The Last in a 5 Part Look at the Career of Modern Cult Horror Icon Rob Zombie.
Finally, after a miserable, grueling month of subjecting myself to what seemed like an unending stream of torture, I’ve reached the end at last. The final two entries (in terms of quantity, not chronology) in Rob Zombie’s far-longer-than-he-deserves filmography. The dim light at the end of the tunnel. I chose to do these two films together for two reasons: One, they’re his only live-action films that aren’t part of a larger franchise and two, if I have to write any more about these movies, I’m legitimately going to go insane. So, I’m choosing to cover both of Zombie’s remaining works in one go, mostly as a mercy to myself. Plus, if you’ve stuck around this long, you sort of get the general idea of Zombie’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker already, so there’s no real need to go too in-depth here. Let’s power through this, one last time, and the you and I can move on with our lives without ever having to give this man another thought.
Note: So far, I’ve more or less tried to keep to a relative chronological order when approaching Zombie’s library of films, with a few exceptions made in order to keep franchise films together. That being said, I made a bit of a mistake for this final entry, and watched 31 ahead of The Lords of Salem, despite their release order being the reverse. But somewhat fortuitously, this ended up being a blessing in disguise, as you’ll see.
In true Rob Zombie fashion, 31 is more or less just a mash-up of three or four existing horror films, resulting in a cobbled-together offspring that manages to live up to absolutely none of them. It’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (obviously, at this point) meets Saw and The Purge by way of The Running Man. It’s a simple, near-plotless premise: In the mid 1970s (for no discernible reason whatsoever) group of carnival workers, on a cross-country trip, are kidnapped by a group of wealthy sadists who force them to participate in a bloody game of survival on Halloween night. It’s essentially the exact same first act as House of 1000 Corpses, meaning that Zombie has now hit a new low: stealing from his own movies. This wayward group of carnies are then locked in an industrial labyrinth of sorts, with an ever-escalating parade of psychopaths hunting them and luring them into over-the-top, campy deathtraps. Their only goal is to stay alive for 12 full hours, with frequent updates by the game’s master of ceremonies as to their calculated odds of survival. It’s all very Hunger Games, with the organizers even dressing in similarly flamboyant clothes and make-up reminiscent of French aristocracy. From there, it basically plays out exactly as you’d expect: the group is hunted, they’re killed off one-by-one, and then it sort of just ends. Not exactly what you’d call a particularly complex plot, but I figure Zombie basically has no object permanence, so anything more than just one narrative thread is too much for him to handle.
Despite how gory, grimy, and bleak the majority of Zombie’s films have been thus far, I never got the sense that he was being disingenuous about it. What I mean by that is that I’m fairly certain he was never trying to be as edgy as humanly possible. Based on both his music and from how he comes across in interviews and other appearances, I think he just genuinely loves blood, guts, sex, and murder. Say what you will about the man, but he certainly has a clearly-defined range of interest. But with 31, it really feels like he’s deliberately pushing the envelope in terms of both shock value and sheer insanity, and I don’t say that as a compliment. Maybe it’s because this movie was crowd-funded, or maybe because it might be his last original (ha) film, but something made him go absolutely nuts with this.
The whole film reeks of desperation, like for some reason Zombie is trying as hard as he possibly can to be subversive. His films before this point have been graphic, sure, and have certainly had their share of controversial subject matter, but this is another beast entirely. There’s a Nazi midget dressed as Hitler who only speaks in Spanish, there’s twin hillbilly chainsaw-wielding rapists, cannibalism, implied necrophilia, genital mutilation, and so, so much more. It’s vulgar, it’s offensive, and it serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever other than to elicit that exact reaction. It’d be one thing if the violence was in any way done in service to the plot (which barely exists in the first place), but it isn’t. It’s pure torture porn. It starts out in a stylistically interesting fashion, with the film’s main villain monologuing to the camera about his own personal philosophies in a very artsy, black-and white prologue to the film’s main plot. But it abandons this immediately, and falls into the chaotic nonsense described above. Random masked, nude women wander in the background. A woman is sewn into a sex doll. A priest is attacked with a dull axe. There’s a giant who screams in German nursery rhymes. Nothing makes any narrative sense. It’s like a video game made by a maladjusted teen who hasn’t taken his Adderall in several days.
