The Devil’s Rejects is scary metal rocker-turned filmmaker Rob Zombie’s manifesto for a return to American horror’s glory days, when the point of the genre was not exactly to scare, but to horrify. While the concept of resurrecting previous success is not a novel idea from a business standpoint, to refrain from sanitizing or “updating” the material is. The best of the grindhouse-style horror flicks of the ’70s can even today make your eyes bleed. Rather than remake one of these classics of trash cinema with prettier actors and higher production values, Zombie has chosen to emulate them, scar tissue intact.
A lot of people share his perspective on the genre, so it’s not surprising that a lot of people like The Devil’s Rejects. Or at least more than liked zombie’s previous effort, House of 1000 Corpses (2003). Having had the misfortune of sitting through that wildly uneven mess, I can say that the second film is quite an improvement, though no kind of masterpiece.
It is, first off, a smart decision to take the sadistic Firefly family out of the claustrophobic carnival setting of the first film and on to the road, if only because it gives the other characters more screen time. Like Corpses, Rejects is hindered by an unfortunate fascination with juvenile dirty jokes, inept one-liners, and a crew of lightweights playing the heavies. Hateful from any ethical perspective, the killers lack the sort of conviction that would make them compelling. With the occasional exception of Sid Haig as Captain Spaulding, they generate suspense not for what horrible things they might do, but what idiotic things they might say. Baby Firefly (a very shrill Sheri Moon Zombie) doing a little sashay dance and repeating, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!”, while making the expected hand gestures, is especially cringe-worthy.
Any crooks-on-the-lam tale needs a good lawman, and William Forsythe as the crazy Bible-thumping sheriff saves the movie, acting-wise. After driving the Fireflys from their home, Sheriff Wydell learns from the captured Mama Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) that his brother was one of their victims. His motive then becomes “vigilante justice.” Which, as the genre dictates, gives him some of the best lines, and he savors them with whiskey-soured fervor. “We’ve always been devil slayers,” indeed.
But acting is not really the point of a film like this, and it benefits more from Zombie’s increased skills as a director. Rejects is a more assured piece of work than Corpses, which was virtually made from patchwork references of other, better films. Here, the shout-outs are less particular; an era is recalled rather than individual movies (though Last House on the Left and Bonnie and Clyde strongly influence the plot). This film is also more coherent, with everything from the sun-baked Super 16 cinematography to the dirt that clings to every frame unifying Zombie’s world. Yes, the ’70s are in right now, but Rejects is single-minded in its grunginess, giving it a punch that reflexively slick remakes lack.
One thing’s for sure: this movie is ugly. Not just in terms of look, not even in terms of gore or unrepentant sadism, but in the sexual and humiliating nature of the violence, in its shameless exploitation (the middle act depicting the torture of a family of country musicians being my case in point). Potentially offensive stereotypes abound: Mexican bounty hunters, a black pimp, a Jewish film critic (don’t ask), and of course, those crazy gun-totin’ hillbillies, the Fireflys.
The movie evokes no clear reaction to its violence — no fear, no pity, no outrage — because we don’t identify with anyone on screen. The best of the films Zombie borrows from had a sick, visceral quality to them, at once attractive and repulsive. Rejects approaches this level of supreme nastiness a few times (from the moment the hotel maid enters the abandoned room to the soon-to-be-famous roadkill sequence, I dare you to look away), but doesn’t hold it. It comes at the material from the point of view of nostalgia, unable to take itself at face value. It is perhaps the first splatter flick with a tone that flirts with elegy.
Many have rightly called the film nihilistic. It hearkens back to a kind of free-fall nihilism, before the coked-up object fetishizing of the ’80s, or the twinge of conscience that came up and fizzled out during the ’90s. Considered alongside today’s dominant ideology, naked self-interest as the highest good, Zombie’s adolescent longing for good old days like these is almost subversive. With the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Terry Reid, the Allman Brothers Band, and Three Dog Night providing accompaniment to the carnage, the film offers no disclaimer for its content, refusing to cater to some imaginary moral majority. Call Rob Zombie what you want, but the man is honest.
Does it make sense to feel nostalgia for a decade characterized by a loss of innocence? Maybe. During the predictable (and overlong) finale, “Freebird” plays over shots of guns being loaded by our bruised, bloody protagonists, all their antisocial revelry having led up to this last damning moment. These are intercut with photos of the Firefly clan having some good clean fun, back when they could get away with murder. In juxtaposition with their present, this past seems false, mocking, at the very least foolish and naïve. Yes, these innocent times have passed and perhaps never existed, but Rejects puts up no pretense that anyone has moved on to something better.