ROB ZOMBIE: HORROR HACK OR GENIUS?


In 1965 Robert Bartleh Cummings was born in the USA. When he was twenty, he co-founded the legendary rock band named “White Zombie”. In 1996 he legally changed his name to the nom-de-plume for which he is well-known now, becoming Ro b Zombie. His name is now inseparable from the Horror genre and he has many talents within this area scoring music, directing films, writing screenplays, and producing films. Whilst he has released 10 successful albums, many comic books (on which one of his films is based), has done a surprising amount of voice acting (Animated versions of “Spider-Man” and “Justice League” villains, plus voice cameos in “Slither” and “Super”), a spoof trailer for “Grindhouse” (“Werewolf Women of the SS”), even directing an episode of “CSI : Miami”, he is mainly known in the horror circles for the six films he has directed. It’s fair to say that he is an incredibly polarising figure within the genre, as far as the films go. Zombie is much-beloved in some areas as an uncompromising and visionary technician, who has taken existing concepts and molded them into his own cinematic nightmares. However, there are equally a number of critics and fans, who have yet to be convinced by his skills behind the camera, and believe that his work is too self-absorbed and personal to be deserving of any real accolade. The “Firefly” Years Rob Zombie’s first film was “House of 1000 Corpses”, which began filming in 2000. He had previously attempted to get a “Crow” sequel off the ground. This was titled “The Crow: 2037” and he had crafted a full script for the film, but couldn’t get it into production. The announcement of “House of 1000 Corpses” raised many expectant eyebrows in the horror community. Zombie had openly admitted that his music was heavily influenced by Alice Cooper and films such as “Clockwork Orange” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, whilst his first solo album featured quotes from “Last House on the Left” and “Mark of the Devil”. He was an unproven talent, but the prognosis seemed good. Ultimately however, “House” became as famous for the behind the scene studio spats, as much as anything else. Universal Pictures ran scared of the film, due to the level of violence, and feared a dreaded NC-17 rating in the states. The film was re-shot but the studio still shelved it until 2003, when Zombie (who had bought the rights) sold it to Liongate studio. Due to this, the film had already nailed itself a reputation and festival showings were eagerly attended. The film itself is somewhat a disjointed affair. The studio wrangling and re-shoots can’t have helped matters, but the narrative itself seems fractured and a bit nonsensical. Mainly concerning two wholesome American couples in the 70’s, who fall into the clutches of the “Firefly” family in the isolated backwoods of the USA. Basically it is an alternate telling of a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” type legend, as the young innocents are systematically tortured, first mentally and then physically by the crazy family. Extremely nihilistic, the police investigating are slaughtered out of hand, and rescue is out of the question. Where the film does make an impact is the cast that Zombie has gathered. Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie (all of which would become Zombies “rep group” in further films), and the great Karen Black. Moseley and Sheri particularly give a couple of staggering performances. Moseley is the never-out-of-control menacing loathsome bastard “Otis”, who does most of the damage. Sheri (who married Zombie in 2002) is a revelation as the sometimes endearing, sometimes lunatic-shrieker “Baby”. But as a whole, there doesn’t seem a “point” to the film. It just meanders from one shouty torture set-up to the next. And the NC-17 violence is so OTT that it doesn’t really impact. Also, within the context of this film, it’s never made clear if Spaulding (Haig) is part of the Firefly clan or not, and whether Dr Satan (a needless sub-plot) is real or just a hallucination by the last girl… Harmed by a limited release and the previous studio problems, the film grossed $17m worldwide. But it became enough of a cult film with a loyal following (Sid Haig’s “Capt. Spaulding” with his clown make-up and tiny top hat had become a horror icon), which enabled Zombie to put a sequel into production. Released in 2005, “The Devils Rejects” was a direct sequel to “House of 1000 Corpses”, but it couldn’t have been more different in style. Leaving behind the gothic