Like a lightning bolt striking an aging edifice, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs hit Hollywood…hard! It signaled the arrival of a new voice in cinema, one that would cement its import in 1994 with the arrival of the international smash Pulp Fiction. Since then, Tarantino has become a solid cinephile talking point, a love-him-or-hate-him example of originality or outright stealing, depending on your particular penchant. Most of this comes with success. You can’t have a resume that includes two Oscars, legions of rabid fans, and films like Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained and not experience a bit of the old jealous blowback.
But the real problem most people have with Tarantino is his reference heavy style. Put another way, many accuse the filmmaker of relying less on his own individual ideas and approaches and, instead, borrowing heavily and liberally from movies past. For example, the more vocal of his critics love to point out that Dogs is nothing more than a ‘loose’ remake of Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong classic City on Fire. Similarly, they point out that Jackie Brown is nothing more than every blaxsploitation trope filtered through a post-modern sensibility and that Bill is the greatest Shaw Brothers film Sir Run Run and Runme never made. Citing his early years as a video store clerk, they argue that Tarantino offers nothing truly original. Instead, he is just walks down the aisle of his own inner VHS rental inventory, stealing here and pilfering there.
Now, there is no denying that part of the joy to be found in Tarantino’s catalog is discovering the links to past films. There is a certain excitement in recognizing a take from Mandingo, or Goodbye, Uncle Tom, in Django or giggling along with the director as famed martial arts icon Gordon Liu shows up to school Uma Thurman’s Bride as part of the evil Crazy 88s gang. Yet it’s the detractors that get most of the soap box space, and in turn, drive the discussion onward. Even when his failed attempt at reliving the glory days of the grindhouse turned into the modicum success of Death Proof, those cheering along the sidelines (yours truly included) were often drown out by the screeds of those who think Tarantino is nothing but a fraud.
Oddly enough, no one says this about rock god turned horror filmmaker Rob Zombie. Sure, his movies haven’t had the impact of Tarantinos, and no one is lining up to feature his latest offering in or out of competition at Cannes, but the truth is that no other writer/director today is doing the homage as hard as the defiant, determined musician. Over the course of six films—House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, the Halloween remake, it’s enigmatic sequel, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, and now Lords of Salem—he has more or less taken the entire history of post-World War II horror and synthesized it into a mindbending mash-up. Sometimes, it works (Rejects brilliant distillation of the exploitation genre). In other instances (Halloween II‘s geek show ABC Movie of the Week) it struggles.
Salem is no exception. Sans the over the top gore that more or less defined the years, Zombie decided to take everything ‘70s and ‘80s Italian terror had to offer and turn it into the story of a young woman possessed by the spirits of some dead witches (how Hammer/Dario Argento of him). Throughout the visually intoxicating film, he riffs on such known quantities as Suspiria, its even more surreal sequel Inferno, the works of Mario and Lamberto Bava, as well as the bloodless basics of Lucio Fulci. He even tosses in a bit of Ken Russell (the last act church/sex stuff) to make things even more maddening. The entire effect is like sitting through an entire Mediterranean macabre marathon… and no one is knocking down Zombie’s door to give him a trophy.
That’s because he’s working in a genre—horror—that few respect and that, unlike Tarantino, he’s not sheepish about his copycatting. Instead, Zombie wears it proudly on his tattooed sleeves, hoping his viewer picks up on the people he casts (his companies are usually brimming with a virtual cornucopia of recognizable fright film legends) and the scares he sponges. Even when working a bit outside the monster movie mode, he’s channeling drive-in classics, Ralph Bakshi (El Superbeasto being the greatest sleazeball cartoon epic the noted Fritz the Cat director never made) and the dark rides of carnivals past. He’s an encyclopedia of what made kids in the matinee era hide under the seat and shiver in fear. Again, because he’s working in a disrespected filmic field, he gets none of the respect he deserves.
If there was any justice in this jaded business they call show, Zombie would be right up there with Tarantino, accepting awards and rewriting the cinematic rulebook. In fact, it would be interesting to see what QT would or could do working within the horror genre (though the car crash in Death Proof is pretty “horrific”). The same applies to Zombie. While Tarantino is tackling the slasher set-up or creating his own homage heavy ghost story, it would be intriguing to see the rocker reject all things fright and make a full blown comedy (El Superbeasto is a Ren and Stimpy style start, sort of) or, perhaps, an action film. He shares Tarantino’s uncanny way with a song (“Freebird” at the end of Rejects, the brilliant use of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” as part of Salem‘s finale) and can put different filming styles (handheld, static crane) to great use.
Of course, this will probably never happen. Unlike the $100 million plus hauls Tarantino’s movies typically make, Zombie can barely get distributed. Sure, his Halloween films found a large audience, but as remakes, they got the benefit of the done-before doubt. House had a hard time making it past the studio, while Salem opened in a measly 330 theaters. For some, his career behind the lens remains nothing more than a fluke, the passing fancy of a man better served singing in front of 50,000 metalheads vs. trying to get a few dozen devotees to share his love of dread. Still, Rob Zombie is the Quentin Tarantino of horror because, like the arguable auteur, he draws from the same cinematic well. It’s just a shame more people don’t see it… or see his films, for that matter.