Rob Zombie: Defending the Indefensible?

Gerard Torbitt from Mouth of the Farside looks back at the work of the often-maligned filmmaker Rob Zombie

Rob Zombie… how much more horror can a director’s name be? With his ghoulish moniker and encyclopaedic knowledge of all things horror, the eccentric, colourful heavy rocker should be easily considered one of the modern horror greats – but in light of his most recent outing, 31, it seems his reputation has become a bit more Marmite than Mario Bava among the horror community.

Personally, as a Venue-dwelling heavy metal head, I could barely contain my excitement when, shortly after his second solo album, The Sinister Urge (named after an obscure, trashy Ed Wood movie), there arrived Rob Zombie’s directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses. Filmed in 2000 and not released until 2003, mired with controversy due to the violent, video nasty-esque tone, Corpses landed (without a major cinema release) like a millennial twist on classic “don’t go in the house” style horrors such as The Old Dark House (1932), or my personal favourite, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), with a neon colour palette not unlike Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and a frenetic camera style reminiscent of The Evil Dead (1981), it was almost exactly what many expected from the self-style Zombie King, all gore and snarky dialogue and menacing murder clowns.

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In a time post-Scream, and pre-Saw/Hostel, it was a grimy reminder of how good a well-made, trashy horror movie could be. Filled with nods and winks to everything from serial killers to Aleister Crowley to The Marx Brothers, it felt like a love-letter to horror and cult movies, far removed from the highly polished Hollywood fare we’d become used to – far grittier and with more heart than 2003’s long awaited Freddy Vs Jason, and so different from the many J-Horror movies we’d become bombarded with – left many, including myself, hungry for more. The sheer amount of influences mixed up in Corpses definitely showed how well-versed in horror lore and eager to make an impact Zombie was to, but of course, like the films and culture it referenced, it wasn’t to everyone’s taste, yet is still held in high regard as an instant classic among many horror (and heavy metal) fans.

His second effort, the much more critically praised, The Devil’s Rejects (2005) took the murderous Firefly family from their corpse-filled abode and sent them running from the law on a blood-caked road trip that felt like the bizarre lovechild of the first half of From Dusk Til Dawn (minus the vampires) and The Empire Strikes Back (bounty hunters, Lando et al). With its dusty, muted colour palettes, it was very different in tone – Bill Moseley’s Otis was no longer a red-eyed albino, but a Manson-like RZ lookalike, and to her credit, his wife Sheri Moon Zombie, as Baby – often considered a ropey actress that Zombie insists on casting – definitely stepped up her acting game.

Considerably more influenced by Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Badlands (1973) than the classic horror of his previous movie (though there was a definite The Hills Have Eyes feel), it still retained certain tropes he had used to his advantage in House of 1000 Corpses in particular, his interesting uses of music video style shots, exploitation style screen dissolves and 16mm hand-held footage. Now Zombie had added a film described by some as “almost Tarantino-esque” to his repertoire and definitely cemented his name as one of the modern horror directors to watch. The more Hollywood style, finely curated 70’s rock soundtrack and nods to more cult movies (via an Elvis hating Groucho Marx fan-boy in one amusing scene) also dared die-hard fans to step out of the horror and heavy metal comfort zone and explore what made the well-versed and increasingly less cartoony Zombie tick. Two in a row, which I frequently revisit and recommend. What next? Third times a charm, right?

Wrong.

In a time laden with debatable remakes of many classic horror movies, Rob Zombie was chosen to do a remake of John Carpenter’s perennial and revered slasher, Halloween (1978). A true ‘chips with custard’ moment, or how I like to describe it, what happened next  requires a nod to To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything Julie Newmar (1995) – everyone likes Wesley Snipes, and ladies in sexy lingerie is awesome. Wesley Snipes in sexy lingerie? Not so much. 

A gritty, grimy part-remake / part-prequel, featuring many of Zombie’s trademarks, some of which had begun to grate due to a feeling of ‘if it ain’t broke’, it felt unnecessary – perhaps a standalone prequel or sequel would have been better, and having endured the Halloween franchise, practically ANYTHING could have been shoehorned in and would have been acceptable at this point. But no… the original had to be remade.

