Rob Zombie; Hard rock icon, genre film enthusiast and one of the most unlikely auteur filmmakers of the 21st century. Zombie has forged a name for himself in the genre film community and is often regarded as one of the most unique horror directors of our time. He also happens to be one of my favorite filmmakers. With his latest film “3 From Hell” enjoying a successful limited run in theaters and hitting Blu-Ray next week, I decided to take a look at the filmmakers entire filmography and give my ranking From worst to best.
Zombie, similar to filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, is known for infusing pop culture references and music cues throughout his films. To make things a little more interesting, I kept track of them in each film and lay them out below. Apart from “3 From Hell” which just came out, there will be spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
Finally, it would be wrong if I didn’t mention the passing of Sid Haig. We’ll get into his performances and his role in the success of certain films on the list, but as a lifelong fan of Rob Zombie and his films, Sid played a critical part in my love for the films he was in, making portions of this list rather hard to talk about so fresh after his passing. RIP Sid Haig.
Special Mention: Werewolf Women of the SS
As one of four faux trailers that played during the middle of Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino’s double feature, “Grindhouse”, Rob Zombie made perhaps the most loony and surreal trailer of the bunch. In just under 2 minutes, “Werewolf Women of the SS” promises extreme carnage, scantily-clad babes overthrowing nazis, schlock-tastic gore and Nicolas Cage in a role that I wouldn’t dare spoil if you somehow haven’t seen this trailer.
You can watch the trailer on the “Grindhouse” Blu-Ray or simply watch it on YouTube. It’s 2 minutes of your time you will never forget.
8. The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (2009)
The only non-theatrical film on this list, “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto” is an animated film based off a limited comic series created by Zombie himself. Despite the colorful 2D animation reminiscent of “Ren and Stimpy”, “El Superbeasto” is a nonstop ride of outrageous humor, macabre EC Comics inspired characters and a thick layer of cartoon sleaze as an added cherry on top.
This is a raunchy, gory and profane piece of animation that certainly won’t work for everyone. Zombie is clearly going for a style of animation in the vein of Ralph Bakshi.
Following El Superbeasto, a former Luchadore turned hack writer/director and occasional secret agent, who loves nothing more than naked babes and hot wings. His stunning sister, Suzi X, an eyepatch-wearing agent with a horny robot assistant, as they uncover a plot involving Dr. Satan, a foul-mouthed stripper with a mysterious birthmark named Velvet Von Black, Nazi Zombies and the severed head of Hitler.
The characters feel vibrant and alive thanks to an all-star voice cast that includes Tom Papa, Sheri Moon Zombie, Rosario Dawson, Paul Giamatti, Danny Trejo, Brian Posehn and Tom Kenny.
Most characters get their own theme song thanks to an original soundtrack from the group Hard ‘n Firm.
Despite running at just 78 minutes, it runs out of steam well before the ending. The visual gags are consistently funny and the many, many pop culture references are amusing, but once the characters get caught up in the plot, the film gets significantly less interesting.
What could’ve been a killer 30 minute special is stretched to its absolute limits, but “El Superbeasto” does have enough fun gags to warrant a viewing if you’re a Zombie completist, or just want some extremely crass animated fun.
Pop Culture References:
- The film opens with a cute “Frankenstein” homage.
- “Apocalypse Now”
- Michael Myers is run over by a car.
- Dr. Satan has a flashback extremely reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s “Carrie”.
- “Planet of the Apes”
- “Modern Times” — Beasto refers to Hitler as “The Tramp”
Characters that appear in the background of a scene or make cameos include:
- Jack Torrance from “The Shining”
- The “Bride of Frankenstein”
- The Fly from “The Fly (1958)”
- “Alien” — A Xenomorph bursts out of a man’s chest and steals his beer.
- Jason Voorhees
- “Edward Scissorhands”
This film features an original soundtrack curated by Hard ‘n Phirm.
- “El Superbeasto” by Hard ‘n Phirm
- “Suzi X” by Hard ‘n Phirm
- “Velvet Von Black” by Hard ‘n Phirm
- ”Zombie Nazis” by Hard ‘n Phirm
- “The Old Bloodbath Routine” by Hard ‘n Phirm
- “Mr. Roboto” by Styx
- “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugarhill Gang
- “Working For the Weekend” by Loverboy
7. 31 (2016)
“31” finds Rob Zombie working with his smallest budget to date — a measly $1.5 million funded mostly through crowdfunding — as well as his most concerning lack of fresh ideas.
