him. Following Halloween, he also vowed never to remake an established property. However, in 2009 he signed on to direct Halloween 2, allegedly under the illusion that the studio would finance Tyrannosaurus Rex if he gave them a sequel. Well if that was the case, it didn’t turn out quite as planned, but Halloween 2 was definitely a memorable film for Zombie to bow out of remakes with.
Without a doubt, Halloween 2 is a flawed film, but its bold experimental nature deserves to be commended nonetheless. Even though the film can be viewed as one big “fuck you’’ to critics, the horror community, and even the studio, it’s not a film that’s without merit. Here, Zombie explored the aftermath of the events which took place in the previous film in a way that was believable; Laurie was undergoing post-traumatic stress disorder, while Loomis sold out and capitalized on his newfound media attention, using tragedy to propel him to celebrity status. The additional dream sequences with white horses and Sheri Moon Zombie did bloat the story somewhat — you could even call them unnecessary. But they did serve as Zombie’s bridge into the artier, surreal terrains that would inhabit The Lords of Salem. Maybe in years to come Halloween 2 will find the appreciation it deserves. It’s self-indulgent but fascinating nonetheless.
Following the disappointment of Halloween 2 both critically and commercially, Zombie worked on some other projects. In the years between Halloween 2 and 2012’s The Lords of Salem, he released one of his best albums to date with Mondo Sex Head, and continued to be attached to direct a remake of The Blob he’d be linked with since the latter half of the 2000’s. Furthermore, 2009 would also mark the releases of the long-awaited animated horror comedy musical, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, which he’d been working on sporadically since 2006. Based on the comic of the same name he co-wrote with Tom Papa, El Superbeasto saw Zombie cut loose with a puerile sex romp about a luchador who must stop the evil Dr. Satan from taking over the world. It had monsters, Nazi zombies and the voice talents of Paul Giamatti, and it’s actually really fun – even if it does have more animated tits on display than your average hentai.
The Lords of Salem, however, would be the first film he’d worked on from scratch since the release of Halloween 2. It was also his first original project since The Devil’s Rejects, and having complete creative control was the motivating factor which led to him developing it for Blumhouse. The film marked the directors return to passion projects, but it was unlike anything else in his canon until then. Instead of the Grindhouse-flavoured exploitation movies with a mean streak he’d become associated with, he decided to try something a little more… spellbinding.
Zombie has cited The Lords of Salem as a throwback to the supernatural films of Dario Argento, Ken Russell and Stanley Kubrick, along with European arthouse and occult movies of the 1970’s. Gone is the blood and guts which preoccupied his previous vehicles; instead he chooses to emphasise on mood, an unsettling nightmarish atmosphere, and bizarre imagery. It’s the type of horror film made to creep into the subconscious and alter the mind, and it works. Despite its abandonment of a cohesive narrative, it boasts a power to draw you in and leave a lasting effect long after the end credits roll.
The plight of the film’s protagonist Heidi is symbolic of drug addiction, and for the first time in his directorial career, Zombie explores a sensitive subject matter with a newfound sophistication. The Lords of Salem continued to divide audiences and critics alike, but it’s a film which felt like an evolution for Zombie at the time, both artistically and as a filmmaker.
And that brings us to 31 — a film where Zombie not only fails to evolve, but comes across as the first time in his career where he lacked the vision and passion that drove his previous features.
The premise of 31 is simple and has all the ingredients for a sleazy return to Zombie’s roots. The story takes place on Halloween night, where a band of carnival performers are hijacked by masked kidnappers and taken to a compound to play a game of ‘31’ for the amusement of rich sadists. Essentially, they must survive the night against some murderous, maniacal clowns, and even though it’s never explained why the game is game is called ‘31’, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a threadbare plot that’s perfectly serviceable for murder and mayhem to unfold in spectacular fashion — and if there is one thing Zombie has always delivered on, it’s violence. Instead we get Hispanic Nazi dwarves, Malcolm McDowell in a wig, throwaway antagonists who don’t even need to be there, and an off-putting whirlwind of shaky cam that obscures the savage slaughters anybody who watches this will be tuning in to see.
Unlike every Rob Zombie movie leading up to 31, for the first time in his directorial career it feels as if he’s copping out. 31 isn’t a godawful movie — it prods along competently enough (at times) to warrant a D minus — but he’s phoning it in, and that’s disappointing considering his entire career up until now has emblazoned with works of uncompromising vision and fanboy enthusiasm. Throughout his career, Zombie has proven himself to be a constantly evolving filmmaker who tackled his projects with the force of a typhoon; 31 is a lazy day at the office, where he incorporates his most identifiable tropes to service fans, but does so in such a lacklustre way that you can’t help but feel he lost his spark making it.
It is worth considering that Zombie has been trying to branch out of the horror genre and expand his palette as a filmmaker. Before 31 was announced, he was tried to get a hockey drama off the ground, titled The Broad Street Bullies, based on the controversial NHL team the Philadelphia Flyers. The failure of that project to materialise led to Zombie pitching an idea for a dumb horror movie instead, and 31 is that dumb horror movie. And a Rob Zombie dumb horror movie about killer clowns, an evil bourgeoisie gambling sect spearheaded by Malcolm McDowell and Hispanic Nazi midgets should have been fun — but the drive that fuelled the director in the past is lacking, and the film suffers.
The saving grace of 31 is Doom-Head, played Richard Brake, and it’s the actors performance that makes it work – not the material he’s working with. The performances on the whole are quite good, but the characterisation is nothing to write home about. The film is engaging whenever Brake is on screen, and it scores some extra points for its selection of classic rock songs. But overall, it’s a retread of the director’s generic qualities presented half-baked, uninspired and dull.
All in all, 31 marks a huge decline for Rob Zombie and that’s a shame, because he’s always been an intriguing filmmaker who’s approached every project he’s tackled with a sense of fervency and creative spark. Unfortunately, 31 is the first time in his directorial career where his output has come across as disheartened and forgettable. I hope his next project rekindles the fire. Even the best artists go through periods of pedestrian slumps; let’s just hope Zombie bounces back from his.