Consider the Zombie: 10 Years of “House of 1000 Corpses”

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Consider Rob Zombie. Of the six feature films he’s directed since 2003, only one, “The Devil’s Rejects,” received over 50rsz_tumblr_m4gh8eqj4t1rwgbgfo1_500 percent critics’ approval rating on the aggregate review site, Rotten Tomatoes. His lowest, “House of 1000 Corpses,” topped out at 18 percent. Another, “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto,” failed to garner any major reviews at all. In total, Zombie’s films average at a disheartening 32.8 percent critic approval rating.

 I can’t remember where I first heard or saw Rob Zombie. Maybe it was the music video for “Demonoid Phenomenon” off his 1998 album, “Hellbilly Deluxe.” In it, Zombie gallops around a festival stage in front of thousands of sweaty metalheads, and sports ass-length dreadlocks that seem to hover unnaturally mid-thrash. His backdrop consists of a giant, flaming X, his gyrating leather-clad wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, and a large Confederate flag.

Or maybe it was the sizzle reel trailer for the aforementioned “House of 1000 Corpses.” The clip is almost impossible to find now. In it, a biohazard team is shown disinterring graves during a thunderstorm. The mud they shovel out has the consistency of soup. I don’t remember what film the trailer preceded, but I remember that damn trailer.

Then I didn’t hear about “House of 1000 Corpses” for two years. I tried in vain to find the VHS that included Zombie’s trailer. I started to believe that I imagined the thing. Then, one day as I flipped through a grocery store magazine rack, I spotted a “Fangoria” magazine with a blurb for the movie I thought I hallucinated. The front page banner read “First News! House of 1000 Corpses!” First news?

It turned out that the movie I waited two years to hear about was almost scrapped entirely. Twice. Universal Pictures originally planned to release Rob Zombie’s first film, but shelved the picture when they feared Zombie wouldn’t edit it down from an NC-17 rating. Eventually, MGM Studios briefly picked it up. Then someone asked Rob Zombie what he thought about Universal dropping his picture for “having no moral value.” Zombie joked, “Well, MGM picked it up. I guess they have no morals.” MGM didn’t take kindly to it, and canned the movie.

So, once again, “House of 1000 Corpses” was condemned to development hell. Finally, Lionsgate Films, then slowly transitioning to the horror distributor it is today, took a chance with the movie and released it in 2003 to abysmal critical reception and modest returns. My parents, being morally sound and protective, refused to take a thirteen-year-old me to see it. I had to wait another three years to get my hands on it. And then, after six years of an unexplainable fascination with the film few people gave a shit about, I saw it.

Well.

 “House of 1000 Corpses” isn’t exactly scary. Sure, it’s cartoonishly disgusting, like a Luciferian “Itchy and Scratchy” episode, but it’s not scary. Rainn Wilson gets hacked to pieces and reassembled as a taxidermy sculpture lovingly referred to as Fishboy by an inbred cannibal named Otis. Baby, played a very shrill Sheri Moon Zombie, licks the blood off a butcher knife she used to kill a girl in some random field. Sid Haig, painted up as a clown, blows the head off someone with a revolver and eats a lot of fried chicken. A doughy Chris Hardwick gets lobotomized by a subterranean sanitarium surgeon named Dr. Satan. Or something. Rob Zombie switches to negative image film a lot, so it gets sort of confusing.

I don’t get why people hate this movie so much.

Around its release, the majority of critics sided with Universal Studios claim of no moral value. One reviewer describedtumblr_m4inlb8Aes1rwgbgfo1_500 the film as “sickening.”

Another wrote, “Possibly the greatest waste of celluloid since Jerry Lewis was first allowed to stand before a camera,” which is more than anything else just plain rude to Jerry.

Another reviewer said “House of 1000 Corpses” was “too highbrow to be a good cheap horror movie, too lowbrow to be satire.”

It was that last one that made me rethink Rob Zombie’s work. Critics treat “House of 1000 Corpses,” and to a larger extent Zombie’s filmography and discography, as weird, gray-area objects which are unclassifiable. Neither ingenious nor idiotic, they are therefore wastes of time. They don’t allow them to be exactly what they are—love letters to a genre he adores.

You know who also writes love letters like that? Quentin Tarantino. And that foot-faced motherfucker has won Oscars. Plural. “Django Unchained” came out last year to largely unanimous fanfare. For months, everyone told me how much I would love that movie. Sure, I thought “Inglorious Basterds” watched like a fourth-grader who first learns about the Holocaust and tells his parents, “Why didn’t they just shoot Hitler with a bunch of guns?!” But Django was different. I would like Django.

I’ve never thought a movie was almost over, looked at my watch, and felt a sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized there was another hour-and-a-half left. “Django Unchained” did that to me.

Tarantino takes three hours to spin exploitation-era references into ivory tower Oscar gold. Rob Zombie doesn’t hinge his films on nods and winks, he just makes the movies he wasn’t supposed to watch as a kid for kids like me. Then he’s panned for it. Why? At least his movies are half as damn long as Django.

Every time Quentin Tarantino or some similar blowhard gets in front of a camera, they wax philosophical about their process and the motives behind their latest opus. They don’t let the films just speak for themselves. It’s almost as if they don’t trust you enough to enjoy their movies without baby-walking you through them. I sometimes think they only make movies for the respect they earn and the statuettes they are awarded.

Rob Zombie could have edited down “House of 1000 Corpses” for Universal Studios. Any sane person would have told him to—it was his first movie, he shouldn’t blow the opportunity, he’d have more say in his films down the road. He could have kept his mouth shut and not joked about the second studio that picked up the movie. But maybe he thought they could take a joke, that they could not take it all so seriously. He stuck with his film because he loved it, and he hoped that other weirdoes out there would love it, too.

“House of 1000 Corpses” has more heart than the last four Tarantino films. It’s just as poorly shot as Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left,” confusing as Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” and uncomfortable as Tobe Hooper’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” None of those films were respected when they were released. Rob Zombie’s films aren’t horror classics like those, but at least he’s making the films he trusts us to enjoy. And we can enjoy them if we just accept them for what they are—movies that the next generation of filmmakers will reference in three-hour think pieces about the bygone days of exploitation cinema, the days when no one realized the genius of Rob Zombie but them.

Wait a minute.

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