The Devil's Rejects arrives at bad time; what might have caused a controversy not more than a few years ago -- you know, outraged parents, attacks from Congress, the cover of Time -- is nothing but a tiny ripple on today's cultural landscape. Actually, forget Zombie's newest film for a moment -- the most controversial movie of the year is Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know. I saw two people walk out at my screening, but is there a fiery national dialogue burning from coast to coast? I mean, if a 7 year old has a internet chat with a stranger about poop and no-one says anything, did it really happen? (Instead, the current scandal is over the latest iteration of Beat 'Em and Eat 'Em. Hillary, please; Rockstar doesn't need your help.)
So anyway, we apparently live in a time where unless you've already sold hundreds of millions of your product, you're too small to register as a threat to the culture. That's a shame, because Zombie's sorta-sequel to House of 1000 Corpses could use the exposure. H1kC, as I like to call it, was about the murderous Firefly clan and their subsequent capture and torture of four young people. (As one of them was Chris Hardwick, presumably this was for inflicting "Singled Out" on us.) While it was clear that Zombie has a great love and thorough knowledge of 70s horror, he had trouble getting his vision across: clumsily-shot scenes, a narrative that increasingly went nowhere, and worse, Zombie would too often spike his horror with winks and cutesiness. The chamber of horrors that serves as the climax was no different than the cheesy haunted house ride that Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) runs from his shack, and the overall effect was one of Zombie's cheap-ass videos for his ex-band White Zombie, blown up to 35mm and thus rendered even more cheap-ass. That just ain't right.
Zombie must've realized all this, for he corrects most of these missteps for The Devil's Rejects. The Firefly clan is on the run from the cops, including the increasingly-crazy Sheriff Wydell, and the film rejects the claustrophobic darkness of H1kC for the scorching brightness of the Texas desert. It's a road movie of sorts, shot in blown-up Super 16, and all the harsh graininess that implies. Zombie has improved as a director -- he's learned how to build a sequence into something engaging -- and if he hasn't quite figured out how to use the camera to maximum effect, he has learned the power of the editing room. The credit sequence -- the best one this year -- is a flurry of freeze frames that brings to mind the ending of Night of the Living Dead, and while the middle part isn't as exciting, it moves along ferociously -- even when it gets sidetracked for ice cream.
Sid Haig reprises his role as Captain Spaulding, the killer clown, and can we get this guy declared a national treasure? His role in the first film was simply to spout Tarantino-ish dialogue and look cool for the inevitable collector's maquette; here, he actually gets to act and demonstrate his incredible charisma. "Aw, it was fifty-fifty," he replies when asked if his dream (about being killed while having sex) was a nightmare, and if you aren't locked into Haig's magnetic presence at that moment, there's no hope for you. It's never too late for second acts when it comes to acting careers; here's hoping Haig gets one.
This is the trashy, no-redeeming-value 70s slaughterfest that Zombie had in him, and it's great to see him get it out more-or-less intact. I think there's value in its nihilism, but what really surprised me, and what makes it better than simply "good", was that it's the only movie I've seen that has adequately articulated my feelilngs about this post-9/11 world we're living in. Consider: A small group of people, hidden in America, commits atrocities and other acts of terror on the populace. A man, a Texan man, with the full force of the law behind him, goes on a mission from God to destroy them. But his quest for vengeance (for something done to one of his family members) leads him to become just as terrible as the ones he's hunting. He even decides to hire independent contractors, morally repugnant types, to help him. And yet, prisoners are tortured and killed, innocent people are slaughtered, and one is left with the feeling that these crazy, violent, monomaniacal people, on both sides, are in control, and thus, the world is quickly going to hell.
Of course, I don't believe that Zombie intended this reading, at least not in the way of Romero's connect-the-dots subtext for Land of the Dead. It's not even really subtext, something that needs to be dug up from underneath the surface, but more like a trail of slime left in its wake. Regardless, it had a profound emotional affect on me, something I wasn't expecting from a story about a family of serial killers, and about as far from being a "Republican victory lap" as can be.
Due to age and geography, I'll never know what it was like to go to a Times Square grindhouse theater in the 70s. But now I at least have a sense of what it might've been like, and I'm thankful. I think Zombie is capable of bigger and better, and I'd like to think he's gotten this kind of movie out of his system. If he doesn't have something original in mind, and is going to continue to mine the 70s for ideas and influences, I have a two-word suggestion for him: Russ Meyer.
So some regular updates should be arriving soon. My laptop's operation to remove a malignant CD drive resulted in total amnesia in the patient, so I have my work cut out for me to get the old girl where she was before. Also, I was hoping by this point to see exactly what a "frog march" looked like, but alas, non.