With all the news trickling in about the upcoming sequel to The Devil’s Rejects, 3 From Hell, it’s a good time to re-visit Rob Zombie’s filmography. Admittedly, I have been a huge fan of Zombie’s music from his days with White Zombie. Both Astro-Creep 2000 and Hellbilly Deluxe remain among some of my favourite albums. Given his obvious affection for horror and exploitation cinema, Zombie seemed like a natural fit for directing horror films.
In the 15 years since the release of House of 1000 Corpses, Zombie has sat in the director’s chair for six feature length films. I recall reading somewhere that Zombie was “the best filmmaker to have never made a good film”. To date, critical acclaim has alluded Zombie. This, if for no other reason, makes Zombie an interesting horror case study. His work is equal parts frustrating and compellingly watchable.
6 – 31 (2016)
Rob Zombie and killer clowns! With such an off-the-wall premise, 31 should have been a gonzo film for hardcore fans. Instead it was a big step backwards for Zombie as a director. In addition to being a dark and ugly-looking film, 31 is crammed with all of Zombie’s worst excesses. Its characters are uniformly foul-mouthed, unlikable hicks. Brutal and mean-spirited violence replace tension and scares. In spite of Zombie’s usual flair for orchestrating carnage, even the violence in 31 falls short. Jerky camera work and poor lighting lose much of the action. Richard Brake, as Doom-Head, is the lone bright spot. His psychopathic killer is equal parts charismatic and menacing.
5 – Halloween II (2009)
In many ways, Halloween II is everything frustrating about Rob Zombie’s movies. There’s so much to like for horror fans; I want to love Halloween II. Free from John Carpenter’s original blueprint, Zombie had a wide canvas to work on for his sequel. On one hand, he crafts a wholly unique mythology in his re-interpretation of Michael Myers. In the first 10 to 15 minutes, Zombie also creates some truly suspenseful moments that are well balanced with the brutally explicit violence. In addition, Zombie’s use of Moody Blues song Nights in White Satin is haunting. Tyler Mane makes the role of “The Shape” his own. And scream queen Danielle Harris’ arc in the sequel is heartbreaking.
Halloween II is a strange case of an utterly watchable film that just isn’t that good.
Unfortunately, Zombie’s excesses derail the film. Much of the violence in Halloween II is excessively ugly, even by Zombie’s standards. His Haddonfield is populated with vile characters. Malcolm McDowell’s Dr. Loomis isn’t just despicable, it’s like he’s playing an entirely different character from the previous film. By the climax, it buckles under the weight of its own convoluted logic. Halloween II is a strange case of an utterly watchable film that just isn’t that good.
4 – Halloween (2007)
Poor Rob Zombie. Regardless of the creative direction he took, Zombie was going to take flak just for re-making John Carpenter’s Halloween. No one was ever going to make a Halloween film that would eclipse Carpenter’s masterpiece. Nonetheless, Zombie managed to make at least half of a pretty good movie with his Halloween. While the decision to spend the first half of the film exploring Michael Myers’ origins does directly contradict everything that makes the character frightening it also serves as a completely compelling narrative on its own. In fact, Zombie’s Halloween only falters in its second half when he’s pigeon-holed into a straightforward remake. For approximately an hour, Zombie offers up a brutal, unflinching look into the birth of a monster.
3 – House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Zombie’s directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses, is a mixed bag. Extremely violent and wildly colourful, House feels like a first-time directorial effort. To some extent, Zombie struggles in the shift from making music videos to feature length movies. For instance, Zombie uses too many jarring edits that disorient. Tonally, the film makes some wild jumps from gritty exploitation horror to supernatural nightmare. Zombie also straddles a precarious fence between homage and overt imitation. Yet in spite of its limitations, Zombie delivered a visually impressive and wild horror outing that introduced cinema to the scariest clan since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
2 – Lords of Salem (2013)
Some fans will take issue with Lords of Salem being ranked higher than House of 1000 Corpses. Notwithstanding personal preferences, Lords of Salem is highly underrated. It was a significant step forward for Zombie as a filmmaker. For perhaps the first time in his filmmaking career, Zombie showed restraint, focusing more on atmosphere than grindhouse shocks. While he’s clearly cribbing on Ken Russell’s The Devils, Zombie actually instills a steadily increasing sense of dread. The Lords’ ‘song’ is haunting and the ending is a ‘mind fuck’ that references Kubrick in all the right ways.
1- The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
The Devil’s Rejects still stands as Zombie’s horror masterpiece. If you’re a fan of 1970’s grindhouse exploitation films, you’ll agree that The Devil’s Rejects belongs at the top of this list. Shifting gears from the colourful, supernatural roots of House of 1000 Corpses, Zombie opted for a grittier vision, taking the sadistic Firefly clan on the road. Without a doubt, the violence is uncompromising. You would be hard-pressed to find a scene that elicits as much discomfort as the hotel room scene. In addition, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, and Sid Haig effortlessly blend menace with hypnotic charisma. Lastly, it wouldn’t be a Rob Zombie film if there wasn’t an effective incorporation of music. In this case, Zombie makes fantastic use of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird for the film’s final bloody massacre.