trappings of their house, it follows the flight and fate of three members of the Firefly family as they go on the run. Their family has been decimated by a police raid at the start of the film, following the multiple disappearances that have occurred. The three on the run are Otis, Baby, and Spaulding (here revealed as Baby’s father!), and all played by the same actors as “House”. Karen Black did not return, apparently due to salary “disagreements”, so Leslie Easterbrook (Callahan from the “Police Academy” films!) plays “Mother”, and does an excellent job. There are also a mountain of appearances from genre vets, like Ken Foree, Danny Trejo, and Michael Berryman. There are no “good guys” in the film. William Forsythe is Sheriff Wydell and he’s as much of a bastard as the Fireflys! This is by far, my favourite Rob Zombie film. It is tightly constructed, and it feels like the story and narrative actually goes somewhere (which “House” didn’t). The violence in the film is deeply affecting, instead of just rudimentary and the whole thing feels like a modern day Western. There are freeze-frames and the climax echoes that of the Wild Bunch. The cast are uniformly excellent, and the idea that violence begets violence is echoed by Wydell’s descent into madness. A great film, which was honoured as “horror film of 2005”, by both “Spike TV” and “Fangoria” magazine. The film made more money than “House”, and was more critically successful.

Trick or Treats? In 2006, the horror community were caught unawares when Zombie formally announced that he was prepping a remake of John Carpenter’s “Halloween”. He announced that it had absolutely no connection with the previous “Halloween” films, and was starting from scratch. The general consensus was positive, and if Zombie could bring his rock sensibilities and “Firefly” grittiness to the Myers saga, then it would at least be stylistically different from Carpenters original, and the subsequent sequels. Released in the US over Labor Day in 2007, it actually broke records for takings over that time, and remains (apparently) the highest grossing film in the franchise, although when adjustments for inflation are made, it’s a different story (Phew! *wipes brow and faith in humanity is restored*). Initially played by an affective Daeg Faerch, Michael Myers is a 10 year old and the product of a broken home. Under pressure at school, abused at home by his step-dad, his only friend is his stripper-mom (as oppose to soccer-mom). Losing the plot after being pushed to the edge by a bully, he kills the aforementioned boy, then his sister, her boyfriend and his step-dad (William Forsythe). Now locked away in a sanatorium, Doctor Loomis enters the mix (Malcolm McDowell doing Donald Pleasance, if you pardon the phrase). Fifteen years later (and now played by Tyler Mane), he’s obsessed with masks. He escapes and returns to his home town of Haddonfield, ready to have a pop at the teenage populace, including Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor Compton). This film is a game of two halves really. For me, the initial section where Zombie explores the formative years of Myers really works. What was essentially a 5 minute sequence in Carpenter’s version is expanded to 30 minutes or so here. There’s no supernatural elements, just a screwed up kid, whose position in a “perfect storm” of events causes him to become evil and unable to feel empathy towards anyone. Unfortunately, when he escapes it just becomes another mean-spirited slasher film, which feels bereft of style or any real merit. It certainly doesn’t add anything “fresh” to the franchise, beyond the “early years”. Sheri Moon is back in the cast as Michaels Mum and is quite sympathetic in the role. However, Malcolm McDowell is wasted in the Loomis part and he doesn’t seem to have a firm handle on how to play the part. There have been some duff entries in the “Halloween” franchise as a whole, and this definitely is not a patch on H20 or the original. However, full marks for re-introducing the wonderful Danielle Harris (Myers Niece from parts 4-6) to the franchise again. All grown-up now, this was the start of her becoming a modern day genre star. Although the critical response to “Halloween” was muted, and the takings did drop quite heavily after the initial weekend, the idea of a sequel was a no-brainer. Released in 2009 and sometimes known as “H2”, “Halloween 2” is a pretty grim affair. Tracking the surviving characters Laurie Strode, Dr Loomis, and Michael himself (all played by the same actors); it explores