Rob Zombie is a genre archivist. Name an obscure or forgotten horror/exploitation film from the ‘30s – ‘80s, and he’s probably seen it, memorized it, and pulled the best bits out to form his own unique aesthetic. Anyone who has listened to his music – either as part of his original band White Zombie, or his ongoing solo career – can hear the references, lyrics filled with amazing macabre imagery and outright schlock homages. But the transition from band frontman to film director remains mysterious, almost unimaginable in these days of carefully controlled Hollywood bottom lines. Yet Universal (and then MGM) both bet that this ghoul geek could deliver the kind of big screen scares that drive audiences to dread. Instead of going right for the standard fear factors however, Zombie delivered two amazing movies that challenged the post-modern mindset to confront the terrors of old and recognize their repulsive, repugnant pleasures.
Both films draw on the same set of characters and background elements. Where they differ is in their style and substance. When House of 1000 Corpses begins, a group of roadside attraction lovers stop off at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen. There they learn of the notorious Dr. Satan, a deranged surgeon who performed unspeakable experiments on the patients of a local insane asylum. Hoping to see his grave, our newly labeled victim fodder head out into the dark, rainy night. There, they run into Baby Firefly, a hitchhiker claiming special knowledge of the area. An unseen shotgun to their tires later, and the foursome are guests in the gal’s whacked out house. They reluctantly meet the rest of the clan: flitty Momma, ditzy Grandpa, titanic Tiny, rugged RJ, and the spectral and sinister Otis. Turns out, they’re a clan of serial killers, working directly with the demented doc by supplying subjects to continue his craven calling.
In The Devil’s Rejects, the Firefly family are ambushed by the police, and sent scattering into the local countryside. Baby and Otis join up with Captain Spaulding (who turns out to be yet another relative). The trio scours the countryside for a means of escape. They wind up at a fleabag motel, where they take a country singer and his entourage hostage. In the meanwhile, Mother Firefly is interrogated by the local sheriff, whose brother was murdered by the brood. Desperate to rid the area of the reprobate once and for all, the lawman calls on the help of some less than trustworthy bounty hunters. This results in a stand-off between good and evil, with the deck stacked heavily on the side of those mindless murderers who’ve got nothing left to lose – except their life.
The dichotomy is practically inherent in the plots. House of 1000 Corpses comes off like a dark ride gone deranged, a slasher slice and dice accentuated with a clever carnival barkers belief in the power of macabre iconography. Sitting through the occasionally scattered narrative, one get’s the impression that Zombie believed this would be his one and only shot at making a cinematic statement. So instead of using a subtle, more assured approach, he went wild, unclogging every craven thought from his creative kitchen sink. The results are a baneful blacklight poster come to life, an occasionally incoherent callback to every blinkered idea that ever gave the director the horror heebie jeebies. The plot points borrow heavily from several certified genre classics, yet all are filtered through his headbanger’s ballsiness. There’s a deadly amount of dark comedy, an unsuccessful finale, and enough flashes of filmmaking brilliance to indicate that Zombie’s moviemaking presence is something much more than a fluke.
The Devil’s Rejects, on the other hand, is pure exploitation bliss. Carefully recreating the atmosphere and action of a sleazoid ‘70s drive-in death wish, this grindhouse glorification puts the spring 2007 attempt by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez to shame. Zombie understands that there is more to raincoat crowd entertainment than scantily clad gals and buckets of blood. Indeed, tone and temperament are far more important than girls and gore. With its washed out cinematography and Me era optical nods (freeze frames, fade outs) the filmmaker forces us back in time, taking us on a fatalistic trip through a violence strewn landscape of dishonesty and dead bodies. By correlating the Fireflys with even more despicable desperados (especially the ‘anything for vengeance’ sheriff), Zombie actually gets us to care for this corrupt clan. Even as they gouge and vivisect their way through the Tennessee countryside – which in perfect passion pit tradition, looks a lot like California – we want to see them succeed, if only to put their far worse tormentors in their place.
As a progression, both films become a revelation, especially when accompanied by perspective adding DVD bonus features. Zombie provides a pair of interesting commentaries, the first one complaining about his mistreatment at the hands of the studios, the second complimenting the suits who supported him the second time out. He remains angry over the massive cuts Corpses had to go through to be determined releasable by both the MPAA and his original Tinsel Town sponsors. He worships the collection of genre names he got to work on both films, and marvels at how nuanced and knowing their performances are. Most importantly, he recognizes his flaws, failing to blame them on anyone other than his own inexperienced and learning self. He comes at cinema as a fan acknowledging the need for an apprenticeship, not a conceited quack whose one step away from hackdom.
This also comes across loudly in the nearly three hour documentary provided as the third “disc” in this set. Entitled 30 Days in Hell, this look at the production of The Devil’s Rejects reveals a cast and crew completely in tune with their director’s desires. One producer even goes so far as to suggest that, sans pay, the incredibly talented company would continue to help Zombie achieve his aims. It’s a stunning revelation, one that arrives from confidence and uncompromised creative license. If Corpses is corrupted by a fear of failure and a lack of faith in the man hired to make the movie, Rejects has the reverse issues. There is such a devotion to the director’s vision that one fears a kind of closed off, narrow-minded outcome. Indeed, some still found Zombie’s revolutionary retro retread to be a vile, reprehensible assault on the senses. It’s a safe bet that those critics never saw an exploitation film in their entire life.
This doesn’t help Corpses any, though. It stands as a solid attempt, an all or nothing, over the top amalgamation of every minute morsel that made up Zombie’s life as a fright film fan. The performances are excellent all around, especially Bill Moseley’s messianic Otis and Spider Baby’s sensational Sid Haig as the creepiest combination of clown and fried chicken cook you’ll ever meet. Yet the problematic production (stopped once, restarted again months later with even less enthusiasm) coupled with Zombie’s own accepted inexperience leads to a feeling of dissatisfaction. Appreciating the film becomes a challenge, a direct mandate from Zombie to be “with him, or against him”. Rejects is more realistic. It doesn’t ask for pretext, though those of us who love the old grindhouse gang find far more pleasures here. Instead, it states its purpose clearly and convincingly, never nitpicking the nastiness inherent in the narrative while avoid the cartoonish carnival ideal that marred some of Corpses’ concepts.
All of which makes the wait for his take on John Carpenter’s slice and dice classic that much more difficult. Trailers tell of a rising “traveling company” ideal, with almost everyone associated with Corpses and Rejects back to play roles here. Zombie has also dug deeper inside the genre bin, bringing out new cast members previously associated with the franchise as well as names known to those who frequented the bottom shelf of a ‘80s Mom and Pop video store. It’s rare to see a filmmaker literally grow up and mature on the big screen. They usually don’t get such a large canvas to practice on. Ron Zombie will either become a macabre maestro or a one and a half hit wonder. But thanks to the insights provided by the 3 Disc Collector’s Edition, we can certainly see that there is more to this man than a personal warehouse filled with multimedia editions of Famous Monsters of Filmland. He is a fine filmmaker, and House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects proves this.