Few figures in modern horror are as controversial as the infamous rocker-turned-director, Rob Zombie. Heralded by some as one of the few true “auteur” filmmakers working in the genre today, while simultaneously considered a talentless hack by others, there’s quite the disparity in opinions regarding Zombie within the horror community. While he still benefits from a loyal fan-base, his last few films have been extremely divisive, leaving many to wonder if his early cinematic success was merely a fluke.
As a matter of fact, the once celebrated director of neo-grindhouse classics like House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects has recently come under fire from even the most devoted of fans due to his latest endeavor, the crowd-funded slasher 31. Even as a long-time admirer of Zombie’s work, I can’t quite bring myself to defend 31 as a good movie in and of itself, but it’s obvious that the horror community’s treatment of Zombie after its release is, at the very least, extremely unfair.
To understand why Zombie is still relevant (and perhaps even necessary) in the modern horror scene, we need some perspective on his cinematic upbringing. From the very beginning, the effects of horror on Rob’s music were unmistakable, and it was obvious that this was something he was passionate about. Before turning his attention to film, Zombie had already developed skills as a director with his music videos and concerts, which were all heavily influenced by classic scary movies like Frankenstein and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It was only a matter of time before he’d try his luck in a different artistic medium.
Originally filmed in 2000, Rob’s first film, House of 1000 Corpses, was released nearly 3 years later, as even then studios weren’t sure about how to deal with his brutal and unique vision. Although now it’s fondly remembered as the movie which introduced us to some of the only original and memorable horror villains of the 2000s, the film was a critical bomb at the time, only developing a cult following years later. Re-watching it nowadays and comparing it to Zombie’s most recent projects, the director’s inexperience is glaring, but the film still carries that messy, passionate charm that put Rob on the map in the first place. Also, Doctor Satan. You have to love Doctor Satan.
Having found his footing in the 70s-inspired grindhouse aesthetic, Zombie soon moved on to what is largely considered his magnum opus, The Devil’s Rejects. While technically a sequel to House of 1000 Corpses, the film had its own unique visual and narrative identity and cemented the director as an influential force in the movie industry. This resulted in him being chosen to helm the notorious Halloween remake, which is arguably where most of the controversy surrounding the director began.
In all honesty, no matter who had been chosen to direct the remake, a great deal of moviegoers would still wind up hating the resulting movie. John Carpenter’s film is an undeniable classic, and no one could ever hope to replicate its success. This is precisely why I actually like Zombie’s take on the story, and especially the sequel. He knew that he could never truly duplicate or replace Carpenter’s talent or style, so he created an amalgamation of his own artistic sensibilities and Carpenter’s vision, producing a unique movie with some familiar elements.
These films may not be perfect, but I believe they succeed a lot more than they fail in their attempt to deconstruct the slasher genre by humanizing both Michael Myers and his victims. Strangely enough, the Halloween remake’s (and its sequel’s) biggest flaw might just be the eternal comparison to Carpenter’s original, as these movies, when viewed on their own, are actually quite fascinating. Halloween II is particularly ballsy in its artsy presentation of a deeply psychological story, even if it doesn’t always work or feel coherent. At the very least, Zombie dared to take a risk with the franchise, which is more than most remakes can say.
In between these films, Zombie also worked on the animated adaptation of his own comic-book, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto. While it’s certainly not on the Disney level of animated storytelling (or musical numbers, for that matter), it was an entertaining romp through a world of schlock and terror and gave us a glimpse of Zombie’s mindscape when making these movies. The film also featured some inexplicably smooth and stylish animation, almost incompatible with its low budget. While his films have always had darkly comedic undertones, this is his most humorous outing to date, and it makes me wonder what a Rob Zombie directed live-action horror comedy might look like.
In 2012, Zombie graced us with Lords of Salem, which is, to date, the biggest departure from his usual style. This one was also extremely divisive, with some fans calling it a Kubrick-esque masterpiece, while others deemed it an incoherent mess. Personally, I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable picture, not to mention scary as hell, but the ending didn’t quite do it for me. Again, however, I feel that Zombie’s unorthodox approach to storytelling and creative execution make up for most of the movie’s flaws. Even so, I’m still not sure what the deal was with that freakish child-Satan thing.
Now, this brings us back to 31. At this point, no one can reasonably say that they expected this film to please everyone, especially when considering Zombie’s previous work, but this seems to be his most hated film to date. Naturally, in a definitive ranking of my favorite Rob Zombie movies I’d place this one last, but even then it’s not a completely awful experience. As is usually the case with Zombie’s flicks, there several creative elements that keep this from being just another bad slasher film (Do I even need to mention Richard Brake’s phenomenal performance?).
These recurring positive elements don’t always make up for the tangled scripts and overused psychotic hillbilly tropes, but they prove that even Zombie’s “failures” have some merit to them, and can still be worth a watch. Interesting flops, if made with passion, can sometimes be more rewarding than a formulaic success. Rob Zombie is one of the few horror filmmakers that managed to carve out his own path in the genre, and even when he stumbles, the result is always intriguing. In an age where audiences everywhere crave originality, what more could you ask for?
Ultimately, your opinion of Zombie’s body of work will depend on your definition of a good movie. More specifically, whether you think it’s more important for a film to take a risk and have its own identity, or to do its best at following a successful formula. At the end of the day, 31 is still a bad movie, but the horror community would do well to appreciate the fact that Rob Zombie is still willing to do his own thing in a world where most filmmakers are forced to either conform or give up. One bad movie doesn’t make him a bad director, and it sure as hell shouldn’t keep him from making more. For now, I’ll be here eagerly awaiting his next film.