The Second in a 5 Part Look at the Career of Modern Cult Horror Icon Rob Zombie.
When looking at the now-nearly 20-year film career Rob Zombie, I suppose there’s perhaps no better place to begin than at the beginning, at the height of his solo music career. In the late 90s, Zombie was approached by Universal studios to create an attraction for their annual Halloween Horror Nights event. Zombie’s horror-inspired musical and visual style was well-known by this point, and it seemed like a no-brainer. He had been intending for some time to make the leap into film, having been attached to several failed projects already (including an animated adaption of Frankenstein), but hadn’t quite yet settled on an idea that he truly wanted to pursue. But in the midst of designing his haunted house, he was suddenly struck with inspiration. A few pitch meetings with Universal executives later, and Zombie found himself with the funds to shoot his first film.
That film, which would later be dubbed House of 1000 Corpses, was not only responsible for launching Zombie’s film career, but for making him a cult horror icon as well. The film even spawned its own little franchise, being followed by two sequels: The Devil’s Rejects and 3 From Hell. While not exactly amazing movies, they’re still inherently fascinating, as they offer some rare insight to just what exactly Zombie thinks of as “good horror.” I thought it would be interesting to look at the merits and faults of each film in the series, and see if there’s anything to glean there about his skill as a filmmaker.
(I’ll preface this by saying that none of these three films are exactly plot heavy. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, mind you, as there’s certainly a precedent for mainstream horror films to be somewhat light on narrative complexity. But it is something to consider, especially with some of the themes that Zombie attempts to broach in the trilogy. )
House of 1000 Corpses, like the two films that follow it, has a relatively simple premise. It follows two young couples as they accidentally stumble on to a family of insane, murderous (and possibly inbred) hillbilly serial killers during a cross-country tour of quirky roadside attractions. While at first the family of assorted misfits, surname Firefly, seem eccentric but generally harmless, the poor tourists eventually find themselves in the middle of a gory nightmare, being subjected to all manner of gruesome torture and dismemberment. After enduring a night in hell, most of the group is dead, or worse. The film ends on a generic showdown between the surviving girlfriend and a legendary serial killer appropriately named Dr Satan, where she is ultimately, in typical shock horror fashion, captured and killed.
Make no mistake: This is an extremely raw, gritty film, with Zombie citing classic 70s grindhouse horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes as inspiration, although “inspiration” may be too generous a term. Much of the film’s set and character designs are ripped directly from the two films, with the Firefly family being almost a 1-to-1 recreation of the cannibal Sawyers from Chainsaw. It’s actually a pretty sad missed opportunity, because with some slight editing, House of 1000 Corpses could’ve been a solid prequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, rather than just being a pale imitation.
One of the more fascinating aspects of this trilogy as a whole is that, because of where the individual films are situated in the timeline of his filmography, they actually serve as a pretty good visual representation for how Zombie grew as a filmmaker over time, at least from a technical perspective. With House of 100 Corpses, Zombie was completely new to filmmaking outside of music videos, and it shows. The cinematography screams early-2000s metal video, with frenetic, chaotic camera movement and random flashes of nonsensical imagery and psychedelic colors or negative exposure. It’s extremely evident that this film originated as a theme park attraction, to say the least. The placement of the camera itself also suggests the styling of a music video rather than a feature film, with lots of camera placement on cranes accompanying overly-long establishing shots. The editing is choppy, making the film appear to be almost a series of distinct vignettes rather than a cohesive product. It’s shot mostly at night, making the color pallet feel very flat and dull, and possibly serves to hide an inexperienced eye for lighting. There’s also a lot of simulated film grain and celluloid burns, recalling the look of cheap grindhouse cinema. I suspect quite a bit of this was intentional, Zombie’s effort to make the film look as though it would be at home in the 70s playing back to back as a double-feature with a Tobe Hooper slasher flick, but in the process it makes the entire piece feel exactly as cheap as it is, with its modest budget. Still, for his first film, House of 1000 Corpses made enough money and gained a large enough cult following for Zombie to produce a sequel.