“31” feels like Zombie wrote the film during a creative pinch. Simply as an exercise to keep himself busy. Although he does manage to find some fleeting moments of creativity and specifically one brilliant character, it feels like Zombie on autopilot.
The story is straightforward enough. A group of traveling carnival workers are kidnapped on Halloween night and are forced to participate in a game of “31”. The rules are simple; survive for 12 hours from a legion of crazed killers and you will be set free. Imagine “The Running Man”, but through the lens of Rob Zombie.
The film itself wouldn’t be so lackluster if it weren’t for the horrid cinematography. The shaky cam footage is such a headache inducing mess, with many scenes coming off as just incomprehensible.
The true highlight of “31”, and the biggest saving grace, comes from Richard Brake’s show-stopping performance as the evil, “Doom Head”. Zombie wisely opens the film with a 5-minute long monologue from Brake, filmed in black and white with only a minimal amount of edits. It’s an opening that marks some of Zombie’s best writing and filmmaking that unfortunately that rest of the film doesn’t live up to. Zombie and Brake have created an iconic character from a film that otherwise doesn’t deserve him.
“31” is decent enough on its own merits, but as a fan of Rob Zombie and someone who knows what he’s capable of, this just feels lackluster.
Pop Culture References:
- Doom Head gets his look from watching F. W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu”.
- “Gone With The Wind”
- ”King Kong”
- ”The Thing from Another World”
- ”The Funhouse”
- ”The Rocky Horror Picture Show” — specifically a rather gross dinner scene.
- “Walk Away” by James Gang,
- “That Smell” by Lynyrd Skynyrd,
- “Walking the Floor Over You” by Ernest Tubb,
- “California Dreamin” by The Mamas & The Papas,
- “Dream On” by Aerosmith.
6. Halloween (2007)
Zombie’s first legitimate box office hit, still holding the record for the highest opening weekend for any film on Labor Day weekend, and his most controversial film is none other than his re-imagining of the John Carpenter classic, “Halloween”.
Taking an existential approach to the character — not idea — of Michael Myers, “Halloween” examines Michael, known as “The Shape” in Carpenter’s original film, as an innocent child, slowly corrupted by his surroundings, ultimately leading his to become pure evil. Zombie delves deep into the psyche of Michael. Not just witnessing him commit heinous acts, but witnessing everything that leads up to his breaking point. It’s a bold decision, especially given the original films purposeful lack of motivation.
We can view this film as the origin of Michael Myers or on its own as a film about the decline of a troubled youth. This film and its sequel are films of great tragedy. The sadness of the story is not lost on Zombie and he displays the story for the tragedy that it is.
The first half is the strongest due solely by its originality, but it’s also when the film is most effective at being scary. Watching young Michael brutalize his school bully with a wooden log is genuinely horrific and the massacre of his family members is unsettling not just in the graphic violence on-screen, but also the tone. Unlike many horror films if the genre, Zombie doesn’t revel in the violence. His exploitation tendencies take a backseat for a realistic approach that makes many early scenes disturbing to watch.
The violence is brutal and the gore is most certainly there, but the focus is more so on the trauma. Michael was a child traumatized by so much, that when he turns to violence, Zombie focuses on the trauma that he inflicts onto others. Laurie’s blood-curdling screams that end the film over homemade footage of young Michael holding Laurie as a baby only further solidify the themes Zombie set out to explore in the first place. The suffering and trauma of the main characters is what Zombie seems the most interested in.
Zombie builds up many complex traits about Michael that influence who he becomes, particularly with his ever-growing obsession with masks. Through his sessions with Doctor Loomis as a child, we see his innocence slowly chip away throughout time. The relationship between Michael and Loomis is given greater depth here. As Loomis says to Michael on his last day of visiting him, “in a weird way, you’ve become my best friend”. The emphasis on the song “Love Hurts”, played early in the film, is very intentional and gives both this and “H2” a real theme song, apart from the actual “Halloween” theme.
