“you Malibu Barbie middle class piece of shit. I’m trying to work here. You ever work? Yeah, I’ll bet you have. Scoopin’ ice cream to your shit-heel friends on Summer break.”
Rob Zombie started his filmmaking career in the world of the music video. He was the lead singer of popular heavy metal band White Zombie, but he wanted more than what that band offered him creatively. It all started with their single, More Human Than Human (1995), a title which is taken from Blade Runner (1982). A doomsday prophet in a gas mask clogs up a highway, he’s covered in tiny American flags, and his sign bears the name of the song, the bass heavy synth rhythm unfurls and there’s a cut to 8mm footage of children on a carousel, the drums kick in and another cut, to a lanky man with a pumpkin placed atop his head. This is the world of Rob Zombie, all his pet interests of lower-middle class Americana and the escape of pop culture horror therein. This was merely a taste of what filmmaking could be from Rob Zombie. He’d direct a dozen music videos, all of them trapped within his style of planting his seed in horror’s past, before he’d make his first feature: House of 1,000 Corpses (2003).
Corpses follows a group of four teenagers (Rainn Wilson, Erin Daniels, Chris Hardwick and Jennifer Jostyn) as they travel the backroads of Texas as they do research for a book where they chronicle to the kooky hillbilly attractions spread across the Southern United States. It’s your typical plotting designated for a throwback to 1970s horror films like The Hills Have Eyes where white upper class yuppies stumble upon something they never should have seen and pay for it, but its similarities to those films is only on paper as Zombie diverges quickly and often in form, theme and plotting. The kids are screwed as always, but their joyride to death’s door is complicated by Zombie’s interest in the Serial killer, not as someone innately evil, but an effect of society turning its nose up at those it deems worthless.
These hapless teenagers come across a roadside advertisement for Captain Spaulding’s Fried Chicken and Gasoline, complete with a murder ride, and the two young men of the group can’t miss this brilliant opportunity to capitalize on the central idea for their tour book across the south. When they meet Captain Spaulding (veteran genre movie actor, Sid Haig) he’s just fended off a pair of dimwit robbers and is mopping up their blood. Bill (Hardwick. Fuck him btw) and Jerry (Rainn Wilson) are enraptured by this roadside den of the damned and Jerry strikes up a conversation with Spaulding. He asks him a lot of basic questions but when he laughs a little too hard at the way the Captain speaks, Spaulding interjects, his eyes turn downward and violent, his stare becoming blank and coarse and he sees why they’re really here. He turns up his accent and states with directness, “I see why y’all are here. You think us folk from the country’s real funny don’t ya?”. Jerry freezes. Spaulding stares. The camera sits, waiting to cut the silence and after about ten seconds of uncomfortable tension the Captain laughs loudly. “I’m just messing with ya. I’m a clown.” But that conversation planted the seeds. After the four of them finish taking Spaulding’s murder ride (which is closer to a hall of presidents, if the head of state was Ed Gein, couldn’t do worse), he gives them directions to an old hanging tree where Dr. Satan (the main event of the murder ride) was rumoured to have been hanged. The trap is set, and they were foolish enough to fall into its vice.
Zombie takes an everything but the kitchen sink approach to his first feature. He directs as if this may be his very last chance at making a movie, and in doing so he inserts everything he can think of including odes to creature features, The Munsters, old Flesicher brothers animation and 1970s American carnage features like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is both a good and a bad thing, as he has not quite figured out how to sew together all the bits and pieces that fascinate and excite him as a filmmaker, but the material that is good is downright incendiary, and rises above his influences, foreshadowing the great director he would become. Zombie, having gotten his start in music videos, frequently shoots this film like one, inserting negative images, black and white photography, and low-grade video footage, among other techniques he learned while cutting his teeth making groovy heavy metal flicks for MTV’s Headbangers Ball. You could argue Zombie is too much of a stylist, and that would be a fair enough argument, film critic Dave Kehr states as much, but that would be wilfully ignoring how music and cinema are intertwined for Zombie. He uses music to punctuate, and while he almost certainly leans on music video technique a little too much, it also gives the film a freewheeling feeling that anything can happen at any given moment. This is sometimes to the detriment of the snobby, upper-middle class, white victims of the movie, who do not get time to make a true connection with audiences, but he more than makes up for it with his serial killers, who are some of the most fascinating cinema has ever seen.
