Ever since his 2003 debut, House of 1000 Corpses, Rob Zombie has used cinema to engage the paradox of counter-cultural extremity and populism. Raised as a child of the seventies – who saw violent episodes unfold in his family’s travelling carnival – Zombie built up an eclectic reserve of reference points. (Not only from the carnie world, but also through a vast array of pop cultural phenomena, from Tod Browning to ABBA to Black Sabbath to Evel Knievel to Steven Spielberg.) The tensions amidst these reference points sit at the foundation of Zombie’s entire creative output, beginning with his band, White Zombie: originally a ragged art-rock outfit defined by a DIY punk ethos and psychedelic horror imagery, they later transitioned to cleaner, industrial-tinged groove metal, lifted as much from stadium acts like Alice Cooper and Kiss as from the underground. As a visual artist, Zombie began developing his aesthetic by directing music videos for his band, and then, later, for his solo output – from the late nineties onward – filtering a range of horror influences (most notably German Expressionism and the Universal monster cycle of the thirties and forties) through the color-soaked postmodern stylings typical of peak MTV.
When Zombie’s work branched into feature-length cinema, the artist became an involuntary key player in the oft-derided “torture porn” subgenre of the mid-2000s. The genre, despite outrage from the popular critical establishment, generated big box office success, including James Wan’s Saw, Eli Roth’s Hostel, and Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. By the end of the decade, none other than the Weinstein Company saw enough financial potential in the director to hire him for a reimagining of the by-then-exhausted Halloween franchise. Zombie took this opportunity to radically remake John Carpenter’s classic 1978 film, reinventing the soulless stalker Michael Myers as the by-product of sociocultural and psychological factors central to a middle class, suburban American life. Despite Halloween’s abrasive depictions of violence and its demanding scope, the film became an enormous box office success (one of the biggest in the history of the Weinstein Company). And when Zombie was rehired to direct that film’s sequel, he doubled down on his esoteric preoccupations – Halloween II further advanced its predecessor’s psychoanalytic undercurrents within a feature-length meditation on intergenerational trauma. The film was critically reviled and enjoyed significantly less financial success than its predecessor, but it served as another demonstration of Zombie’s unmistakable stylistic and psychological perspective as an artist.
What makes Zombie such a vital American artist is his troubled relationship to the culture that he depicts and inhabits. While Zombie’s films are intoxicated by the aesthetics of genre cinema, renegade carnies, heavy metal, and Americana, they ultimately offer a portrait of national decay, and of human failure. No doubt informed by the director’s commitment to animal rights and veganism, Zombie’s films directly dismantle the myth of human exceptionalism. There is no space for unchecked solipsism and escapism in the filmmaker’s cinema. His work engages constantly with the conflicted relationship between glorification and disdain, fixating on the impact, and the aftermath, of physical violence, but not without also reveling in the base brain pleasures therein. Much like his music, Zombie’s films pair dissonant affects (humour and horror, arousal and disgust) to lay bare the ways in which his culture’s fetishes are infected with sick contradictions.
In an era that foregrounds self-aggrandizing moralism and reactionary appeals to humanist potential, Rob Zombie’s cinema offers, importantly, a combative point of view.
Nowhere is this fixation made more clear than in 2012’s The Lords of Salem, Zombie’s first release of the 2010s. Set, of course, in Salem, Massachusetts, the film revolves around radio DJ Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie, Rob Zombie’s wife and frequent collaborator), a recovering drug addict who receives a mysterious LP from a group who call themselves “The Lords.” Heidi soon becomes obsessed with the record’s powerful sonic effects – and is eventually lead to psychically confront local and familial legacies of witchcraft and persecution. The Lords of Salem presents the most dramatic shift in Zombie’s filmography to date, turning to more conceptually and visually abstract expressions of anti-humanism than any previous work. Zombie’s first film to be shot digitally, its crisp, widescreen compositions emphasize Heidi’s fraught relationship with her memories and her environment. Ultimately, The Lords of Salem represents an ambivalent celebration of nihilism. Subordinate to forces both supernatural and natural (specifically addiction), Heidi finally submits to the evils of her past and embraces her inner demons. Zombie thus speaks to a long-standing American gothic tradition, upending the tenets of Renaissance humanism through a heroine who is irreparably damaged and powerless to both internal and external forces. Given the filmmaker’s penchant for compelling contradictions, this conclusion plays out as a disorienting triumph – scored to the Velvet Underground & Nico’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
Four years after The Lords of Salem, Zombie presented another pessimistic portrait of Americana, with 2016’s 31. Following the doomed development of a seventies hockey drama, called Broadstreet Bullies, Zombie turned to crowd-funding to pad his next micro-budget, closed-concept horror film. 31 stands as the director’s most powerful allegory for factory farming and the unstable foundation of human exceptionalism, pitting the kidnapped members of a traveling carnival against hired killers dressed as clowns. Forced to participate in a game of cat-and-mouse – in a locked warehouse for the amusement of omniscient aristocrats donning powdered wigs – these characters stumble through their dimly lit environments and engage in hopeless bouts of physical combat with their hunters. The concept is a devilishly simple homage to Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel’s 1932 film adaptation of Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, which was itself a pre-code explication of humankind’s innate animalism. 31 frames its captive carnies as stand-ins for animals raised for slaughter in hellish environments: one scene depicts these characters accidentally eating the flesh of their dead friend, after mistaking his flesh for that of a nonhuman animal. The film’s structural simplicity bolsters its critique, which offers a microcosmic view of late-capitalist America and the incumbent atrocity it wreaks upon humans and nonhumans alike. Although these allegorical functions are implicit, they prove more convincingly damning, and disturbing, than those found in the decade’s more ham-fisted, message-driven horror movies (Green Room, The Witch, and mother!).
After 31 was released, Zombie saw the death of another passion project – Raised Eyebrows. Linking with Love & Mercy co-writer Oren Moverman, Zombie was set to adapt Steve Stoliar’s book of the same name, which documents the tragic final chapters of comic Groucho Marx’s life. Zombie described his vision for Raised Eyebrows as partly informed by Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, but eventually, logistical and financial obstacles prevented the film from moving ahead. Zombie finally conceded, instead deciding to make 3 from Hell – a sequel to his most successful film, The Devil’s Rejects. Complicated by the unexpectedly quickening illness of star Sid Haig, 3 from Hell underwent last-minute rewrites, less than a week before production began. The film unmistakably bears its limitations and obstacles, and lacks the conviction of the director’s best work.Much like its predecessor, 3 from Hell presents a postmodern treatise on genre, hybridizing horror with mockumentary, the western, and comedy conventions. 3 from Hell pays tribute, most blatantly, to Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 film The Wild Bunch, but it also employs nods to screwball comedy – toying with America’s affinity for serial killers through scenarios that play like Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks, pushed beyond moral limits. 3 from Hell differs from The Devil’s Rejects, most notably, in formal terms: where the earlier film benefited from a larger scale production and the distinct texture of its 16mm cinematography, 3 from Hell has a hackneyed and rushed quality, exemplified by its cheaply treated digital approach and a heavy reliance on CGI. Nevertheless, the film showcases a director with a distinct point of view – one who, despite significant budgetary and schedule constraints, pushes fervently against the self-centered simplicity of contemporary genre cinema. In an era that foregrounds self-aggrandizing moralism and reactionary appeals to humanist potential, Rob Zombie’s cinema offers, importantly, a combative point of view.