When Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses was released in 2003 (following numerous distribution delays by its original producer Universal Studios due to objectionable content), many chalked it up to the vanity project of a rockstar. Zombie, after all, had made his name first with the band White Zombie and then as a solo artist, mixing and matching classic horror movie monsters, Max Fleischer cartoons, The Munsters, and Alice Cooper into a heady stew. He was part carnival barker, part unhinged sociopath, part Stan Lee, always ready to proselytize for old B-movies and the sort of bric-a-brac that accompanies Halloween funhouses. Corpses became notable mostly for casting future pop-culture mainstays Chris Hardwick and Rainn Wilson in early roles and for its bald-faced liftings from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre parts 1 & 2, leading to a mildly diverting horror oddity that couldn’t quite overcome Zombie’s fanboyish adoration of ‘70s genre classics.
In other words, there was nothing present here that would otherwise prepare audiences for the seismic shock of his second feature, 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects. Technically a sequel to Corpses, Rejects jettisons much (but not all) of the winky comedy and blatant referencing of the former for a fully deranged descent into the apocalyptic madness of serial killers run amok. It’s an ugly, vicious film, a road trip through the wide-open spaces of Americana rendered nightmarish through gleeful violence. The musician behind songs like “Living Dead Girl,” “Thunder Kiss ‘65,” and “Welcome to Planet Motherfucker” would create a cinematic form to match his aural preoccupations, leading to a run of accomplished films culminating in his masterpiece, Halloween II.
Picking up after the events of Corpses, Rejects finds law enforcement finally catching up with the Firefly clan. The police, led by Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), have surrounded the family’s ramshackle home/torture compound and are looking for blood. A massive shootout ensues, killing some of the cops and members of the family alike; Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is taken into custody, while Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Otis (Bill Mosley) escape through an underground tunnel. Now on the run, they call their Dad, Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), for help, and make a pitstop at a roadside motel to terrorize some unsuspecting musicians who tour as Banjo and Sullivan. Roy (Geoffrey Lewis) and Adam (Lew Temple) have the grave misfortune of falling for Baby’s honeypot routine while their wives, Gloria (Priscilla Barnes) and Wendy (Kate Norby), lounge around in their room. Once the men invite Baby in, Otis makes his presence known and a sick game ensues, the two psychopaths playing with their victims like malicious children pulling the wings off insects.
Any other filmmaker would make this extended set piece the climax of their movie, an extended bit of extremely unpleasant torture and sexual mortification that leads ultimately to the death of each hostage. But this is only the halfway point of The Devil’s Rejects, as Zombie spends the second half of the film slowly reconfiguring the remaining Firefly crew from antagonists to protagonists, allowing them the status of romantic, mythical rebels and outlaws. It’s a bold gambit, facilitated by Sheriff Wydell’s simultaneous transformation from lawman to killer as he seeks revenge for the death of his brother (a previous victim of the Firefly’s, as detailed in Corpses). Wydell eventually murders Mother Firefly in cold blood, then hires a couple of ex-con mercenaries to capture Baby, Otis, and Spaulding. The on-screen representative of “law and order” fully becomes that which he is hunting, abdicating his moral authority in the process and granting the Firefly’s a patina of righteous fury as they now fight for their own lives.
In their exhaustive, 10-part essay series from 2022 titled The End of History, an extremely detailed examination of the films of Tony and Ridley Scott as they relate to the death of a certain kind of American mainstream cinema, filmmakers Scout Tafoya and Tucker Johnson devote Chapter 6 to the aftermath of 9/11 and its pernicious influence on U.S. popular culture. It’s a positively Hoberman-esque bit of provocation, making connections between the rise of the surveillance state, the dampening of dissent amongst journalists and artists, the worrisome rallying behind the U.S. war machine, and particularly the haunting images that came out of Abu Ghraib in 2004. It’s a fascinating (and reasonably convincing) series of linkages; Tafoya and Johnson speculate that the American media’s failure to deal with this atrocity created a rift of sorts, leading to a rise of extreme horror films that, in their words, were “the only images that commented on America’s uncontrollable bloodlust.” There’s no indication that Zombie is particularly political, nor would anyone accuse him of being an intellectual, and yet astute critics at the time recognized in films like Hostel and The Devil’s Rejects clear allusions to the Abu Ghraib photographs. Willow Catelyn Maclay, perhaps our finest critic on Zombie’s body of work, puts it more succinctly: ‘In Zombie’s films, death matters.” The suggestion being, clearly, that in other genre films, and perhaps in life, death is purely abstract (not for nothing are most people’s memories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan largely impersonal, long-distance, night-vision images that look more like video games than battle zone footage).
In his seminal 1970 collection Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, Robin Wood writes on the idea of the “incoherent text” that “moves[…] toward an unresolvable and usually unrecognized dilemma, both the incoherence and the dilemma become in themselves eloquent, speaking for the quandary of a civilization.” Zombie taps into this eloquence in an intuitive way, in the sense that he seems to genuinely love the monsters he has created and can only bring himself to vanquish them in a kind of heroic blaze of glory. The Rejects driving into a hail of bullets while Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” blares on the soundtrack is as deranged a summation of America as one is likely to muster, murderers and rapists romanticized into oblivion by the forces of law and order that are in fact just as evil as the predators they purport to protect us from. As writer Mike Thorn says, it’s a “vital American movie, made of the very same iconography and textures that it burns to the fucking ground.” This is our 21st-century The Wild Bunch.