One of these murders is the, seemingly, demure, sex-pot, Baby (Sherri Moon Zombie). She’s stranded on the side of the road, decked out in a cow-girl outfit under an umbrella that’s capsizing under the weight of the downpour happening all around her. Bill wants to pick her up, the other three passengers are unsure, but Bill’s horniness wins out and as soon as Baby enters the vehicle she reads the situation, sees that Bill is the weak link and immediately begins to weaken him through her own sexuality. Sherri Moon Zombie plays the role like Betty Boop, if every Betty Boop cartoon had the impact violence and gore of Itchy & Scratchy. Sherri Zombie is a smart actor who utilizes her voice very effectively in the first of her collaborations with husband, Rob Zombie. She speaks in a child-like high pitched tone to disarm everyone around her. If they think she’s helpless she won’t be seen as a threat, and in doing so she becomes the most dangerous of all these killers, because she subverts the idea of a serial killer merely through her gender and how she uses it for her own means. The vocal technique, in particular, is interesting, because we, as women, sometimes will be socialized into altering the tone and tambre of the way we speak when we’re out in public, or in a professional job setting, as a way of seeming nonthreatening or vulnerable. It’s something we sometimes have to work through as we get older to find our real voice, because we’re taught and expected to speak in a certain way. As a technique, we also learn it can be used to alter a situation, either as a survival mechanism or to bend a scenario to what we’d want depending upon the specific parameters of what we find ourselves in at the moment. In a horror context, it’s a brilliant acting strategy, and something only a woman would have ever considered through her own firsthand experience. The subversion of the woman as serial killer image is only amplified when she’s using tools that saw their genesis in socialized girlhood. It’s telling that Denise and Mary, the two women on this journey, don’t fall for the act. They know exactly what she’s doing, even if they still wouldn’t consider the notion that she wasn’t looking for sex. She was looking for blood.
Shortly after Baby gets into the vehicle the car busts a flat tire. Too much of a coincidence to have not been another in a long line of traps set by the Firefly clan, as the news outlets would call them in the sequel film: The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Baby suggests they crash at her place until morning. These preppy college kids wanted to see something fucked up, and they were about to bite off way more than they could chew. It’s here where we’re introduced to Mama Firefly (Karen Black) and Otis Driftwood (Bill Mosely). There are other members of the family who get minimal screen time like Grandpa Hugo (Dennis Fimple), Tiny (Matthew McGrory) and Rufus (Robert Mukes), but stand-out in their brief appearances. Karen Black, ever the pro, plays Mama like a mature version of her daughter Baby. She and Sherri Moon are completely in sync with one another to the point where they feel like a real mother and daughter. We get the sense that Mama Firefly has passed down everything she knew about luring prey into a spider’s web to her devious baby girl. Mama, still has a trick or two up her sleeve though and Black delivers all her dialogue like a sleek-couger on the hunt for young men. Her voice dripped in a backwoods velvet and she uses her body for maximum coverage. Black is as good as it gets, and she uses her physicality to completely overwhelm the inexperienced Rainn Wilson and Chris Hardwicke, both of whom are merely meat being tenderized in the palm of a smarter woman’s hand. Otis, on the other hand, has no greater goal towards outsmarting his enemy, instead opting for running head first into the chaos of violence almost immediately. He preaches, like a cult leader, about the virtues of murder, Halloween and society and you get the sense he is much much smarter than anyone would ever give him credit for being. When Otis is introduced Zombie inserts grainy home video footage presumably recorded by the Firefly family of Otis waxing poetic before tearing into his latest victims. It gives Bill Moseley an excuse to chew scenery. Something he’s been good at since his role in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre II. These travelers who just wanted to make fun of hillbillies would not last much longer would hear plenty of Otis’s gospel. It’d be the last thing they ever hear.
Bill Moseley gets one such scene shortly after they begin to torture these teenagers. Otis has Mary upstairs, tied to a chair with a Dunce cap placed atop her head, perhaps placing the shoe on the other foot of how society at large sees him. When he sees Mary he becomes indignant when she starts making demands so he gags her and he speaks his truth. He talks about the benefits of “work” and the holiness of the body, how it’s all we’ve all got, and he damns Mary for her privileged life of ice cream cones and white socks with Mickey Mouse on one side and Donald Duck on the other. Otis has a lot of pent up aggression against the world, and he takes it out on the privileged. He’s comfortable in the life he’s made for himself, but you get the sense that being a murderous hillbilly is the only opportunity he was ever given. He’s obviously smart and speaks with grandiose oratorical skill, but he doesn’t look the part of an intellectual, only a monster. He can be both. Otis wears a dirty tank top with the words “Burn this Flag” printed above the stars and stripes. You could argue he’s just an anarchist, but the system he’s railing against is distinctly American and you can’t help but get swept up in his drive toward a purity that doesn’t see class or rights or skills, but only bodies. Those that live and those that die, and in that field he’s a fucking genius.