The Devil’s Rejects begins several months after the original, when a local sheriff leads a daring raid on the Firefly family compound. Several of the family escape, going on the run and causing mayhem all over until they’re eventually caught by the sheriff and his posse. As expected, this leads to a fiery showdown back at the Firefly ranch, where the sheriff is killed in a typically gruesome fashion. The family then hits the highway, until they come across a police roadblock and are seemingly killed in a massive shoot-out. As simplistic as the plot sounds (and is), and despite only being Zombie’s second film, The Devil’s Rejects is a marked improvement over its predecessor in nearly every way, both in terms of narrative and style.
Gone is the choppy, seizure-inducing cinematography from the first film. Instead, brought on by either the increased budget or simply more experience, The Devil’s Rejects feature much more slick, professional camera work and editing, looking almost artistic at times. There’s a greater focus on close-ups of the actors this time instead of framing them in mostly wide shots like the previous film, making the performances (and the violence) much more intimate. Most of the film is set during the day, making for much better lighting and much clearer motion. While the direction is much smoother and more coherent, the action is at the same time far more dynamic, free from the cramped confines of the Firefly home from the first film. And although there’s still elements of the 70s grindhouse style that Zombie loves so much, with freeze-frame scene transitions and a grimy, greenish filter over everything, Rejects has a far more unique, clearly defined identity than its predecessor. It feels like something new, while still retaining elements of the familiar.
The film’s writing is also noticeably better, with dialogue being a bit less erratic and random simply for the sake of randomness. This in turn helps to more clearly define the characters as discrete entities with unique personalities, rather than the conglomerate of uniform crazy they appeared to be in the previous film. It’s almost like a dark family road trip story, which does occasionally give it an almost homely charm in the rare moments where no one is getting their face cut off or limbs removed. The most welcome change, however, is in the music. Despite being a musician himself, Zombie seemed to largely neglect both the score and the soundtrack in House of 1000 Corpses. This has been remedied substantially in Rejects, with both a vastly more cinematic score, and a more fun, often darkly tongue-in-cheek soundtrack full of 70s rock hits. The movie opens, for instance, to the Allman Brother’s “Midnight Rider” as the characters escape from a police raid, and ends with them “dying” in a hail of bullets as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” guitar solo hits full swing. It’s almost reminiscent of something like Guardians of the Galaxy, which is oddly appropriate considering the friendship between Zombie and director James Gunn.
Given their apparent deaths at the end of The Devil’s Rejects, it seemed logical that the story of the Firefly clan had come to a satisfactory end. Having them die almost redeems House of 1000 Corpses in a way, as it at least gives the film a sense of consequence. And, given that Zombie moved on to other projects for the next decade or so, it began to look like he felt the same. But, if there’s one thing Zombie never learned, it’s that less is more. So, naturally, he made a third film. Releasing late last year to a few select theaters before going directly to on-demand streaming, 3 From Hell was marketed as the final film in the Firefly saga. Now whether this is because Zombie is actually finished telling the story, or because of Sid Haig’s untimely passing is unclear, but at any rate, there hasn’t been any talk of a follow-up. Which is frankly odd, because 3 From Hell is much more open-ended than The Devil’s Rejects. The film follows the surviving members of the family, Otis and Baby, escaping from prison after Spaulding’s execution by the state. They then proceed to go on another wacky, sociopathic road trip accompanied this time by their half-brother, Foxy Coltraine (because Zombie has now decided to name all of his character like they’re from a Blaxploitation movie). The plot is largely the same as the previous film, only substituting the sheriff’s posse with a gang of cartel thugs. It all leads to a spaghetti-western-style showdown in a Mexican village, ending with the family riding off into the sunset, presumably to cause more mayhem.