The performances are strong across the board. Starring as young Michael, Daeg Faerch is compelling and equally unsettling. Faerch is able to finely balance the innocence, unsuspecting look of a kind-hearted child along with the growing menace of someone on the brink of pure destruction. Sheri Moon Zombie gives the most rich and layered performance of her career as Michael’s struggling mother. Danny Trejo adds a great deal of humanity to the film as a guard at Smith’s Grove who befriends Michael and looks after him during his years at the asylum. His character adds a further layer of tragedy when Michael brutally murders him during his escape, even as Trejo’s character heartbreakingly repeats, “I was good to you, Mikey”. Scout Taylor-Compton does a fine job as Laurie Strode, but she’s not given enough time for her character to make much of an impression. It isn’t until the sequel where her character truly blossoms. Brad Dourif is also inspired casting as Sheriff Bracket.
The best performance of the film, however, goes to Malcolm McDowell as the new Doctor Loomis. Following in the footsteps of Donald Pleasance is a task no one should ask for, but McDowell makes for an immensely compelling Loomis. McDowell adds more layers to the character not fully explored in the previous films. The lingering sadness that hangs over Loomis is more apparent here, giving the audience a stronger sense that Loomis feels as if he’s failed Michael.
Zombie’s writing can be a bit much, particularly the family stuff early on. It’s not particularly subtle writing. Everyone who does wrong by Michael in the beginning is written to be the worst possible human. At the end of the day it gets the job done, but one can only imagine the true greatness that lies within a better script. Its also when the film runs out of ideas when it becomes stale. At around the 1 hour mark, the film picks up in modern day and from then on plays like a beat-for-beat remake. Zombie also takes the unfavorable (now retconned) twist of Michael and Laurie being siblings from the original sequel and works it into the story; it actually works much better in Zombie’s films than the originals.
Zombie essentially writes himself into a corner he can’t get out of until the sequel. Seeing Laurie and her friends — characters we don’t get to know very well — recreate the exact same events from the original film is incredibly tedious, especially given that Zombie does not know how to write dialogue for teenage girls. There are occasional spurts of interest, due mostly to the scenes between Dourif and McDowell, but aren’t enough to liven up a dull back half.
There is also one scene that has since caused a bit controversy, The unrated director’s cut, a better version of the film that adds more scenes between Michael and Loomis, further develops young Michael’s slow-moving loss humanity, also features some of Zombie’s worst impulses. I’m specifically referring to Michael’s escape from Smith’s Grove. In the theatrical version, Michael escapes after breaking out of his chains and killing the surrounding guards tasked with transferring him to a new facility. It even features cameos from Zombie mainstays Bill Moseley, the late Tom Towles and Leslie Easterbrook. Zombie’s director’s cut, the most widely accessible cut of the film, takes out this scene and replaces it with a scene of two guards entering Michael’s cell and taunting him by raping a catatonic inmate in front of him, casing Michael to kill the guards and break free. It’s Zombie’s needless impulse for sadism here that brings down the film.
A bit of backstory on the scene; this was the original escape for Michael in the initial cut of the film. However, the studio insisted Zombie reshoot the scene after negative reactions from test audiences. Michael’s escape in the theatrical cut is what Zombie later reshot. The original scene is needlessly grotesque, features some awful character logic and is overall just a bad scene.
That said, Zombie’s directorial eye matures with the first act using mostly handheld camera shots with tight close-ups, the second act using clinical, still wide shots and the third act, with very chaotic camerawork. Zombie succeeds in making this film feel like it’s own. “Halloween” is vastly uneven, but its original ideas are enough to keep the film afloat. It’s a flawed film, but is one of the most interesting horror remakes ever made.
Pop Culture References:
- Young Michael wears a KISS t-shirt.
