Over the last 36 years, Rob Zombie has established himself as a metal legend, first with White Zombie and then with his own solo band. From the moment White Zombie appeared on the scene in 1985, Rob’s love of horror movies was made plain. They had even been named after a horror movie, namely the 1932 Bela Lugosi classic. The difference between Zombie and most other horror-loving metallers, though, is that he eventually put his director’s chair where his mouth was.
When Zombie wrote and directed House Of 1000 Corpses in the Astro-Creepy year 2000, only for it to be finally released three whole years later, he established himself to be a talented, unique and passionate filmmaker, who often shows scant regard for standard horror rules. Ever since, he has built up a pretty robust body of work, while of course continuing to create molten metal with increasingly outlandish song titles.
As you’d expect, some of the great man’s films are more awesome than others, so let’s take a Halloween ghost-train ride through them all…
7. 3 FROM HELL (2019)
It’s a shame that Zombie’s most recent movie also happens to be his least mighty. 3 From Hell is the third part of what you might call the Firefly Clan trilogy, which began with House Of 1000 Corpses (2003) and continued with The Devil’s Rejects (2005). Given that the latter had a pretty conclusive ending, it was initially difficult to understand why Zombie would make a third instalment. Sadly, you may be none the wiser after seeing the movie.
Zombie repeats the linear plot of The Devil Rejects, almost beat for beat, but with one crucial difference. Whereas the first two films’ disturbing power lies in the pervading sense that Zombie is rooting for the bad guys, this one just makes you really want his titular trio to die horribly. Sadly, the death of legendary actor Sid Haig during production meant that Zombie could no longer include Captain Spaulding alongside his central killers Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie). In an attempt to fill Spaulding’s enormous clown shoes, the writer and director introduces Otis’ half-brother Foxy (Richard Brake). Whereas Captain Spaulding was a freaky OTT clown, however, and a fascinating paternal figure who brought some kind of warped balance to the family, Foxy is just a despicable and one-dimensional redneck psycho. As before, Zombie seems to want us to laugh along with the titular trio, as well as feel unsettled by their rampages, but moments like Foxy slashing a naked woman’s throat, while branding her a “bitch”, makes that impossible.
The finale features a nicely choreographed showdown in Mexico, which brings to mind the work of director Robert Rodriguez, but by then Zombie will have squandered most viewers’ goodwill.
6. HALLOWEEN (2007)
John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, re-imagined by Rob Zombie? A simultaneously bizarre and enticing proposition. As you’d hope, Zombie takes the bull by the horns and does Halloween his way, introducing a new level of brutality to the franchise.
Sadly, his script decides to show us much more of slasher icon Michael Myers’ youth than we’ve ever seen – as if any movie-goer in history ever lay awake at night, wishing they knew more about what makes Myers kill. Even more unfortunately, Zombie’s chosen backstory turns out to be exactly what you’d expect. Drunken, abusive stepfather? Check. Bullied at school? Check.
Zombie also transforms young Myers into a Kiss fan, while his adult self strongly resembles Mick Thomson from Slipknot. This rebooted Myers is a supremely intimidating giant, and while that’s cool in some ways, it again reduces Michael Myers to a mere human being, as opposed to Carpenter’s creepy legend who dwells in shadow with unclear motives. With that all said, it’s hard not to enjoy this savage rollercoaster, especially once the movie leaves the past and lunges into the present. As usual, Zombie gets some great genre actors onboard, including Malcolm McDowell (Clockwork Orange) as Myers’ therapist Doctor Loomis, and Brad Dourif (Child’s Play) as Sheriff Brackett. Far from a disaster, then.
5. HALLOWEEN II (2009)
Zombie reportedly didn’t want to make this film at first, saying that one Halloween movie would be enough. Whatever the reason might have been for his change of heart, it’s clear that at some stage he thought, ‘Fuck it, let’s make the most violent slasher movie imaginable.’
Just as 1981’s Halloween II upped the blood quota, so this new version cranked Michael Myers’ brutality up to 11. Now severely pissed off by attempts to stop his killing spree, the big guy commits some truly excruciating acts of violence, involving way more gore than this film’s predecessor. Like that early 80s sequel, Halloween II also picks up where the first film left off, as Myers stalks his little sister Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) around a hospital. During the fast-moving first act, Zombie pulls a terribly frustrating stunt that might have killed this sequel altogether, were it not for the fact that the film as a whole is a great deal of nasty fun, with plenty of memorable set-pieces. It ranks higher on this list than the first remake, thanks to its high octane nature and Zombie all but abandoning established Halloween lore and taking the movie in a direction of his choice, which is more interesting. The ending is pretty easy to foresee, but it’s quite satisfyingly dark nonetheless.
4. LORDS OF SALEM (2012)
This one’s a really interesting entry in the Zombie canon, because it sees him try to do something completely different – a creepy chiller, very much in the mould of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Shining (1980). He mostly pulls the darn thing off, too.
Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, omnipresent in his films, stars as Heidi, a recovering drug addict DJ at a rock radio station. When she receives a wooden box containing a creepy-sounding vinyl record by a band called The Lords, you just know that no good will come from this development. Sure enough, this record is somehow connected to a coven of witches led by Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster), who were burned at the stake 400 years ago. Across the course of one week, Heidi slowly falls under these evildoers’ spell.