With the noticeable jump in quality between House and Rejects, it’s somewhat disappointing that Zombie’s trajectory of talent seems to have stalled somewhat between Rejects and 3. There’s a new, refined sheen to the look of the film, but I feel like that has less to do with any new mastery on Zombie’s part, and more to do with simply advances in technology and cost effectiveness. The same grimy, green-tone filter still covers every frame, and it still uses the same 70s-style freeze-frame slide transitions in between scenes. The editing is slightly less energetic, however. At the beginning of the film, it tricks you into thinking it might be taking a mockumentary approach, which would have been an interesting direction to take the franchise. Unfortunately, it’s a fake-out, essentially just an exposition-dump, and it soon settles into the familiar, played out rhythms of the last film.
Despite being a continuation of House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects was its own entity. Its story organically expanded on the lore of the first, while at the same time taking it in a new direction, both narratively and tonally. It avoided the biggest pitfall that a sequel can make, which is to simply rehash what worked with the original. Unfortunately, Zombie seems to have lost sight of this in the decade or so after Rejects, because 3 From Hell is largely the exact same film. It has the same story beats, same general plot progression, and ultimately leaves the characters without really having changed in any significant way, save one or two very out of place character moments with Sheri Moon Zombie’s Baby. In this regard, I’d hesitate to even really call it a sequel. Rather, it’s essentially just a remake of the previous film with a new coat of paint. And frankly, it’s a lesser copy as well, with the previous film’s frantic and kinetic pacing being replaced here with a sort of aimless, meandering gait. Needless to say, I doubt Zombie spent the entire decade leading to this final film mulling over the finer points of the story.
With so little emphasis on plot, the real draw of these films, if they can be said to have one, ends up being the characters themselves. Again, this is fairly standard approach with horror franchises, particularly slashers. No one watches a Friday the 13th film for the story; They watch it for Jason Voorhees. And you can tell almost immediately that that’s exactly what Zombie was attempting to do here: create his own iconic horror villains. The Firefly clan is so exaggerated, so in-your-face and larger-than-life that you can’t help but pay attention. There’s Captain Spaulding, played by veteran B-movie player Sid Haig, who serves as the patriarch of the family. He parades himself around in clown makeup and plays the friendly (if not slightly manic) carnival-barker to a roadside gas station/freakshow/haunted-house/fried chicken stand combo, while secretly sending tourists off to their doom to be slaughtered by the rest of the family. He’s deranged yet darkly funny, and is probably the most charming and level-headed member of the clan (and I use both “charming” and “level-headed” very lightly). Next we have Otis Driftwood, played by former Texas Chainsaw alum Bill Moseley. Otis is the group’s Charles Manson figure, in both his crazed, disheveled appearance and his constant stream of nonsensical , pseudo-philosophical/political tirades. He’s arguably the most sadistic member of the family, engaging in horrific experiments and acts of bodily mutilation on dozens of innocent victims, most of them teenage girls. He serves as the family’s sourpuss, always complaining and verbally sparring with his fellow psychopaths. The rest of the family, save one more important member, are an assortment of deformed and mentally disturbed individuals who rarely get enough screentime or dialogue to really make them any more than props.
The acting is just about the only things that remains of a consistent quality throughout the trilogy. Mostly by virtue of Zombie choosing veteran cult actors for all three films, the performances are always a slight caliber above Zombie’s directing, with Sid Haig and Bill Moseley both pulling their fair share of weight. There are a few weak links, but they’re mostly limited to the first film, with Zombie casting comedian Chris Hardwick and a pre-office Rain Wilson in their first real theatrical roles. On a related note, House of 1000 Corpses also begins a running trend with all of Zombie’s films, where he insists on casting his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, in lead roles. Here, she plays the third member of the main trio, Baby Firefly, a character who is remains as shrill and annoying in the two sequels as she is in the first film. She’s essentially the group’s sexpot, using her looks to lure in unsuspecting men to their grisly doom. Think Harley Quinn with a southern accent and a hunting knife. It’s painfully obvious that Sheri Moon had no prior acting experience in film before Corpses, as every single scene she’s in is borderline cringeworthy. Her abilities only marginally improve in the nearly 20 years between the first and last films, but slight tweaks to the character serve to make her slightly less grating. Her acting is reoccurring problem with all of Zombie’s films, but we’ll get to that in the next few weeks.