- “White Zombie” plays on a TV
- “Plan 9 From Outer Space” plays on a TV
- “Night of the Living Dead” is heard in the background of a scene
- “Cool Hand Luke”
Original “Halloween” References:
- “The Thing From Another World” plays on a TV
- “Don’t Fear the Reaper” plays multiple times throughout the film
- “Rabbit in Red” Strip Club
- “God of Thunder” by KISS
- “Love Hurts” by Nazareth
- “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult
- “Tom Sawyer” by Rush
- “Baby, I Love Your Way” by Peter Frampton
- “Let It Ride” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive
5. 3 From Hell (2019)
For my full analysis, check out my review right here. http://defactofilmreviews.com/3-from-hell/
Given the almost 15 year gap between this and “The Devil’s Rejects”, expectations were understandably high. While the case for this films existence is still up for debate, fans — including myself — were mostly happy with the end result. What Zombie lacks in new ideas, he makes up for with exciting new inspirations and some of the best set-pieces of his career. The final showdown set in Mexico is a gripping and pulpy example of genre filmmaking done right.
While most of us were disappointed in the limited screentime given to the late, Sid Haig, reports of his ailing health causing a major factor were understandable and still left us with a great scene from the legendary icon. I have not seen the film since Haig’s passing, but my next viewing is sure to be a more emotional experience than before.
The 3-night theatrical run from Fathom Events proved such a success, grossing $1.8 million from just the 3 shows, Fathom has added an encore screening of the film set for October 14th. It will also be able on 4K Blu-Ray and Digital the next day.
Pop Culture References:
- A lengthy discussion between Otis and Foxy on which one is James Cagney and which one is Humphrey Bogart.
- “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”
- “The Wizard of Oz”
- “Batman ’66”
- The climactic showdown has multiple references to Spaghetti Westerns such as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “Django”.
- “The Wild One” by Suzi Quatro
- “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” by Slim Whitman
- “Ride the Wind” by James Gang
- “Faith to Arise” by Terry Reid
4. Halloween II (2009)
Possibly Zombie’s most divisive film — and that’s really saying something — is his follow-up to his financially successful, but critically tarnished remake of “Halloween”. While “Halloween” explored the trauma that was inflicted upon Michael and how he later inflicted it onto others. “H2” takes the same theme of trauma and explores how the main characters deal with the aftermath and the effects of PTSD. Like Michael himself, “H2” feels like Zombie completely unleashed. Zombie is much nastier this time around, both in tone, in the look and of course, in the kills. This is a much more visceral experience than “Halloween”.
Zombie has no interest in repeating your favorite beats from the original films, something he was heavily criticized for in the latter half of the previous film. He takes the characters that he previously set up and takes them into entirely new directions, forgoing any expectation.
His Michael Myers is a force of reckoning that was once an innocent child, pushed to the depths of hell after immense trauma. He now stands as a figure of trauma for a new set of characters. As we see these characters attempt to put their lives back together, some better than others, Michael comes back and tears any and all progress away from them. It’s a bleak look at collective trauma and one that often gets overlooked by the genre film community. I would argue Zombie does a better job at a psychological character study than the David Gordon Green’s most recent “Halloween” follow-up.
Since the events of the previous film, Michael has become a hobo, walking the ends of the woods until it’s Halloween time. He’s shown as being more animalistic this time around; grunting whenever murdering and excessively butchers his victims. Like something out of a David Lynch film, Michael is seen being led by the vision of his late mother dressed in all white, walking besides a White Horse. This idea gives Michael an interesting, if gonzo motivation that doesn’t always work, but earns my respect for just how weird it is.
Zombie also delivers some of his most terrifying sequences to date. The entire sequence set at a Halloween party is nail-bitingly tense. The early Hospital nightmare sequence is the films biggest highlight. It’s suspenseful and atmospheric in ways Zombie hadn’t accomplished yet. The way he frames Michael in most of the film, using lots of faint lighting and pitch-black shadows, is absolutely chilling. Michael is scary in this film and that’s something most of the “Halloween” franchise failed to accomplish.
Zombie has made it no secret that production on this film was pure chaos. Dealing with tightening schedules, weather delays and more pressure from studio execs. Zombie and his team didn’t actually finish the film until the week before its release and the results definitely show. The supernatural aspects of the story feel vastly underdeveloped and slapdash. The pacing is very uneven. Much of the symbolism is overtly unsubtle, with some downright laughable. However, all these wild ingredients come together and help create a profoundly unique film.