the effects on them one year on from the original events. Michael is haunted by visions of his mother, Dr Loomis is milking the media regarding his infamy, and Laurie is cracking up. It all comes to an explosive head, when they all confront each other and secrets are revealed (bet you can guess at least one!). To be frank, this is a morbid mess. None of the remaining characters are relatable in any way, and the performances all seem manic. It’s kind of admirable that Zombie wanted to explore the characters and do a proper cause-and-effect piece firing off from the previous film, but it just doesn’t work. Particularly annoying are the constant visions of Deborah Myers (Michael’s mother), which hints at the supernatural and just doesn’t sit in the story well. The cynic in me wonders whether Zombie shoe-horned the character back into the sub-text to give Sheri Moon a recurring role… Not a well-loved film. It did okay at the box office, but nowhere near the takings of the first. Rumours persist that a different-in-tone directors cut exists. After this there were rumours that Zombie would do (another) remake of “The Blob”. But Zombie himself nixed these, by stating that he would do no more remakes. Cartoons, Witches, and Ice-Hockey? In 2009 Rob Zombie released the fun little animated movie known as “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto”. With quirky animation, and inspiration from the old Lucha Libre / Mexican Wrestling horror films, it follows the adventures of “Superbeasto”, the ex-wrestler/film director, as he fights Dr Satan, and prevents him from taking over the world. Eccentric, but lovingly crafted, some of the voice actors include Rosario Dawson and (you’ve guessed it) Sheri Moon Zombie. Slight, but amusing and ties in well with Zombie’s love of comics (on which this is based). Zombie’s most recent film is “The Lords of Salem”. Due for release in early 2013, this was recently shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. Early reviews suggest that it will be one of his most polarising films. Concerning a mysterious record that somehow resurrects either a satanic cult, or long-dead witches in Salem, it has had a mixed reception so far. Most criticism so far has been aimed at an apparently disjointed and WTF? Climax. Having said that, Zombie has yet again assembled another classy cast including Meg Foster, Sheri Moon Zombie (obviously), Ken Foree, Dee Wallace and Judy Geeson(?!). It remains to be seen how this will be accepted in mainstream, but it is perhaps inevitable that it will become a cult film. Zombie himself has said that it’s a very personal film, and describes it as “Ken Russell directing The Shining”! Beyond this, Rob Zombie is a busy dude. As I write this he is touring with Marilyn Manson in Europe (the “twins of evil” tour!). He is also working on​ a new album. As far as films go, his next two projects are “Tyrannosaurus Rex” (A wrestler fights against satanic hordes. Tagline = “51% Motherf*cker! 49% Son of a Bitch!”), and “The Broad Street Bullies” (True story of a Philadelphia Ice-Hockey team, famed for violence. Yes, it does sound like “Slap-shot”, but Zombie is apparently a huge hockey fan!). Rob Zombie has a hell of a following and a lot of devoted fans. He is unquestionably a multi-talented guy, and someone who endeavours to stay true to his visions and ethics. Is he a horror auteur though? Is he a beacon of light in the horror genre, with an uncompromising attitude, and an ability to kick the MPAA in the nuts, whilst delivering superlative gore and suspense? Err … no. Not in my opinion. At least not yet. I loved “The Devils Rejects”. It is a tough and brutal film, the narrative hangs together well, the performances work, and the whole style of it makes it a better “Grindhouse” film than anything that Rodriguez or Tarantino have churned out in the recent years. Is it a Horror film though? I don’t think so … and that’s my concern. The gothic trappings of“House of 1000 corpses” felt forced. The slasher elements of the Halloween films were just recycled ideas. He also seems to lose some cohesiveness when he deals in with the genre, especially if the foreword around “Lords of Salem” is anything to go by. I would love to see him do more films in the style of “Devil’s Rejects”. I don’t think he is particularly suited to producing solely genre films, despite what his fans may feel and it would be interesting to see how his next projects turn out. Rob Zombie – Talented guy, yes - Horror Icon, No.

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