Rob Zombie complicates the notion of victim and predator in his Firefly clan motion pictures. Roger Ebert stated in a review of sequel film—The Devil’s Rejects– that if you were going to follow a group of mass serial killers at least these ones are interesting, and he’s absolutely right. They’re rock stars, but they have an ethos we can understand. They were wronged through expectations, because they didn’t fit the mold of what society deemed acceptable in a person. No one ever likes white trash. Things like NASCAR and Country Music are always low-hanging fruit for those who live in metropolitan cities. White trash families are a source of comedy on television shows like COPS that completely neglect their own humanity, even against whatever struggles these people may be going through at the time. Zombie touches on that with a carnival-esque beauty that paints these killers as every men, but not so much that you completely root for them. He repeatedly reminds you that these people are still monsters, even if they have a point, and in addition to that he gives them a way out. Tiny doesn’t kill people. He’s inbred, but passive. Even if Otis and Baby argue that they were born into this role Tiny subverts the argument that they can only kill. Maybe it doesn’t matter to Otis or Baby why they kill, but whose life they end, and even then rhetoric can only go so far, even if they make it seem like death is deserved.
The most significant of these scenes is one in which Denise’s father, Don (Harrison Young) and a group of cops investigate the Firefly house after being told by Captain Spaulding that the Firefly house was the last place he saw them. Her father and these cops were dead before they even arrived, which fosters sympathy, but Zombie pushes this further than any other horror director at the time in asking for thoughtfulness through the eyes of a horrified father. It doesn’t entirely work, because we barely have a grasp of these victims and at this point Rob Zombie is piss poor at writing women, leaning on Virgin/Whore tropes that luckily left his work around Halloween (2007), but it’s brilliant in theory. Don and a young Sheriff Deputy played by the always excellent, Walton Goggins, investigate out back. It’s a trap, and we know it way before they do. Otis flips a latch that opens the barn door and there’s Denise writhing, nude, in terror, with a half-dozen dead girls piled up behind her. Slow-motion shots of Don’s reaction crystalize this moment of loss. Harrison Young has to do a lot here, he has to convey the realization that he failed at protecting his daughter, he has to come to grips with the fact that both he and his daughter are likely going to be killed any second now, and he has to do this all while seeing the monster who did this to his baby girl approaching him. He doesn’t entirely nail it, but it’s good enough to tug at the heart strings, and Zombie smartly includes home video footage of Denise and her father enjoying a picnic to represent a possible final last memory to pick up the slack. He re-works this scene entirely with Brad Douriff in Halloween 2 (2009) in what is one of the greatest scenes in the history of horror films. Don dies running away from his daughter. He was a coward and Denise saw all this happen. Zombie doesn’t utilize that disappointment, because he doesn’t entirely understand his characters yet so the scene falters to a degree here, but the possibility of what could have worked here is good enough reason to follow Rob Zombie into hell, because he obviously has greater ideas for the genre.
Otis doesn’t kill Denise. It was his way of torturing her further. You can’t root for him despite his seductive words.
The film falls apart after Don’s death, and loses a lot of its unique qualities in the final third, which devolve into typical slasher tropes of chase and run. All of this is done better in countless other films like Corpses’s greatest inspiration: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The close is copycat filmmaking right down to the night time thrills and the fake-out ending where the traumatized woman is left hanging between life and death and we’re left unsure of her own escape. It’s unfortunate, because in the earlier portions of the film Zombie shows a clear vision of who his killers are and what he wants to showcase in his savage world of class politics being Frankensteined onto a splatter nightmare. It’s different, unique, and totally his, but the climax could have been made by anyone. He seems formally disinterested and the shift from the Firefly clan to a supposedly more menacing big bad in Dr. Satan is ill conceived and silly. This final third doesn’t negate the power of what happens earlier, but it keeps Zombie’s debut from reaching heights it suggests at times. The good news is that he never made a film as mixed as House of 1,000 Corpses ever again. The only mediocre picture in an otherwise captivating filmography to come. Rob Zombie would later become one of the only iconic horror filmmakers working today, especially when placed alongside the increasingly conservative output that would plague horror in the next decade.