The core issue at the center of all three of these films have is that Zombie, in his attempt to mimic films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, seems to have misunderstood why those films work as well as they do, and by extension, why good horror works in general. In order for a horror plot to be compelling, there needs to be someone for you to root for. That doesn’t really work when your main characters are the villains. And I’m not saying you can’t have the villains be the stars of the show. It’s been done before and worked perfectly well (mostly in satirical or meta works like Behind the Mask, or psychoanalytical stuff like American Psycho), but you have to have either A) some sort of character arc in mind for them or B) someone else to root for against them. And none of these films really have that. Horror relies on suspense, and suspense only really works when there’s a fear of consequence. Most of the time, this is accomplished by making an audience fear for the physical well-being of a character. Unfortunately, there aren’t really any sympathetic characters in these films, at least any who stick around long enough to matter.
House of 1000 Corpses, which pulls the most from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, ultimately suffers as a narrative because the “victims,” who at this point in the franchise are our protagonists, are completely unlikable. The two male leads are insufferably immature and obnoxious, and their respective girlfriends are written as being nagging, whiny negative stereotypes. As a result, when the violence begins, the audience doesn’t feel overly concerned for their safety. This is in stark contrast with the films Zombie is taking inspiration from, where there is always at least someone in the main cast who’s sympathetic enough that you hope they make it to the end in one piece. Likewise, in The Devil’s Rejects, the only opposing force we’re given to the villains is an equally rabid and unhinged sheriff, leaving us once again with no one in particular to pull for. And finally, in 3 From Hell, we’re given a dogmatic prison warden, some abusive guards, and a Mexican cartel as opposition to the film’s “heroes.” Again, not super compelling. Both later films do briefly feature small groups of innocent victims that the audience can briefly begin to empathize with, but they’re swiftly killed off, leaving little time to grow attached.
In theory, I understand what Zombie was going for, as there’s quite a bit of historical precedent for audiences rooting for slasher villains. The biggest draw in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, for example, was Freddy Krueger himself, due to how charismatic and comical the character ultimately became thanks to the iconic performances of Robert Englund. Watching him mow through teenage clichés stopped being scary very early in the franchise, and filmmakers instead decided to try and make his subsequent murder sprees as campy and fun as possible. The same thing ultimately happens to nearly every horror movie villain if a franchise goes on long enough for audiences to still find he characters fun to watch. After all, Jason went to space. However, therein lies the key issue with the Firefly clan: They just aren’t that fun. They’re certainly full of personality, and credit where credit is due, actually manage to be pretty entertaining every now and again. But there’s nothing about their characters or their actions that bring forth enough levity to disassociate from the terrible acts they commit onscreen. They crack jokes, sure, and engage in a fair amount of goofy antics, but it’s nowhere near enough to make up for the violence and gory destruction the rain down on innocent people wherever they go. They’ll occasionally make you laugh, but you don’t feel good about it. At their cores, they’re vile people, who do horrible things for fun, and never receive any real comeuppance for it. And since horror films are largely meant to serve the cultural role of morality plays, this doesn’t really gel all that well.
Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding is perhaps the only exception to this, and even he eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns. Despite now being considered a sort of cult horror icon, the character doesn’t contribute all that much to the films, being relatively dwarfed in screen time by Sheri Moon Zombie and Bill Moseley. He is, however, a marginally more palatable character when compared to the other two stars of the franchise. He’s funnier, slightly more reasonable, and a fair bit saner than the rest of the Firefly clan, which serves to endear him a bit more to the audience. It also doesn’t help that we don’t really see him committing as many atrocities as the rest of his dysfunctional family, which allows the audience to see him as somewhat of a lesser evil, even though we’re told his crimes are just as heinous. I suppose there’s a difference between hearing and seeing it when it comes to our perceptions of character. But what really sets Spaulding apart is simply the fact that Sid Haig chews scenery like no one else. The actor makes the role his own far better than any other member of the cast, and as such is far more enjoyable to watch. He acts circles around most of his costars, and seems to have an absolute blast doing. You still hate him, just to a slightly lesser degree. Unfortunately, his declining health forced Zombie to all but write him out of 3 From Hell, which goes a long way toward the final film’s lack of charm.