One even wonders how a Zombie helmed debut of a new slasher franchise would have panned out, as it does feature some interesting touches in the first half, developing the character of Michael Myers, which to be fair, did add a bit of a few touches of his previous flair, but overall it underwhelms, especially when it has to routinely go through the beats of Carpenter’s original. Coming off his first two movies with a lot of momentum, this definitely felt like a waste of his creative energy, regardless of where it put him on the Hollywood radar.  At least, those gorehounds bored of remakes at this point would at least have something (kind of) original in Adam Green’s Hatchet (2006).

Then, like an overzealous teen who borrowed his father’s car, Zombie took the wheel of Halloween 2 and drove it straight to Zombietown. In fact, he borrowed it and crashed it so as no one else could. This was due to him wanting creative control over his adopted franchise rather than let another director take the wheel, so it’s easy to understand the almost spiteful, in-your-face sense of Rob Zombie-ness the film exudes. More crass characters, more music video aesthetics, and more RZ doppelganger action – who’d have thought an unmasked Michael Myers would look so much like the director? Yet the trippy, hallucinatory vibe of the film’s latter half had considerable merit, and featured a great turn from Brad Dourif. Arguably the best of the Halloween sequels – but that’s not saying much.

At this point, even big Zombie fans had questioned what direction he was going in. That direction? Home. Or nearby at least – to Salem. Born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, the nearby Salem with its history of witches inspired The Lords Of Salem (2012). Following on from the more psychedelic vibe of H2, Lords (again starring Sheri in arguably her most impressive acting role to date) was an impressive, if understated and slightly impenetrable, return to form. Feeling a lot like the aforementioned Bava and Argento, with a generous dose of Alejandro Jodorowsky circa Holy Mountain (1973) and a strong whiff of Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), the highly visual storyline of witchcraft, possession and addiction really started to divide opinion. Described, not inaccurately by the director as ‘if Ken Russell directed The Shining’, it gives a lot to those willing to stick with its simple yet also challenging plot.

For me, it felt like a lost video-store classic, a sort of late night hidden gem with a fever dream vibe and plenty of spooky, fluorescent eye candy. For many others, they were left disorientated and disappointed, and pretentious as it may sound, I believe many just didn’t ‘get it’, hoping for something more straightforward. In its defence, a number of important scenes were truncated, had to be reshot or removed completely, for a variety of reasons – including the death of Richard Lynch which resulted in the loss of scenes containing cult heroes Sid Haig and Michael Berryman, and a lot of essential backstory. I hate to be that guy, but if you want to give it another chance, I HIGHLY recommend you read the accompanying novel by Zombie and B.K. Evenson, as it adds a lot to The Lords of Salem.

And that brings us to 31 (2016). Crowdfunded, and touted as being “most brutal film to date”, 31 – basically a Rob Zombie twist on The Running Man – should have been an instant fan-favourite, back to basics, definitive hit. I say ‘should have’ – it wasn’t. Costing $1.5 million and barely making half that back, 31 was not only a flop, but a major disappointment, especially for those who invested in it. Boasting extremely unlikeable protagonists, absolutely zero scares and a concerning lack of plot and character development, it made me feel how I imagine his detractors must have felt all along.

Other than a menacing Joker-like turn from main villain Doom-Head (Richard Brake – Joe Chill in Batman Begins), 31 has little else to write home about. Murderous perv-clowns, overly vulgar, poorly acted dialogue and a Mexican Nazi dwarf, it tries to shock, and might shock some – but shocks don’t equal scares. The uninspired kills disappoint, the crazy characters seem stock and predictable. Frankly put, in a world where anyone can go online and watch literal chainsaw murders and executions from real life, it fails miserably in its attempts to be edgy. Maybe in the time zone of the movie, 1976, this would have been a pre-video nasty shocker. In 2016, it has been greeted with a resounding ‘meh’ from horror fans.

Many of the horror ‘greats’ have their moments in the sun (or moonlight) and then fall almost into self-parody – one need only look at George Romero’s patchy output outside the Dead Trilogy, or the steady decline of quality in Argento’s oeuvre since his 70’s and early 80’s peak, – it is still early days for Mr. Zombie yet. He has three great movies in his back catalogue and a pretty decent reputation, so I can’t help but wonder – has his horror moment came and went, or is the best yet to come?

Written by Gerard Torbitt
Written by Gerard Torbitt

 

 

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