Rob Zombie Remains Horror’s Renaissance Man

Rob Zombie films

The Zombie rises again.

If art makes you feel something, then it can only be described as successful. Though with Rob Zombie films, what you feel will seldom be classified as “good.” Zombie’s sixth studio film, 31, is here. Though critics often level criticisms at Zombie for being too violent or nihilistic with subject matter, nobody can claim he isn’t doing things his own way.

Much like Quentin Tarantino, Rob Zombie wears his inspirations shamelessly on his sleeve.

The name of his original band, White Zombie, came from a Béla Lugosi film. His first outing as a director, House of 1000 Corpses, is basically The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (minus the chainsaw). His albums are littered with sound clips taken from classic horror films.

The man himself is a walking horror mosaic. With monster face tattoos, snarly beard and bell-bottoms, he looks like he’s stepped off the screen of one of his own films.

For Zombie, art and life bleed into one another and there is no mistaking his work for anyone else’s. His is a one-of-a-kind oeuvre of psychedelia, hillbillies and raw carnage. While he has no shortage of detractors, the musician, writer, director and producer continues to do things his own way — he has that special gift of making it very clear he is making films only for himself. And for many of us, that’s A-OK.

House of 1000 Corpses - Rob Zombie FilmsHouse of 1000 Corpses, Spectacle Entertainment Group

Many of you probably went to see House of 1000 Corpses in theaters when it was released in 2003, never knowing the film had been sitting finished since 2000. The film’s shoot went (mostly) fine, but its release was the stuff of Hollywood nightmares.

Universal Pictures shelved the project, dreading that House of 1000 Corpses might get slapped with the kiss of death for any film: an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. This left Zombie to buy the rights to the film from Universal and place it with Lions Gate Entertainment.

The critics were not kind to his film, and it failed to light any fires at the box office. But, undeterred and with a new studio that seemed to understand him better, in 2005 Zombie would release The Devil’s Rejects, the sequel to House of 1000 Corpses.

Tonally worlds apart from its prequel, The Devil’s Rejects was much better received than his first outing, even landing something horror films seldom receive: two thumbs up from Ebert & Roeper. The Devil’s Rejects saw a three-out-of-four-star review from Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers and swept Fangoria’s Chainsaw Awards, snagging eight out of the 10 categories for which it was nominated, including best wide-release film, best screenplay and best actor (Sid Haig). With the success of The Devil’s Rejects, both financially and critically, Rob Zombie seemed well on his way to being known as a horror director, not just a heavy-metal musician.

DevilsRejectsCaptainSpauldingThe Devil’s Rejects, Lion’s Gate Films

Around the mid-’00s horror made a small resurgence. A handful of directors — under the cringe-inducing umbrella name the Splat Pack — wanted to return horror to the place it held when they were young in the ’70s, both its prominence and its over-the-top shock value. With Zombie in the Splat Pack were James (Saw) Wan, Neil (The Descent) Marshall, Alexandre (The Hills Have Eyes) Aja, Eli (Hostel) Roth and Mr. Gimme Five Bucks and I’ll Make You a Movie himself, Robert Rodriguez. Though many of these directors have remained squarely in the horror genre, some, like Neil Marshall, have gone mainstream. Marshall has directed episodes of Game of Thrones. Meanwhile, Aja has shifted his ’70s grindhouse sensibilities toward lighter (though still bloody) fare with Piranha 3-D. James Wan, now a household name, has gone away from the grisly “torture porn” scene of Saw to focus more ’60s-vibe haunted-house outings with the hugely successful Conjuring films. Among the pack, Zombie seems to be the only one determined to stay on the track he started out on with ’70s-inspired horror.

After two Halloween Zombie films that failed to do much for his career, several rumors circulated about him adding on to the unkillable series The Crow and helming a possible remake of The Blob as well as some mysterious project called Tyrannosaurus Rex. But after directing a simply awesome Woolite commercial and the release of his albums Educated Horses and Hellbilly Deluxe 2, Zombie announced in 2011 that his next film would be The Lords of Salem.

Released to a mixed reception, The Lords of Salem centered around a recovering addict named Heidi, played by Zombie’s wife and frequent collaborator, Sheri Moon Zombie. At her job as a radio DJ, Heidi receives a mysterious record in the mail, and witchy spookiness ensues. [Spoiler alert: She becomes the mother of the antichrist, leading to one of the coolest closing shots of a horror film ever.]

The Lords of Salem - Rob Zombie filmsThe Lords of Salem, Alliance Films

Apart from releasing albums at a decent clip and occasional Zombie films as well as international tours (one which led to some drama and onstage name-calling between him and Marilyn Manson on the Twins of Evil Tour), Rob Zombie has also lent his voice to several characters in film and TV. He voiced Dr. Curt Connors, aka The Lizard in Spider-Man: The New Animated Series, and did voice work as Ravager Navigator in the Marvel blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy.

Zombie released an animated film of his own based on several characters that appeared in Zombie films and comic books (and even music videos): The Haunted World of El Superbeasto. Its voice cast includes Sheri Moon Zombie, Paul Giamatti, Rosario Dawson and comedian Tom Papa as the seminal El Superbeasto. Here’s one particular gem of a scene:

All of Zombie’s side projects get the same reception as his main works: those who know his stuff love it, while those unfamiliar are either ambivalent or disdainful. This comes as no surprise, but it doesn’t change Rob Zombie’s art and certainly doesn’t slow him down.

Judging by the number of works he’s produced, it would seem Rob Zombie hasn’t slept a day in his life. He has released his newest album, The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser, and this month his latest film, 31, will be released.

From the teaser, trailers and press material, 31 appears to be a 100 percent Rob Zombie joint. There are killer clowns, Malcolm McDowell dressed up in some mix of Adam Ant and Alex De Large, Dutch angles, quick cuts, varied film stock, psychedelic flashes of inimitable Zombie-brand weirdness and a group of murderers that look straight out of a horror-themed version of The Warriors.

And at the center is one-of-a-kind character actor Richard Brake, probably best known for his role as Joe Chill, the man who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents in the Christian Bale / Christopher Nolan Batman. Brake delivers a chilling monologue as Doom-Head as he puts on his grease paint and then — of course, why not? — proceeds to bash his own face in, just to give the white-face paint a touch of red.

The remainder of the cast — Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster and Jeff Daniel Phillips — play a group of carnival workers who find themselves trapped in a dilapidated amusement park tasked with surviving 12 hours while well-armed psychopathic clowns ruthlessly hunt them.

How could one hear that premise and not immediately recognize it as a Rob Zombie film?

31 - Rob Zombie films31, Bow and Arrow Entertainment

The advance reviews for 31, much like much criticism of Zombie films in the past, have not been kind. It’s currently sitting at 11 percent on Metacritic and holds a 6.1 out of 10 on IMDb. Which, no, isn’t exactly glowing praise. But any horror or heavy metal fan can depend on the critics looking down their noses at such fare, claiming it is “lesser” or “juvenile.”

That’s cool, fine, but meanwhile, those of us who still have a soul — albeit perhaps a dark, twisted one — know where to find our fun. Critics can keep The English Patient and The Godfather (I’ll break the film-buff rule and say The Godfather films are an exercise in absolute tedium). Meanwhile the rest of us will be having a blast at the theater — perhaps even a few times — because Rob Zombie films, much like his albums, just keep getting better with each trip on his blood-spattered merry-go-round of cut-to-the-bone throwback horror.

See you in line.

I’ll be the one (of several, likely) dressed like Otis Driftwood. end

Major thanks from the author to Ali DeGray for her contributions.

 

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