Shot on 16mm and presented in a 1:85 aspect ratio, compared to the first films more cinematic 2:35, “H2” feels authentically dark, emphasizing the more atmospheric, Gothic surroundings. There’s a more stark sense of sadness that lingers over this film more so than the previous entry. A somber cover of “Love Hurts” that plays over the ending of the film ties the two films together as more melancholic entries of the slasher genre.
The performances are all excellent here. Scout Taylor-Compton, severely underutilized before, is given much more to do in a performance that effectively captures pain and despair. Laurie is dealing with trauma far less successfully than Annie (Danielle Harris). Laurie visits a therapist (played by the late, Margot Kidder) who tries her best to keep her in line. She also deals with severe night terrors, constant mood swings and aggressively acts out towards Annie. The dynamic between Laurie and Annie is heartbreaking and holds a lot of emotional complexity. Malcolm McDowell deeply commits to his new take on Loomis. One of the more controversial aspect of “H2”, Loomis is now seen as a media-crazed egomaniac. Going on tour to promote his new book that exploits the true identity of Laurie and the lives of the previous films victims, Loomis is presented with criticism at every interview he gives, but shrugs it off in a carefree manner. A scene where Loomis is on a talk show seated next to Weird Al is pretty hysterical and serves as a turning point for the character. It’s not a take that I love, but McDowell sells every moment.
“H2” is also infused with some hefty dramatic moments. When Laurie discovers she’s Michael’s sister when reading Loomis’ new book, you can’t help but feel devastated. Or when the father of Linda, killed in the previous film, confronts Loomis at a book signing and pulls a gun on him in hysterics. The death of Annie is one of the more tragic deaths of a main character in the slasher genre. Due in large part to the performances of Danielle Harris, Scout Taylor-Compton and particularly Brad Dourif. Dourif gives a compassionate performance and the scene of him finding the body of his deceased daughter is heart-wrenching. It’s a scene that’s more resonate than you would expect.
Similar to what happened with the previous film, the theatrical version and the more widely accessible director’s cut differ immensely, in this case with the endings. Without delving too deep, the DC features questionable decisions such as Michael fully removing his mask and speaking, a more definitive take on who lives and who dies and overall feels more in line with Zombie’s initial vision. The theatrical ending is more toned down in terms of questionable decisions and is relatively straightforward compared to the rest of the film. Neither ending is fully satisfying, but the DC is the more consistent version.
Zombie takes the tragedy of Michael Myers and runs with it through the end. “H2” is not your usual bloody slasher film. It’s a tragic story about the loss of humanity and the trauma that inflicts on these characters. Zombie takes a bleak approach to the series that jump-started that slasher genre that, while messy and not entirely successful, is one of the most unique takes on the horror genre we’ve seen in decades.
Pop Culture References:
- “Bride of Frankenstein”
- “The Wizard of Oz”
- Lee Marvin
- “A Clockwork Orange” — a nice little throwaway line from McDowell
- “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” — Laurie and her friends go to a Halloween party dressed as “Rocky Horror” characters
- “Teen Wolf” — a victim of Michael’s is dressed as the titular character
- “Black Christmas” — Margot Kidder’s character is named very similarly to her character in the film.
- Mike Myers — Weird Al has a funny line confusing Myers with the “Austin Powers” actor.
- “Nights in White Satin” by The Moody Blues
- “The Things We Do For Love” by 10cc
- “Kick Out the Jams” by MC5
- “I Know I’m Losing You” by Rod Stewart
- “Transylvania Terror Train” & “Honky Tonk Halloween” by Captain Clegg and the Night Creatures
- “I Just Want To Make Love To You” by Foghat
- “Love Hurts” by Nan Vernon
3. House of 1,000 Corpses (2003)
The best way to describe “House of 1,000 Corpses” is to quote Captain Spaulding himself; “do you like blood? violence? freaks of nature? In the way “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is so scary because it feels like it was made by actual crazy people, “Corpses” feels like it’s made by a filmmaker truly unhinged.