Respected actors Judy Geeson, Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace have a great time as Heidi’s neighbours. There are also some genuinely creepy and jumpy moments, although sadly the greatest of these turns out to be a dream sequence. Zombie includes no fewer than three dreams in this one, and it weakens the film – as does the main character’s lack of agency, because Heidi does virtually nothing to fight the witches’ influence. Instead, it’s left to two men to try to rescue her, including likeable occult historian Francis, played very well by Bruce Davison.
Despite its flaws, Lords Of Salem packs in enough fear and visual flair – check out that memorably macabre closing image – to strongly suggest that Rob Zombie could one day create one of the scariest films of all time.
3. 31 (2016)
If we drew up a Venn diagram that depicted both Rob Zombie’s unique style and a more traditional approach to modern horror, then 31 would sit right at the centre of our diagram, alongside his Halloween movies. If you want a Zombie film that is pretty straight down the line and enjoyable, while still whipping up gallons of blood and sadism, then this is the movie for you.
The storyline is simplicity itself, and very much a blend of movies like Saw, The Purge and Battle Royale, while also playing like a really savage John Carpenter film that never was, right down to the killer music. In 1976, five carnival workers are abducted and forced to spend 12 hours attempting to survive in a maze populated by psychotic clowns, while a trio of vile voyeurs dressed as French aristocrats (fronted by Malcolm McDowell) provide the commentary, plus constantly changing odds as to who might survive.
That’s really all there is to 31, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In direct contrast to his Firefly Clan trilogy, Zombie not only seems to care about his five victims, but actually makes each of them kick ass, so as to give them a fighting chance. By far the most interesting of the killer clowns is Doom-Head, played by Richard Brake, whose performance is so gripping that even his lengthy Tarantino-style opening monologue doesn’t outstay its welcome. Even though the ending infuriates, and Zombie simply can’t resist a dream sequence (oh dear god, make the dreams stop, sir!), this is savage fun which provokes little moral confusion. Unlike the final two entries in our list…
2. HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003)
Set in Zombie’s favourite year, 1976, the man’s debut feature strongly establishes his very specific outlook as a filmmaker. His style here feels like a cross between the directorial work of Oliver Stone (the editing, the surreal imagery and often ironically deployed music certainly feels influenced by Natural Born Killers), Quentin Tarantino (Zombie’s characters do like a chat) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper (the raw nastiness). The film was made for the major film company Universal, who shelved it for a while, then ultimately handed it over to Lions Gate for release. You can see why Universal got the jitters, because this is one dark and subversive piece of work.
The whole thing starts out like a campy horror-comedy, as a group of four friends (played by the likes of The Office’s Rainn Wilson and Talking Dead host Chris Hardwick) travel across America to research a book about roadside attractions. Predictably enough, they’re enticed to the family home of blatant crazies, and then all hell breaks loose. In Zombie’s hands, though, this does not involve heroes valiantly running around, rescuing each other and banding together to escape captivity. No, this is a very different kind of slow and sadistic hell. You come to feel that Zombie cares little for the characters who we thought were his heroic protagonists, and is far more interested in the evil Firefly family. This jarring shift of perspective, as we lose sight of how the innocent victims think and feel, makes for a supremely disquieting experience which is, in horror terms, rather awesome.
One moment, in which a kneeling police officer is held at gunpoint for what feels like a full 30 seconds, with neither victim nor gunman moving a muscle, actually succeeded in making me feel anxious in the screening room where I first saw this film. That, in itself, provided evidence that Rob Zombie had arrived and was really going to make his mark on the world of film… mostly likely by carving an X on its head.
1. THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005)
Zombie’s second feature is one of the most morally blank films you’ll ever see. Shedding the supernatural aspects of the first film entirely, The Devil’s Rejects feels very much like a movie unto itself. Taking a much more realistic approach to its tale of three serial killers causing murder and mayhem wherever they go, it replaces the saturated colours of House with washed-out hues. In the opening minutes, Zombie upsets the Firefly Clan’s rotten applecart and sends them on the run from the law, thereby launching a gruelling road movie that boils the family down to Otis, Baby and Captain Spaulding.
Even more so than in House Of 1000 Corpses, you sense that these loathsome characters are being presented as some kind of anti-heroes, which once again feels deeply unsettling. During the first half, they sadistically terrorise and brutalise a country band at a motel, perpetrating grim sexual violence and beating one poor soul to death and cutting off his face. Come the second half, Sheriff John Wydell (William Forsythe) catches up and attempts to wreak righteous vengeance upon them, and yet the film seems to present him as a villain. Or does it? Such is the disorientating and grimly compelling nature of The Devil’s Rejects. This is the kind of film you could conceivably love at one stage of your life, then hate during another. A film so ugly, that it’s very hard to actively enjoy, and yet you somehow find yourself transfixed.
Over-long at 109 minutes, The Devil’s Rejects suffers from a few indulgent scenes and even features a couple of Zombie’s mandatory dream sequences. Nevertheless, the sheer gritty power of the thing makes it the man’s most potent cinematic work to date. The story of the Firefly clan really should have ended here, and yet… oh, that’s where we came in. Next up in the Zombie oeuvre is another re-imagining, The Munsters, which he’s currently shooting in Hungary. Come the second half of 2022, we’ll discover where that movie ranks on this list.
Rob Zombie's next movie, The Munsters, is due in the second half of 2022.
Rob Zombie's latest album, The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy is out now via Nuclear Blast
Jason Arnopp runs the YouTube channel Possessed By Metal (opens in new tab)