When rocker-turned-director Rob Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses was released in 2003, after years of bouncing around between studios afraid to put their name on a movie about a cartoonishly murderous family, it was anticipated as a hardcore gorefest. Instead, it was a plotless mess, with decent violence, but nothing outrageous. A fun mess, to be sure -- Sid Haig's redneck clown with the John Wayne tattoo proved a cult favorite -- but still a triumph of set design and brief character bits over anything resembling a dramatic arc or coherent storyline.
Very few directors, however, hit it out of the park their first time out, especially when they're busy exerting their energies toward dealing with hostile studios. With the semi-sequel The Devil's Rejects, Zombie has indeed delivered the hard-ass '70s exploitation-style grindhouse flick that he promised the last film would be. This is Zombie's Kill Bill, but the story transcends the references, and there is no irony to distance the viewer from the carnage. Lots of people are going to find it utterly abhorrent. Crazy drunken rednecks, however, will wear out their DVD copies.
You can forget about Dr. Satan and the whacked-out, subterranean old men and ghouls that suddenly showed up unexplained at the end of Corpses. Rejects is less a horror movie and more a revenge B-movie, in the style of I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left, though it also functions as a modern-day western.
It even begins with a good old-fashioned gunfight as the police come a-callin' at the homestead of the homicidal Firefly clan, with destructive results. The Fireflys have prepared Ned Kelly-style metal armor for just such an eventuality, but it doesn't help. Before long, Rufus (Tyler Mane, replacing Robert Mukes) is dead, Tiny (Big Fish giant Matthew McGrory) is MIA, Mama (Leslie Easterbrook, amply filling Karen Black's shoes) is captured, and Otis and Baby (Bill Moseley and Sheri Moon Zombie) are on the run, seeking help from Baby's dad, Captain Spaulding (Haig, in clown makeup for only half the movie this time).
While hiding out, Otis and Baby amuse themselves with torture, rape, and murder. Meanwhile, the lawman on their trail, Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), becomes steadily more and more obsessive, seeing himself as a vigilante ordained by God. If you're the sort who likes having at least one well-intentioned character to root for, go watch a John Cusack movie. Zombie is obsessed with evil people; Corpses' biggest weakness was that he cared nothing for the killers' victims. That's also true here, where it's hard to work up moral outrage at the slaying of characters who aren't much to begin with.
So instead we watch bad people fight even worse people, and in the end Zombie tries to work up a little bit of sympathy for the devils, cranking "Free Bird" on the soundtrack as we watch our adorable murderers in happier times. In this era of detention-camp abuse, perhaps he wants us to think about whether it's justifiable to torture and murder even the most reprehensible people, or whether that makes us just like them. It's also entirely possible that Zombie's simply thinking, Whoa, this stuff is cool.
One thing that's indisputably cool, whether you like the movie or not, is the casting. Like Tarantino, Zombie employs cult actors from some of his favorite movies -- Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree, The Hills Have Eyes' Michael Berryman, porn queen Ginger Lynn -- but he also casts plenty of contemporary cult actors, like Dave Sheridan (that guy with the nunchucks and bad mullet in Ghost World), Danny Trejo, and former World Championship Wrestling superstar Diamond Dallas Page. While WB teen stars are not welcome here, Zombie's wife Sheri is as pretty as any glamour queen.
As for his movie? It may be no thing of beauty to most, but it's great at what it does. Whether you can handle that is your call.
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