The film, shot in 2000, was set to be released by Universal Studios who clashed with Zombie constantly on the set in attempts of making the film less gory, often forcing him to film violence scenes twice, once with gore and once without. When the studio saw Zombie’s finished cut, they refused to release the film, deeming it “unreleasable”. The film then sat in limbo for several years until Lionsgate acquired the film and released it in the spring of 2003. Having garnered notoriety from Zombie’s legion of fans, the film grossed more than $16 million worldwide, despite the harsh critical reactions and opening on just 600 screens. Flashforward 16 years later and “Corpses” has become a cult favorite and Universal Studios has made it a maze at their annual “Halloween Horror Nights” for 3 different years.
From the very beginning, we’re introduced to “Captain Spaulding”, the late, Sid Haig. Spaulding is a demented, larger-than-life owner of “Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen”. A gas station known for its tasty fried chicken that also doubles as a tourist attraction with a museum and a “murder ride”. He’s a crass man, but also extremely funny and irresistibly likable. From the opening scene, we realize this a film like none other. As Spaulding foils a robbery from two bumbling goons, Zombie opens the film with this sequence that’s both hilarious and startling with crude, funny dialogue, pop culture references and shocking violence. Imagine a scene from Kevin Smith’s “Clerks”, but through the demented mind of Rob Zombie.
Following a group of wannabe roadside attraction writers, the gang stops by Spaulding’s place of business in hopes of finding the grave of local legend, “Dr. Satan”. When they pick up a hitchhiker, Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), and get a flat tire, Baby takes them to her house, filled with her crazy, psychotic family members. Imagine a more eccentric Sawyer family. The family members include Otis (Bill Moseley), a deranged, albino necrophiliac, rapist and killer who always seems to have a monologue ready at hand. Mother Firefly (Karen Black), dressed like a madame in a bordello. Baby, a flirty sex kitten whose crazed and demented personality seemingly increases throughout the film. There is also Grandpa (Dennis Fimple), Tiny (Matthew McGrory) and Rufus (Robert Mukes). The family kidnaps the teens and subject them to body dismemberment, scalpings, beatings, and other sadistic forms of torture in preparation for their annual Halloween festival.
All the performances are solid, but Sid Haig is utterly brilliant in his portrayal of Spaulding. These killers have become iconic for a reason, but Haig leaves the most memorable mark on the film. It’s a big, grand performance that only an actor like Haig could’ve performed so seemingly effortless. Sid was a icon in the horror community and 2 minutes into his role, its not hard to see why.
This is the shining example of crazed directorial debuts. “Corpses” is manic, breakneck and messy in charming fashion. It’s the work of a filmmaker with so many ideas, he doesn’t quite know how to make them all fit. As if Zombie felt he may never make another film, so he decided to cram in every possible idea or influence into an 88 minute film.
Zombie unfortunately fails to stick the landing. The messy, borderline incomprehensible final 20 minutes feel so far removed from the rest of the film, leaving more questions than answers. Questions that never really get answered from the following films. After “Corpses” and the deleted subplot in “Rejects”, it truly feels like Zombie never figured out what to do with the Dr. Satan character. “Corpses” ends with a literal question mark and I couldn’t think of a better final image. Despite its shortcomings, “House of 1,000 Corpses” is a crazed, uncompromising vision that is a one of a kind experience.
Pop Culture References:
- “Planet of the Apes” — Particularly the mention of an unfortunate placement of a Dr. Zaius doll.
- John Wayne — On two different occasions
- 60’s and 70’s era Sci-Fi
- “House of Frankenstein” is played on TV in the background of a scene
- “Alice in Wonderland” — throughout the entire third act.
- “House of 1,000 Corpses (Theme Song)” by Rob Zombie
- “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” by The Ramones
- “I Wanna Be Loved By You” by Helen Kane
- “Brick House” by The Commodores
- “I Remember You” by Slim Whitman
- “Pussy Liquor” by Rob Zombie
- “Brick House (2003)” by Rob Zombie, Lionel Richie, Trina
2. The Lords of Salem (2013)
“The Lords of Salem” finds Zombie at his most creatively daring and visionary. Going for mood and atmosphere rather than shocking violence, Zombie channels the works of early Roman Polanski and Ken Russell to tell an eerie story set in modern-day Salem.
Sheri Moon Zombie stars as Heidi, a radio DJ and recovering drug addict struggling with crippling depression. When she and her co-workers (Jeff Daniel Phillips & Ken Foree) receive a mysterious record sent to them from a group called “The Lords”, the sounds on the record cause Heidi to witness dark flashbacks and eerie visions of the town’s past involving a coven of witches led by Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster).
