A World of Hurt: the Cinema of Rob Zombie

H2: DIRECTOR’S CUT

Every mark, every wrinkle shapes an identity. There is no canvas painted on with more truth than the body. But if the flesh could tell a lifetime of stories does that necessarily make us its author? Tattoos are chosen, designed but scars are not. They are inflicted but form internally shaping themselves. When I think of my past, it’s not so much the injuries I remember, it’s the pain I can’t forget. Not the blood, the needles, the bandages, the years of reclusion but the stares and the winces. I thought solitude would bring safety but it only made the walls tighter. I had lost control over my body but imprisoning me was the world that no longer accepted me.

H2: DIRECTOR’S CUT

Pain is the signature of Rob Zombie’s films. While it is easy to identify the punishing kind he distributes, his true gift is crafting an aesthetic of anguish. His films create a unique sense of despair capturing mental and physical scars in obstructed and intimate frames. His focus is on the damaged, the depressed, and most of all the afraid. However, the horror in Zombie’s films come not from boogeymen but from the claustrophobic walls of everyday life. Although known for vulgarity and violence, the thematic spine linking his films is that of escape. They are survivors without support systems, displaced makeshift families without a home, and clowns without a stage. All told on non-movie star faces covered in cuts and wrinkles filled with dirt and blood. Zombie’s films may be aggressive and unforgiving but they are anything but empty. They are bloody tear-soaked diary entries of someone trapped.

“I actually witnessed the disintegration of a world. It was then inevitable that I should speak of it one day through a genre which is itself slowly dying…” Sam Peckinpah

Sam Peckinpah

The career of director Sam Peckinpah began in the western genre’s heyday of black and white morality but ended with him revising nearly everything about it. His work became very self-reflective and by the end of his life, he was a tortured soul wrestling with a west he was born into, one he helped build, and one that left him for dead. Although it was a west he no longer wanted part of, his pain may have strained from not knowing if he could exist without it.

This is the pain that bleeds from the cinema of Rob Zombie.

Rob Zombie on set for 2007’s Halloween

Rather than becoming the Spielbergian multi-genre director he always wanted to be, Zombie was stuck. Son to a family of traveling carnies, Zombie’s playgrounds were haunted houses filled with the movie monsters he later worked into his brand of horror metal. It was only natural that he aspired to add to the cinema that made him. By the 2000’s, American Horror was still in a post-Scream era of repackaged remakes and parodies, it seemed the industry was ready for a new voice.

After dragging American Horror into the revisionist sun with The Devil’s Rejects, 2007’s Halloween was supposed to mark Zombie’s arrival into mainstream horror. What it became was an ultimatum. Midway through the film when adult Michael Myers breaks free from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium is where Zombie is handcuffed. Before this moment, we have an original take on the classic film, exploring how it takes a village to raise a psychopath. In the other half we have a scene-by-scene recreation of John Carpenter’s film. Zombie took the job with the hopes of launching a career as a working director but if he wanted to work in the industry, he had to play the game, albeit a rigged one. One that muscled new voices into telling the same stories. The haunted hallways that once raised him were now boxing him in.

What is the author’s responsibility to genre? Is it to advance it, perhaps to preserve it? What if it was to end it? Zombie went on his own and what followed was a Miltonian trilogy of films navigating through a fallen genre (H2, The Lords of Salem, and 31).

Zombie’s films paint with a shade of horror that inflame its canvas like a flesh-eating virus. You are going to FEEL this. This is going to hurt. Not designed to entertain, scare, or simply disturb, they are designed to condemn. They eat at you from within; you will be too disturbed, too sick to stare. But if you want that canvas to survive, you will have to stare it dead in the eye. That canvas is the American Horror film.

Where Ozu would hold on a teapot for minutes upon minutes, Zombie stays in his characters most painful moments beyond their disturbing threshold. An extra stab to the chest, an extra boot to the mouth, equates to an extra step back. Back away from the film to see a framework that both built American Horror but also imprisoned it. Culture, tropes, victims within a design we have all grown to accept and constantly recreate. His films do not ask why we let it grow hollow. His films are a death sentence.

To escape from the culture, the cinema, and the style that made him he had to become its worst nightmare, its boogeyman, its Lucifer…

“I am the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s work.” Otis Driftwood

“In the arts of life man invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself, and produces by chemistry and machinery all the slaughter of plague, pestilence, and famine…And Michael Myers.” Samuel Loomis

Family, friends murdered, and her killer shot, a bloodied Laurie Strode walks into the night a survivor. But there are no ambulances waiting, no police, no press, no one. She walks the rainy empty streets of Haddonfield in shock. Just her, alone, surrounded by pumpkins and plastic monsters. Surrounded by horror. Surrounded by Halloween.

Zombie’s thematic focus shifted from villains and unforgiving punishment to brutal compassion. Centering on female characters wrestling with horror’s rarely explored original sin, the trauma of survival. Subverting the final-girl trope it explores a character who survived the night but did not survive the horror. With H2 the boogeyman was not a person with a knife, it was a culture.