The cast is made up of Zombie’s usual players, with his wife once again taking center stage for reasons that will never be clear to me. I assumed by this point I’d be numb to her acting, but man, it’s still one of the most grating things imaginable. It’s not just her, though. Honestly, everyone in this movie is so bland and indistinct that I couldn’t even tell who was dead and who was still alive at most points. The only real standout was a guy that spoke in a horrendously played-up Jamaican accent, and that was mostly because his every appearance was like something out of an old Looney Tunes cartoon. You know, the ones that they display a cultural warning in front of now? Yeah, it’s that bad. In fact, this movie features two of the only people of color in any of Zombie’s films, and they’re both killed off first. Make of that what you will. One single bright spot is Richard Brake, who plays the closest thing the film has to a central antagonist, named Doom-Head (sigh). His performance is genuinely great, playing a driven, but highly professional, murderer used by the gamemasters as sort of a failsafe if they’re victims haven’t been killed by the 11th hour. Unfortunately, he’s hindered by Zombie’s god-awful dialogue, which I imagine is supposed to sound profound and poetic, but comes across as nothing more than the insane ramblings of a madman.
Much like with Halloween II and The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, I really don’t know who this movie is for. I feel like general audiences would despise it’s gratuitousness and lack of plot, while seasoned horror fans with a higher tolerance for blood and guts will find it derivative and uninspired. With nearly every box this film ticks, there’s much more skillfully done examples to choose from. If you like brutal gore and violence, watch something like Hatchet or Martyrs instead. If you want a high-octane deathmatch film, watch The Belko Experiment or Ready or Not. And if you just want a gritty, 70s style bloodbath, just circumvent Zombie’s entire filmography and watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
So after this penultimate disappointment, I naturally went into Lords of Salem with the mindset that it would essentially be a mercy killing for myself. It didn’t help that I had heard in an earlier interview with Zombie that his inspiration for the film was simply the fact that he liked the title, and wanted to use it before someone else did. With such a simple and stupid origin, I assumed that the finale to this soul-crushing marathon that I had inflicted on myself would be, at best, an empty cash-grab. But a miracle happened: Against all odds, despite every single factor working against it, and in the face of all logic to the contrary, Lords of Salem is actually, somehow, decent. Not amazing, mind you, and frankly, I’d hesitate to even say it was good, but compared to everything else I’ve watched up until this point, it’s a much-needed breath of fresh air, and a perfect mid-to-high note to end this journey on.
Typical to the Zombie brand, Lords of Salem is essentially just a pastiche of assorted elements from other, better horror films. The main plot pulls pretty heavily from Rosemary’s Baby, with bits of The Shining and Halloween: Season of the Witch thrown in for good measure. The difference here is that Zombie actually seems, for the first time in his career, to understand what about these films work, and why they work so well. As a result, the film ends up being a cohesive, effective celebration of the films that inspired it, rather than a complete mess that rips them off.
The plot revolves around a radio DJ in the city of (where else?) Salem, Massachusetts, named Heidi. Played by Sheri Moon Zombie (because she’s essentially the Helena Bonham Carter to his Tim Burton at this point), she’s a recovering drug addict who suddenly finds herself in the middle of a pagan conspiracy dating back to the 1600s when a strange album arrives for her from a group calling themselves “The Lords.” After hearing the music on the album, Heidi begins experiencing bizarre hallucinations, which seem to be affecting other women in the town as well, turning them into sort of witchy sleeper agents. While her boyfriend and a local historian try to figure out what’s happening to her, Heidi’s landlord and her friends draw her deeper and deeper into a world of the occult and the satanic. If you’ve seen Ari Aster’s Hereditary, it plays out much in the same fashion, with Heidi discovering that she’s some sort of “Chosen One” figure for the witches of Salem, prophesied to bring forth the antichrist (or at least some equally evil and apocalyptic figure). It’s a spooky, surreal film, one that’s a much slower burn than anything I’m used to from Zombie, one that I could actually see myself watching again in the future.
That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have some of the key Rob Zombie elements that I’ve come to know and loathe over the past couple of weeks. There’s a heavy emphasis on metal and hard rock, with the key conflict in the film being sparked by a seemingly cursed piece of music, which plays into Zombie’s sensibilities quite comfortably. Every television screen must always be playing a black-and-white horror film at all times, of course. There’s flashes of violent, chaotic imagery, much like in Michael: The Murder Hobo, but to a much greater and thematically appropriate effect. Then there’s that gritty, 70s sheen that Zombie insists on applying to everything he films. It’s here, but to a much less pronounced or annoying degree as his other films. And what Zombie film would be complete without near-constant references and allusions to the Manson family?