“The Lords of Salem” is a masterclass in establishing tone and atmosphere. Unlike “Corpses”, the surreal, hypnotic visuals are essential to the film. The films plot slowly unfolds, eventually giving way towards an otherworldly final act filled with nightmarish imagery that still haunt 6 years later.
Meg Foster is chilling as the evil witch, devouring the scenery with every frame the she’s in. Sheri Moon Zombie and Jeff Daniel Phillips have exceptional chemistry with one another, adding a layer of tragedy to their relationship when things take a turn for the worse.
The score by Zombie band member, John 5, is notably eerie and compliments the moody cinematography. Although there is an emotional element to the story, “Lords” largely exists as a visceral, disturbing nightmare. The atmosphere is so incredibly thick, you can feel the cool, fall weather and the grimy textures are palpable.
What truly prevents “Lords” from being an absolute masterpiece, apart from some thin writing, is Sheri Moon Zombie’s performance. She gives it her all and does a decent enough job, but so much of the film relies on the nuances on her character and Moon Zombie feels ill-equipped for such a quiet, intimate performance.
This is Zombie’s most bleak and dour film to date. Despite occasional gruesome imagery, this isn’t a film aiming for exploitation territory. This is a slow, methodical film that finds Zombie at his most mature self as a filmmaker. The cold, melancholic feel to the film is palpable and effectively adds to the atmosphere.
“The Lords of Salem” is an unnerving piece of filmmaking. Surely not for everyone — audiences either loved it or completely despised it — but an unforgettable experience nevertheless.
Pop Culture References:
- “A Trip to the Moon” — Heidi has a giant poster of the film in her apartment.
- “King of the Rocket Man” images are plastered all over Heidi’s walls.
- “Black Sunday”
- “The Devils”
- ”The Shining” — the structure is heavily influenced by the film.
- “Blinded By The Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
- “Give It to me Baby” by Rick James
- “The Spirit of Radio” by Rush
- “Venus in Furs” by The Velvet Underground
- “Requiem, K. 626: Lacrimosa” by Wolfgang Mozart
- “All Tomorrow’s Parties” by The Velvet Underground
1. The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
Unquestionably Rob Zombie’s magnum opus is “The Devil’s Rejects”, the unlikely follow-up to “House of 1,000 Corpses”.
“The Devil’s Rejects” is one of my all-time favorite films and much of it stems from my first experience with the film. Around the year of 2006, the film made its way to pay cable. Little 9 year old me waited to watch it late st night, around the 2AM hour, while my parents were sleeping and the house was dead quiet. From the moment the film started, I could tell it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Having to rapidly change the volume of the TV as not to wake my parents or siblings and make sure I wouldn’t get caught watching a film I was definitely too young to see, I kept having to make sure I would keep my viewing as low key as possible. A film this crazy to the eyes of a 9 year old is something that surely leaves its mark. That viewing experience and the film itself had an effect on me I will never forget.
Taking a much grittier, grounded approach to the characters first introduced in “House of 1,000 Corpses”, “The Devil’s Rejects” takes much of its influences from late 60’s, early 70’s, sun-drenched classics such as “Bonnie and Clyde”, “Badlands” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. The results are a genre-bending, modern American classic that rewrites much of the rules it intitially abides by.
“Corpses” introduces these characters for the flamboyant psychos they are. “Rejects” dares to make them human. The inability to nail down exactly what the film qualifies as is one of its biggest strengths. It’s loosely a horror film. It’s part revenge film, part modern western, part serial killer film, part exploitation film, even partly a family road trip film, but fully a Rob Zombie film.
The film follows the remaining members of the Firefly family, Baby, Otis and Captain Spaulding (revealed as Baby’s father) as outlaws on the run from the vengeful Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe). Filmed in incredible 16mm photography, with much of the terror happening in the bright sunlight, “Rejects” feels like an authentic product of the 70’s, but also feels very much like a film made in the post 9/11 era.
The family continues to humiliate torture and kill their victims in similar fashion to the previous film, albeit less campy and eccentric.
