Zombie, once a production assistant for PEEWEE'S PLAYHOUSE, gained international fame with his original band White Zombie, before going solo in the late 90s. The thing that always impressed me about Zombie was his visual aesthetics. Whether it was painting the set of HEADBANGER'S BALL or directing a segment in BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD DO AMERICA or all the music videos he directed, I always admired his taste and style even if some of his music left me cold. When word came that he'd be directing a film (THE CROW 2037, never released), I, like many, was intrigued, but it would take a few years for HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES to finally come out.
Originally working with Universal, who refused to release the film because of the violent content, before getting picked up by Lionsgate, H1kC was met with mostly bad reviews upon release in 2003. It's not a perfect film by any stretch, coming off more like an extended White Zombie music video mixed with the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, but the years have been kind to the picture and I enjoy far more these days than I did when I first saw it.
Set in 1977, H1kC follows a group of young people who run into the Firefly family, basically TCM's Sawyer clan as seen through the trippy, kalaidescopic, rock and roll eye of Zombie. We meet Otis (Bill Mosely), Baby (Sherri Moon Zombie), Mother Firefly (Karen Black), Tiny (Mathew McGrory), Dr Satan (Walter Phelan), and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig)-a colorful cast to say the least all cult film stars. (A bit of trivia; McGrory's film debut was in the zombie flick HATE THE LIVING! which featured a mad scientist that looked like Rob, called Dr Eibon.) All the elements were in place for H1kC to be a killer throwback grind house horror flick, which it is, though it may have been a couple years ahead of it's time, as evidenced by the fact that it's sequel, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, didn't suffer as much critical backlash and is considered by many to be Zombie's finest film.
Stylistically HOUSE and DEVIL'S is quite different. Where HOUSE is a visual orgy, DEVIL'S plays more like a Sam Peckinpah (THE WILD BUNCH) western. A very fucked up, grind house western. Picking up in the aftermath of H1kC, TDR has Otis, Baby, and Spaulding on the run from a crazed lawman out for revenge. Mosely shines as Otis, delivering some amazing, unforgettable lines, like "Boy, the next word that comes out of your mouth better be some brilliant fuckin' Mark Twain shit. 'Cause it's definitely getting chiseled on your tombstone." and "I am the Devil and I am here to do the Devil's work." He is absolutely chilling, even outshining his signature role of Chop Top from TCM2. While TDR may visually be a more subdued film, Zombie pulls no punches with gut churning violence and squirm inducing situations.
Zombie's love of TCM is all over these films, so much so he would have been the perfect choice to head up the remake of TCM, instead he took on a different 70s classic, John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN. Bloody Disgusting named HALLOWEEN Zombie's worst film and lots of reviewers agreed. Many of the complaints stem from the fact that Zombie stripped the original story of it's subtlety and mystery and gave us a full blown Michael Meyers origin story with nothing left to the imagination. Something I balked at upon first viewing myself, but subsequent viewings have revealed what a well made film HALLOWEEN actually is. I love the cast, the cinematography, the intensity. It's a great Rob Zombie film, but sadly it's not a great HALLOWEEN film since it betrays the original to such an extent. I've reconciled that though, to me all Zombie's films feel like they take place in the same world-a Zombie-verse, if you will. His Michael is just the Michael of the Zombie-verse and doesn't diminish Carpenter's in that sense. I would venture to say that if more of the detractors could compartmentalize the films and really set Zombie's apart, they may find a better film than they remember. Not to mention that Tyler Mane plays an amazing Michael. Loved him. And Malcolm MacDowell as Dr Loomis? Fantastic choice.
As I mentioned before, Rob went full Zombie on HALLOWEEN II and for the most part it paid off, though there were moments that dragged the film down and could have been left on the cutting room floor. Sherri Moon Zombie played Michael's mother in the first film and returns as a malevolent guiding spirit in II. It adds a weird, dreaminess to the film that feels so out of place in a HALLOWEEN film, but makes sense in a Zombie film, with loads of cool and creepy visuals that may have been a warm up for his follow up feature, LORDS OF SALEM.
If you think of Zombie's films musically, his first four are exactly what you'd expect from the man behind such shock rock metal classics as "Dragula," "Living Dead Girl," "Thunderkiss '65," and "More Human Than Human". LORDS OF SALEM, though, was a more down tuned doom metal. A much more serious, solemn, mature, and slower film. LoS still fits the style of the Zombie-verse, but embraces more a ROSEMARY'S BABY vibe rather than TCM.
Starring Sherri Moon Zombie, Ken Forree, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Dee Wallace, and Meg Foster, LoS is about a rock DJ, Heidi (Sherri), who receives a mysterious record that triggers hallucinations and flashbacks to her town's dark past. On the surface it's a witchcraft film and a disturbing one at that, but since the first time I saw it, I've wondered if there wasn't some subtext there, as with the aforementioned ROSEMARY'S BABY, which also contained a subtext that spoke directly to it's era. To me LoS sort of seemed like a metaphor for impending motherhood, but specifically for someone with a checkered past that would lead to fear and anxiety about the prospects of the responsibility. Maybe I'm over-thinking, but LoS feels like a much deeper movie than the surface content would suggest. Unfortunately though, as well made as it is LoS is my least favorite of Zombie's films, mainly because it reminds me so heavily of Roman Polanski and like Polanski Zombie doesn't quite land the film in a satisfying way. It's all build up and right when it gets good it's over. It's why I don't like ROSEMARY'S or NINTH GATE. It's really too bad, since LoS is Zombie's classiest and most ambitious films. That said it's certainly still worth watching.
This year, Zombie has returned with a film that looks like a return to H1kC roots. The trailer for 31 gives us Malcolm MacDowell dressed like a Victorian-era aristocrat, Sherri on the run through a fucked up labrynth and a shit load of psychotic, homicidal clowns. Zombie has promised us a film full of blood and madness just in time for Halloween and I can't wait to see it. It also stars Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Kevin Jackson, and Meg Foster. It's about five carnival workers who are kidnapped and forced to play a game where you win by surviving a life and death struggle against the psycho clowns for twelve hours. It sounds like the most typically Rob Zombie film of all, which I think will probably also make a pretty fun ride.
People whine on-line that all Zombie's films look like the 70s never ended, but I want to know why that's a problem. It's a style, as I said-his own universe and it's consistent and well done. Look at David Lynch's films, especially BLUE VELVET and TWIN PEAKS, there's an idyllic 50s look and feel to those works, though they aren't period pieces. And take John Water's films, they certainly exist in their own Waters-verse, taking and leaving what they need from pop culture. There's certainly more than a little of both Lynch and Waters in Zombie, just like the way his music pulls from such wildly varying sources-metal, disco, hip hop, industrial, and rockabilly. While for now, Zombie probably won't stop being a polarizing filmmaker, I think history will be kind to his films. Even Cronenberg was savaged by the critics and now his films are indispensable classics.
(Final note, I did skip Zombie's animated filmTHE HAUNTED WORLD OF EL SUPER BEASTO. So, no need to point that out, thanks.)
(Original Rob Zombie logo at the top of the article is by King Vulture, 2016.)
(Original Rob Zombie logo at the top of the article is by King Vulture, 2016.)