H2 depicts a world where every day is Halloween for Laurie Strode. The movie begins within a movie. We find Laurie living the ending of the original Halloween 2, trying to escape the hospital from Michael Myers but then she wakes up. It was all a bad dream. However, the moment her eyes open is when the real nightmare begins.

His mask weathered and half-torn, we see what resembles the face of Michael Myers. However, the closer we look the harder it is to distinguish where the mask ends and where the flesh begins. From what is fiction and what is real.

Laurie fights off traumatic visions but they grow more and more intense as the holiday approaches. Triggers surround her, images of horror characters decorated alongside real-life serial killers. Other women, played by famous final girls, are left to help this fellow survivor recover (Caroline Williams as her doctor, Danielle Harris her friend and guardian, and Margot Kidder as her psychiatrist) but she just can’t. In this world, the victim is forgotten but the killer is a celebrity.

H2 comes after a horror culture where the fascination for monsters has bled into fanaticism for murder. Where cinematic psychiatrists devolve into exploitative authors (Malcom McDowell plays a sleazy Samuel Loomis who sports a very Carpenter-like mustache). A place where the only male voice of reason is the voice of Chucky (Brad Dourif). A world where real-life killers are now costumes and a victim’s screams are background music.

Photographed with the intimacy of John Cassavetes set inside the surreal nightmares of David Lynch, the film follows a victim descending into madness. With no plot to escape to we have nowhere to go but to watch Laurie (played brilliantly by Scout Taylor-Compton) struggle to move on from that horrific night. The most fascinating change comes from the relationship between Laurie and her guardian Annie (an especially great Danielle Harris). Best friends prior to that Halloween night, and while both survived, now despise one another. Annie, also dealing with trauma, never leaves the house but cannot stand to be in the same room with Laurie. Seeing each other reminds them of that night. In one scene Annie screams at Laurie saying “You act like you’re the only one whose life got fucking trashed!” The pain in their eyes, as if they were staring and yelling at their reflections, is the true horror.

There is no escape for Laurie in dreams or reality. The viewer knows Michael will eventually find her and that’s the point. Like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the Laura Palmers and Laurie Strodes of the world, the victims, are the price to pay for this world of horror to exist. A price, the film believes, horror fanatics are shamelessly more than willing to pay.

It is brutal, impressively crafted, original and in this writer’s opinion a masterpiece. Originally, Zombie reluctantly took over the sequel’s directing reins to stay in the good graces of the Weinstein Company. However, this time Zombie was not going to back down creatively. This led to a reduced budget, a shortened shooting schedule, and the film being recut by the studio. His projects shelved, Zombie was pushed out from the biggest stage of his film career. It took nearly three years for Zombie to return to filmmaking but with his next opportunity he was only going to go harder. Zombie doubled-down, coming after horror again but this time he went for its head. He came after the cinema itself.

The Lords of Salem

First came depiction. As time passed, depiction turned into tradition. What followed was a tradition that became religion.

She is Eve, mother of sin. She is Mary, mother of our salvation. Anointed yet damned. What is cinema and who decides which is witch?

With The Lords of Salem, Zombie made his most abstract film about the images that became gospel. Through America’s original horror story, the Salem Witch trials, he explores a cinematic maze built on subjugation through suffering disguised as salvation. Where the price is always sacrifice.

The film centers around a cipher, a radio personality named Heidi Hawthorne (in a career-best performance by Sheri Moon Zombie) who slowly discovers she has no say in her fate. It opens with her being driven to what will be her death. The film then flashes back to colonial times to her ancestor, Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne, writing an account about a group of women that congregate outside of society. Witches, he calls them. It is with his words that will forever curse the women of Salem including his own descendant.

What Zombie began with Laurie Strode he goes in a different direction with Heidi. Photographed beautifully by Brandon Trost, the film creates an interesting contrast: it is ominous but warm, sad but safe. We come to this film to escape our reality but it is this film that is trapping Heidi. Famous horror actors prepare her (played amazingly by Judy Geeson, Patricia Quinn, and Dee Wallace). A world where any random woman could be the next sacrifice (cameo by Barbara Crampton as a Salem townie). Heidi must live through a journey of pain for our entertainment. A mirror to us and cinema itself.

Captured in one of the most profound scenes in Zombie’s filmography comes late in the film where a curtain rises as the hypnotized women of Salem approach a theater stage. Elsewhere, witches surround a cursed Heidi giving birth to the antichrist. A rush of horrifying images flash as the demon is born then taken by the witches. On the stage, the women of Salem now lay dead in pile but standing on top of them beaming with light is an immaculate depiction of Heidi. The witches look at her with awe. Elsewhere, her actual body lies alone covered in blood, left for dead. The pain she bares goes hand-in-hand with the images we need.

A film juxtaposing damnation with admiration provides no simple answers for the viewer. Is she the mother of the antichrist or a saint who died for our sins? What connects them both is the stake cinema ties her to and a pain we, the audience, light to project our salvation.

Where H2 got my attention, The Lords of Salem got my soul. One of my favorite films of all-time. It is a challenging work and I love it but I understand it doesn’t necessarily want me to. Points have been made that Zombie perpetuates the same tropes that he comments on. Cinematically, he loves what came before him; however, you sense he desperately wants horror to do something new. He wants audiences and the genre to break free from the foundations it’s built itself on. The problem that arose for Zombie was that he was now tied to that foundation he was trying to escape.

