Today, Rob Zombie is celebrating his 52nd Birthday. The shock-rocker-turned-filmmaker has led a life both bizarre and magnificent, amassing a legion of followers who worship his music and movies along the way. While universal love will always elude this guys (he’s got at least as many haters as fans), he’s got a creative vision that’s instantly recognizable and a don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that’s both brash and brave.
Whether you love the films of Rob Zombie or hate them, there’s no denying they are powerful, evocative experiences—all of them. His style of storytelling is as unique as his telltale aesthetic; Zombie uses powerful visuals and monologues to create a form of anti-Americana that focuses on our dark underbellies. In the world of Rob Zombie’s films, America is found in the dusty spaces between the big cities, the lost highways and deceptively mundane small town suburbs.
While it’s often difficult to place Zombie’s films within the whole of the horror genre (as is often the case with truly original movies and moviemakers; think Phantasm, for example), reviewing his filmography in a vacuum shows his evolution as a visual artist. Within his cannon, certain films stand out as exemplars of his individuality and skill, while others lack the cohesive energy that characterizes his best successes. But in all cases, it’s important to remember that hate isn’t the opposite of love (indifference is): The volume and vitriol of his detractors is proof that his films can set souls ablaze.
And at the end of the day, isn’t that what horror is supposed to do? We don’t dive deep into this genre for love and comfort; we seek to be challenged, disturbed, and even enraged.
Rob Zombie’s birthday seemed like the perfect time to rank and evaluate his feature films. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen any of these flicks, give them another whirl. One of my favorite things about Zombie’s films is that they reveal more of themselves the more you watch them. Allow yourself to get lost in the look and the mood, as well as the narrative. You may find yourself changing your negative tune towards the uncompromising mad genius’s creations.
The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
Official Synopsis: The murderous, backwoods Firefly family take to the road to escape a vengeful police force which is not afraid of being as ruthless as their target.
While technically a sequel to 2003’s House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects is far superior to its predecessor and works fine as a standalone. Iconic 21st Century horror villain Captain Spaulding (played by Sig Haig) really comes into his own as a demented and complex killer, as opposed to the caricature he was in House. The Devil’s Rejects is a brilliant subversion of classic Americana, where the freedom and adventure of the open roads becomes a dangerous underworld. In many ways, this film is reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde, reimagined for a new generation of horror-loving aficionados.
Official Synopsis: Five carnival workers are kidnapped the night before Halloween and held hostage in a large compound. At the mercy of their captors, they are forced to play a twisted game of life or death called 31. For the next 12 hours, they must fight for their lives against an endless parade of homicidal maniacs.
I thought 31 was fantastic; while reviews were hardly universally positive (even among horror journalists) I found the most prevalent complaints perplexing. “Same old Rob Zombie.” You mean you saw his previous 5 films and expected something different this time? Zombie worked hard to establish his signature aesthetic, and it’s instantly recognizable. This puts him in an elite club that includes Spike Lee, Gasper Noe, and David Lynch. “Too much shaky camera.” Honestly, I didn’t notice. Richard Blake’s Doomhead is definitely the star of the show, but the entire cast is a brilliant ensemble of heroes and villains; it’s retro shocker that’s both nostalgic and terrifying. If you’ve been avoiding this one based on review, don’t believe the negative hype; see 31 and decide for yourself.
Halloween II (2009)
Official Synopsis: Laurie Strode struggles to come to terms with her brother Michael’s deadly return to Haddonfield, Illinois; meanwhile, Michael prepares for another reunion with his sister.
I absolutely loved Halloween II and think this film is unfairly maligned. Many fans of the Halloween franchise are simply too inflexible to accept any iteration of Michael Myers that isn’t part of the original franchise launched by John Carpenter. But as a fan of the original and modern horror, I found Halloween II immensely entertaining and creative. The pacing was fantastic and connecting shots were artistic and often beautiful. As opposed to 99% of all movies, Halloween II has 4 Acts as opposed to three, and the first one is a nightmare that essentially remakes the original Halloween II in 25 minutes. Fantastic! Filled with poignant symbolism and introducing the idea that Michael Myers colludes with supernatural forces, this is absolutely one of Zombie’s best.
Lords of Salem (2012)
Official Synopsis: In Salem, Massachusetts, Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a recovering drug addict, works as a DJ at a hard rock station with her co-workers Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree). She receives a strange wooden box containing an album by a band named The Lords.
The fact that Lords of Salem is on the 2nd half of this ranking doesn’t mean it’s any less notable. It stands as Zombie’s most unique and difficult to decipher. But those adept at understanding metaphorical filmmaking will find Lords of Salem a vast and terrifying realm for exploration. Lords of Salem is surreal, psychedelic, and non-traditional; it’s also visually engaging, sonically unsettling, and absolutely dread-inducing. At its core, the film does justice to the tragic history of colonial Salem while still managing to launch conversations about society’s current fears surrounding female sexuality.
Official Synopsis: On Halloween 1963, Haddenfield, 10-year-old Michael Myers, estranged and mentally unstable, is imprisoned in Smith’s Grove Sanitarium under the care of Dr. Sam Loomis for the murders of his mother’s boyfriend, his older sister, and her boyfriend. Now, 16 years later, he escapes and now in search of his baby sister Laurie and Dr. Loomis must warn the residents of Haddenfield and get to Laurie before Michael does.
I understand the negative feelings many of my friends and colleagues harbor towards this film, as it stumbles with many of the aspect that made John Carpenter’s original Halloween so terrifying. But I don’t see how anyone can doubt that this remake was made by someone who absolutely loves Michael Myers and the original franchise. Zombie chose to examine the roots of Myers’ sinister psychosis, a departure from Carpenters numerous assertions that Michael is a manifestation of inhuman evils. It was a brave choice, and while even I found the connection between bullying and Myers’ unrelenting desire to kill a bit simplistic, I appreciate the effort to offer insight. I also believe that some of the later insane asylum scenes, especially those featuring Danny Trejo, were effective and engaging. It is possible to love Carpenter’s seminal original while simultaneously enjoying Rob Zombie’s Halloween as a love letter to Michael Myer’s enduring legacy.
House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Official Synopsis: Two teenage couples traveling across the backwoods of Texas searching for urban legends of murder end up as prisoners of a bizarre and sadistic backwater family of serial killers.
House of 1000 Corpses hardly sucks, but as Rob Zombie’s first film, it highlights his yet-to-be-refined sensibilities. In many ways, it plays out like an inside joke that we’re not in on. There is a narrative, but it’s often buried under monologues and random bits of disconnected craziness. But it brimmed with the irreverence and bold innovation that would become Zombie’s hallmarks. And, of course, it introduced the world to Captain Spaulding, cementing a place in horror movie history.
Are you a fan of Rob Zombie’s movies? What do you think are his best films? What about his worst? Let’s discuss in the Comments section!