Nearly 20 years have passed since Rob Zombie’s directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses, released into movie theaters. That release date itself was almost three years removed from when the drive-in Grindhouse feature was ready for audiences. Teaser trailers were turning up as early as the fall of 2000 promising the kind of horror movie audiences hadn’t seen since the early 80s. In spite of these delays, House of 1000 Corpses’ ultimately kicked off a significant shift in the horror genre. Just over a year later, Saw cemented this more visceral take on horror before Eli Roth’s Hostel established ‘Torture Porn‘ subgenre as a viable box office subgenre. Since House of 1000 Corpses Zombie’s directorial career has been something of a roller coaster.
On a cross country trip to document roadside attractions, two young couples pick up a hitchhiker on a barren stretch of backwoods highway. When they accept an offer to join the strange woman for dinner with her family, their trip descends into a night of madness.
House of 1000 Corpses Struggles To Distinguish Recycling From Homage
As a filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino defined himself by a unique style that’s included riffing on his favorite subgenres. From spaghetti westerns to kung fu to gritty noir, Tarantino borrows styles and occasionally specific scenes from his personal playlists. Yet somehow Tarantino crafts these disparate elements into movies that feel unique. That is, his filmography is a cinematic pastiche of influences that we now refer to as ‘Tarantino-esque’. But there’s a fine line between a homage and derivative. Perhaps it takes a certain amount of skill and experience to reference an influence in a way that makes it your own.
Similarly, Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses very much wants wear its influences on its sleeve. Consider it to be a Grindhouse take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Before Rob Zombie directed House of 1000 Corpses, his metal band White Zombie clearly patterned itself after veteran shock rocker Alice Cooper. Horror was always present in Zombie’s work. After all, Zombie named the band after the 1932 Bela Lugosi movie. But Zombie took it one step further inserting countless references to and soundbites from horror movies and B-movie cult classics. Similarly, Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses very much wants wear its influences on its sleeve. Consider it to be a Grindhouse take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Though it’s rural ‘house of horrors’ and killer hillbilly clan are significantly amped up from Tobe Hooper’s classic, Zombie lacked the finesse to distinguish homage from derivative.
House of 1000 Corpses a Jarring Collection of Narrative and Visual Styles
Where Zombie sets his debut film apart from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other rural horror movies is the distinct visual style adopted. Contrary to the dull, washed out colors of 70s Grindhouse flicks, Zombie washes House of 1000 Corpses in a bright, flashing neon palette more consistent with the Giallo. Or maybe it’s better to compare Zombie’s debut effort to the flashy world of music videos. Prior to House of 1000 Corpses, Zombie cut his teeth directing music videos. And his hillbilly horror nightmare shares the same flashing strobe lights and jarring editing style. In addition, Zombie’s intermittent inclusion of video-diary style segments featuring the characters – even random ones – has the same kind of formlessness of a music video. While it’s stylistically distinct, it doesn’t always work. Yet it’s bold and distinct.
Prior to House of 1000 Corpses, Zombie cut his teeth directing music videos. And his hillbilly horror nightmare shares the same flashing strobe lights and jarring editing style.
Narratively, House of 1000 Corpses is also a bit of pastiche drawing more comparisons to Tarantino’s work. For nearly two thirds of the movie, Zombie’s story hedges closely to the rural horror blueprint. Suburban folks get lost in the sticks and run afoul of bizzaro hillbillies. But when the third act rolls around Zombie ditches that story for surrealist horror more akin to Phantasm. Suddenly, stories about a legendary serial killer, Dr. Satan, prove to be true. Or sort of. Maybe Zombie intended it to be a nightmare sequence. Regardless House of 1000 Corpses eventually finds it surviving protagonist lost in Dr. Satan’s hellish underground lair surrounded by supernatural monstrosities. Even if it doesn’t make much sense, once again Zombie manages to stand out.
House of 1000 Corpses Marked a Significant Shift in Horror Content
Whether you like his movies or not, Rob Zombie controls a grasp of horror aesthetics few filmmakers will ever demonstrate. Even Zombie’s flawed efforts contain moments that illustrate everything that defines a cult horror movie. No one can argue that the metal madman doesn’t ‘know’ the genre. Specifically, House of 1000 Corpses contains a handful of extremely effective moments. In particular, Zombie’s juxtaposition of Slim Whitman’s I Remember You with the gruesome shed scene shows proves the nascent filmmaker had skill. His use of a crane shot and the excruciating delay before Bill Moseley’s Otis shoots Walter Goggins‘ deputy is an affecting scene.
… Rob Zombie controls a grasp of horror aesthetics few filmmakers will ever demonstrate.
Now that roughly two decades have passed since its release, the impact of House of 1000 of Corpses is also a little more clear. While it’s true that Saw established what we now define as ‘Torture Porn’, House of 1000 Corpses paved the way for more overtly exploitative and graphic horror fare. Prior to its release, the neo slasher revival re-invigorated interest in the genre. But the movies that defined that revival – Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Urban Legend – were relatively tame. Following a backlash that included the Video Nasties list, mainstream horror distilled itself into pretty safe fare. But Zombie’s debut signaled a change. Zombie owed more to the exploitative output of 70s and early 80s Grindhouse efforts. Alongside Wan and Roth, Zombie ushered in a horror style that coincided with the New French Extremity.
Zombie’s Debut Feature-Length Movie Flawed, But Still Disturbing After 20 Years
Twenty years following its release, House of 1000 Corpses probably feels more important to diehard Rob Zombie fans than either casual horror audiences or critics. Even in Zombie’s filmography, the depraved hillbilly horror flick doesn’t quite measure up to either The Devil’s Rejects or Lords of Salem. Yet there’s no denying that it’s a visually distinct movie that thoroughly disturbs. Maybe its impact on the genre ranks less than either Saw or Hostel. Nonetheless, Zombie’s debut was a bold effort that certainly paved the way for what followed in the mid-2000s.