31

31 begins where The Lords of Salem left off but in black and white. Religion, represented by a priest, is tied to a chair about to be hacked to death but is first monologued to by a charismatic and made-up hitman named Doom-Head (Richard Brake). Doom-Head makes a point that he is not clown here to entertain, projecting an artist’s bravado for the murder he commits. Then the film suddenly cuts to colored home-reel footage of a group of eccentric carnies in search of a new act. We have stepped out of the fictional and into something realer than real. More Zombie than Zombie.

31 is Zombie’s most autobiographical film. It pits Zombie the artist, Doom-Head, against Zombie’s true self, the carnies. What brings them together is the kidnapping of the carnies by a trio of literal Big Wigs. The carnies are forced into a game where they must survive a 12-hour maze with hyper-vulgar murderous clowns. Eventually the Big Wigs call upon Doom-Head interrupting him having sex to classic horror movies but he only stops because “this is business”. His murder may be art but he only gets to practice it when the “business” calls. This all takes place on October 31st. The game is called 31. The only word not used is the actual holiday.

This was the first film Zombie made outside of a major studio. Since 2007’s Halloween, the only greenlights he got were for horror films. Although Zombie’s style deconstructs the genre, it now trapped him inside of it. 31 asks if he could escape it.

In this labyrinth, we find Zombie’s stylistic staples but they’re cartoonishly turned to 11. It is more vulgar, bloodier, clownier, and chainsawier than ever. The carnies go from discussing recycled gimmicks for a new act to eventually being fed body parts of one of their own. Surviving this “maze” would mean devouring yourself over and over again.

At the end of the film, we find the last, and least likely to survive, carnie standing, Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie). She limps out of the maze into a sun we have not seen since The Devil’s Rejects. She starts down a desert road but then a van pulls up behind her. It’s Doom-Head. He steps out with blades in each hand ready to kill again. Charly tightens her fist ready to fight. But this time it’s different. This time Zombie is the one calling the shots.

Free from style and the industry, Zombie can seemingly walk away from a genre that shackled him for so long. But there is just one thing left. Something the horror genre took from him that he must reclaim. The one thing most artists never get to take back…

3 From Hell

INT. FITO’S TAXI (DAY)

BENNIE SINKS BACK INTO THE SEAT — LOOKS DOWN AT THE BULGING FLIGHT BAG — PATS IT.

BENNIE
Relax Al … We’re goin’ home.

EXT. HIGHWAY (DAY)

AND THE CAR CARRIES HIM OFF WITH ALL THE MARBLES BUT ONE — THE ONLY ONE THAT REALLY MATTERED. THE CAR DRIVES AWAY. AS THE CAR GETS SMALLER AND SMALLER.

FINITO

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

This was the original ending to Sam Peckinpah’s last great film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Bennie, a lowlife piano player, goes through hell with the hopes of cashing in on the prized head of an already dead Alfredo Garcia. On the trail he loses his money, his conscience, and his fiancée is murdered. By the time he brings Al’s head to collect, it’s worthless and gets nothing. In the script, he then kills everyone, takes the head, the money and, as you read above, escapes. It sounds nice but this is not a Hollywood story, this is Peckinpah.

In the actual ending of the film, Bennie goes in alone with no escape plan. With Al’s head in hand, he guns everyone down dying in a blaze of gunfire. The glory in his death came not from saving lives or revenge, it came from taking his soul back into his hands to write his own ending. An honorable one. This film is not just Peckinpah’s most personal, it IS Peckinpah. It was one that Hollywood never let him make. He not only left Hollywood to make it, he left the country to Mexico to do so.

3 From Hell

As of this writing, I have not seen 3 From Hell and I will not speculate what will happen in the movie. It is a return to a storyline started in House of 1000 Corpses and seemingly ended with The Devil’s Rejects. If you have made it this far, and have seen the trailer, why do you think Zombie after all he has gone through, would return to the story and characters that made him?

3 From Hell

In the trailer, you can see the Firefly family is alive but imprisoned. They are about to stand trial and receive judgement from a system that will never let them out but are being fed to a media that will never let them die.

Although Zombie’s revisionist style comes from Peckinpah, it is their careers that mirror each other in eerily similar fashion. So, like Bennie and Peckinpah, Zombie has one more thing to take care of. One more thing to take back, or should I say break free. His legacy.

When postmodern filmmakers revisit or reference their own filmography, it usually means they are near the end of their thematic exploration (Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood). Zombie tried to reinvent the genre but it only trapped him. He may not have burned the structure down but he can at least look back knowing he’s leaving the house of horror justified.

Many had Divine and Waters, others had Palmer and Lynch, I had Sheri Moon and Zombie. He may not have chosen his body of work but he made them his own. A filmography that birthed an obsession but more importantly an artist who inspired a way out. Thank you, Rob Zombie.

Rob Zombie

Pretty pictures. Scary movies. Fancy words.(Twitter/Instagram @adge2159 )

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store