Much of the middle act takes place in a rundown motel where Baby and Otis have captured a touring singing group and hold them hostage. The group is subjected to severe humiliation, physical and psychological torture and are eventually mudered through some incredibly tense and horrific sequences.
Perhaps the most horrific sequence, one that is honestly a bit hard to describe, involves a maid stumbling upon the remains of the hotel room, only to be chased out by the lone survivor, crazed out of her mind and wearing the skinned face of her dead husband. It’s deeply unsettling, surreal and extremely gnarly.
One of the biggest reasons this film works so well is due to Zombie’s excellent character work.
The Sheriff (brilliantly played by William Forsythe) who, in any other movie, would be the hero, turns into the villain here. Led by his blind quest for revenge, he turns into the real monster in a film filled with almost nothing but monsters. His inherent hunger for justice leads to his ultimate downfall and William Forsythe gives a complex and menacing performance. During the third act confrontation with the Rejects, Wydell is made to be the actual threat, the hunter hunting the killers. Wydell, a usual audience surrogate, crosses so many lines, that even though we follow some of the most despicable characters ever put to screen, by the end of the film, it’s the killer we root for and Wydell we root against. Perhaps it’s Wydell in the end who becomes a Devil’s Reject?
In a normal film, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are established early on and don’t change, but “The Devil’s Rejects” is anything but a normal film. Zombie flips the script on audience expectations for who to root for. Even more impressive given we’ve seen these main characters before in a previous film where they were the bad guys. Even after all the brutal sadism we’ve seen them inflict, we side with them in the end. Zombie allows your emotions to guide you through, which signifies a filmmaker firing on all cylinders.
You never once feel manipulated into siding with the characters. It happens naturally, showing how gifting Zombie is with his storytelling. The main characters are given human moments such as them driving in a van and arguing about stopping for ice cream. It’s a scene that would be cut from any other film, but its greatly important in further establishing the dynamic between the main family.
Sheri Moon Zombie is as electric as she’s ever been, effectively seeking a more grounded version of Baby, while still retaining her demented, playful personality.
Bill Moseley is so endlessly compelling as Otis, that fans actually started an independent campaign to garner him an Oscar nomination. The campaign was unsuccessful, but Moseley’s performance has become one of the more iconic performances of modern horror films alongside Sid Haig.
Haig delivers his best work here. He is menacing, funny and downright soulful in his performance. His layered performance adds new depth to the character of Captain Spaulding and further solidifies him as an icon. His passing reinforces just how important a figure he was and will always be to the genre and modern cinema as a whole.
The 70’s southern rock soundtrack is perfectly curated and gives the film a heart and soul. Every song feels carefully selected and fits beautifully with every scene.
The amount of times I’ve gone back to watch the final five minutes of this film is too high to count. If I owned this film on VHS I would’ve broken the tape. The ending, reminiscent of films like “Butch Cassidy” and “Bonnie and Clyde” is poetic and bittersweet. Played to Lynryd Skynyrd’s classic, “Free Bird”, is as perfect an ending can get. Zombie utilizes the song in a way no other film has or will be able to.
The credits, playing to the soulful “Seed of Memory” by Terry Reid, roll over aerial views of sun-covered highways and mountaintops almost like the souls of the characters, aimlessly wandering the Earth.
“The Devil’s Rejects” is a modern American classic. A twisted take on the American story of an American family. It’s a film that has since left an impact on pop culture and is sure to forever be regarded as one of the subliminal films of the early 21st century.
Pop Culture References:
- “Star Wars”
- “The Unholy Three”
- ”Animal Crackers” — It’s finally revealed that the Firefly family is naked after Groucho Marx characters.
- “King King”
- ”The Wizard of Oz”
- ”The Night of the Hunter”
- Elvis Presley — Wydell is revealed to be a die-hard fan of the King of Rock.
- “Midnight Rider” by The Allman Brothers Band
- “Satan’s Gotta Get Along Without Me” by Buck Owens
- “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” by Elvis Bishop
- “I Can’t Quit You Baby” by Otis Rush
- “Funk No. 49” by James Gang
- “Rocky Mountain Way” by Joe Walsh
- “To Be Treated Rite” by Terry Reid
- “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
- “Seed of Memory” by Terry Reid