But despite all of that, Zombie seems to have really stumbled on to something unique here, at lease within his own body of works. Lords of Salem is a slow, methodical film, with an emphasis on character over action and violence. The protagonist, played in a shockingly nuanced and relatable manner by Zombie’s wife, is a complex, fully-realized character, who goes far beyond the normal “run around and scream at things” approach that the director/wife duo usually take when it comes to crafting a role. Her arc plays out a lot like Mia from Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead remake, with her struggles with the supernatural being mistaken by both her friends and, often times, herself, as simply a symptom of relapse back into drug addiction. She’s sympathetic, likable, and intelligent, all presented in such a way that seems realistic and grounded.
In fact, that’s probably an apt descriptor for the film as a whole: grounded. Whereas most of Zombie’s films are cranked up to 11 from the moment the title credits begin to roll, Lords of Salem has a much more deliberate, rewarding pace. This not only allows more room for character development, but is also much more conducive for creating an effective atmosphere as well. This is the only Zombie film that could be described as genuinely creepy. There’s lots of subtle, in-the-background action happening, with hidden figures and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it specters appearing in frames just outside the area of focus. It’s a far more polished, almost artsy crack at horror than anything else he’s attempted, to the point where, if I had been shown this film with no prior knowledge, I probably wouldn’t have been able to guess it was one of his.
The villains of the piece are also much more threatening and sinister than anything else Zombie has been able to cook up over the past couple of decades. They’re not over-the-top violent or gleefully evil like the Firefly clan, nor are they as brutal and nonsensically enigmatic as his version of Michael Myers. No, the Witches of Salem have clear personalities and well-defined goals, which makes them by far the most fleshed-out antagonists in all of Zombie’s mythology. They’re Satan-worshipping pagans, sure, which isn’t exactly new, but they’re portrayed in a fresh and thematically relevant way. In keeping with the film’s emphasis on the power of music, this particular coven are like rock groupies more than your garden-variety, broomstick-and-cauldron brand of witches. They’re very reminiscent of the followers of Charles Manson, making this the first time that Zombie has referenced the infamous cult-leader in a way that actually seems relevant and useful, and not just blatantly exploitative.
As is to be expected, the film does eventually spiral into gory chaos, but it’s a rare occasion where I think it’s actually earned and justified. The film is very much in the vein of Ari Aster’s trademark style of escalation, with small, gradual bits of creepiness slowly building to a surreal, borderline-psychotic crescendo of violence and mayhem. The entire third act is a trippy fever-dream of occult imagery and black-magic rituals (and a frankly distressing amount of geriatric nudity) that will eventually make you begin to question your own sanity. But, you know, in a good way this time. By the time the credits began to roll, I was confused, disgusted, mildly disturbed, but overall pretty satisfied. Honestly, I’m making it sound magnitudes better than it actually is, but after the slew of hot garbage I had to wade through to get here, it’s a welcome reprieve. It’s like getting to order Dominos after a month of eating nothing but Lunchables pizza kits. Is it amazing? No, of course not, there’s far better options out there. But it’s sure as hell better than what you’ve been eating lately.
I’m so very happy to have been able to end this miserable trek through the mind of Rob Zombie with something that I didn’t utterly despise. I’m free from my self-imposed burden, and feel as though a great weight has been lifted form my scrawny shoulders. From House of 1000 corpses through Lords of Salem, I sought to discover just what it is that makes Zombie tick, and exactly how his career has progressed and evolved over the past 20 years. As it turns out, the answer to both of those questions is “not much.” I don’t want to your take away from this to be that Rob Zombie is a bad filmmaker. On the contrary, I think he has some incredibly well-developed technical skills and a keen eye for style and aesthetic. Unfortunately, the man can’t write to save his life, and refuses to cast anyone other than his wife. So it all sort of balances out in the end in a resounding display of “meh.” I’d genuinely love to see him tackle a screenplay written by a more competent screenwriter, as I do truly think he has insane potential. But as it stands, I can’t really say that I can recommend his body of work for anything other than morbid curiosity.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to drink until I can’t remember what Sheri Moon Zombie sounds like anymore.