Another major issue with these three films is that it feels like Zombie is trying too hard to ape other filmmakers from the era who were making equally subversive material, namely Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, while at the same time completely missing the reason why those filmmakers are so popular. There are dialogue-heavy scenes that are reminiscent of similar moments from films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and 3 From Hell seems to borrow pretty heavily at some points from Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (which was written by Tarantino). Yet while Zombie can mimic the style of these films, he can’t seem to quite nail the substance. When Tarantino writes a scene in which two characters discuss, at length, something as inane as proper tipping etiquette, or what the French call various McDonald’s menu items, it’s done so with a purpose in mind. It informs the viewer on the personalities of the characters onscreen, or it helps to set the tone of the world. With Zombie, inane conversation is often just inane conversion for the sake of it.
And while Tarantino isn’t exactly known for his subtlety, Zombie still manages to make his films seem downright reserved in comparison with how brazenly he throws around his subject matter. Take for instance the way each director will address the various works of pop culture that influence their films. Tarantino, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, uses the character of Rick Dalton as a proxy to explore the nuances of a post-studio system film industry, as well as the general shifts in the overall zeitgeist that arose in the dying years of the free love movement. Deft-eyed viewers can catch references and allusions to the films and greater cultural trends that Tarantino drew from to create the world of the film, without him explicitly stating them to the audience. In contrast, there’s a character in The Devil’s Rejects whose sole purpose is to lampshade the fact that the Firefly family members are all named after Marx Brothers characters, as if Zombie either doesn’t believe that audiences are smart enough or culturally savvy enough to catch these references on their own, or that he simply is too impatient to leave the information as subtext. Another character in 3 From Hell spouts random bits of praise for Lon Chaney characters. Either way, it speaks to a desire to literally throw references in the audience’s face, without actually engaging with them in an intelligent manner.
I don’t want to imply that Zombie didn’t try to engage in some sort of subtext with these films, because that would be facetious. There’re moments where he’s clearly trying to court some deeper meaning in all the blood and guts that overshadow everything else. In House of 1000 Corpses in particular, there’s several odd, disconnected rants that are spliced haphazardly throughout the film where the characters spout some weird, pseudo-anarchic manifesto at the audience. The implication is that these characters follow some variation of Charles Manson’s general ideology, with characters even directly quoting him in certain scenes. It’s meant to symbolize the fact that these characters see themselves as revolutionaries of a sort, and that they use violence to rebel against a system that they see as restrictive and hypocritical. Approached in a different way, this could have made for an extremely compelling narrative thread, touching on very real political and sociological mythologies. But again, all of that is lost to the overall chaos of the films, being quietly swept under the rug in order to make room for more murder and mayhem.
Ultimately, that’s a decent summation for the trilogy as a whole. As such, it serves as a pretty good overview of Zombie’s overall strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker throughout his entire career. You’ll see me bring up many of these same points in the coming weeks regarding his other films, although thankfully there’s some small improvements here and there. He’s mostly style, little substance, and can’t really seem to write a sympathetic character to save his life, but he almost makes up for it in sheer craziness. I would hesitate to say that I recommend any of these three movies, as I think they appeal to a very narrow audience, but if you like gritty, grimy, filthy horror like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, they may be worth a look.
Next week is something a little better: A look at Zombie’s Halloween remake, which finally allowed him to stop beating around the bush and straight-up steal a movie, and it’s bizarre, terrible sequel.