House of 1000 Corpses was the debut of rock star Rob Zombie (Robert Cummings to his mother). Zombie started out with the excellent industrial-tinged rock band White Zombie. Exploding out of the New York underground they cut a distinctive presence in the early 90s alternative music boom. After their demise Zombie went solo, joining the shock rock pantheon of rock-n-roll monsters alongside Marilyn Manson and the daddy Alice Cooper.
Zombie’s music was a treasure trove of horror movie samples and a move to cinema beckoned. After writing an unmade sequel to The Crow, Zombie developed a theme park ride for Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. Out of this came his debut feature. Apparently the Universal execs left Zombie to his vision undisturbed, mostly because they didn’t care. This hands off approach however would soon change …
Firstly, the film. 30th of October 1977. A group of teens, including a young Rainn Wilson (Dwight from The Office) and a pre Nerdist (and cancellation) Chris Hardwicke, are on a cross country trip. They visit the truck stop gas station and fried chicken spot cum murder museum run by the unique clown-faced Captain Spaulding (horror film legend Sid Haig). After learning of the local legend of murderer and demented mad scientist Dr. Satan, they attempt to find the location of where he was hanged. Along the way they pick up Baby Firefly (Rob’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie in a demented, game performance) and the wheels are shot out, we later learn by Baby’s brother.
They take refuge in the household of the Firefly family. This consists of Baby, momma Firefly (inimitable character actor Karen Black), albino Manson-type Otis (the excellent Bill Moseley of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), the perverted grandpa Hugo (Dennis Fimple), the disfigured gentle giant Tiny (one time world’s tallest actor Matthew McGrory who passed in 2005) and brother Rufus (Robert Allan Mukes). Not to mention the foetus momma Firefly keeps in a jar. Chaos ensues and the teens become victims.
When Universal execs saw the film they were disgusted, famously calling it morally bankrupt. Zombie had to buy the film back, resulting in a long delay to the film. MGM picked the film up, though a joke by Zombie that they must have no morals led them to drop it. Eventually it was picked up by Lionsgate and became one of their first horror hits, launching the years where Lionsgate would become the horror studio.
I initially watched the film at 14 or 15. I had high expectations of unrestrained violence, especially since this was sold as the movie “they didn’t want you to see”. In this respect I was somewhat underwhelmed. Now let me make this clear, to non-sickos, this movie is gross. Heads are scalped and human skin is worn as a mask ala The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For a whippersnapper gorehound however, it didn’t live up to the hype (Zombie has said the more extreme cut footage is now lost to the sands of time). It is also bizarre, so I feel like I did not know how to parse it. Over time however the film grew on me and has a place in my heart.
Now I must be clear I – and Zombie would agree – consider the film’s loose sequel The Devil’s Rejects to be a masterpiece and a far better version of these characters. Maybe in a few years I will get to write an anniversary piece gushing about that film. But for now let’s discuss House. House was shot on 35MM, which made Zombie realise that shooting on 16MM and blowing up to 35MM would achieve the grimy, documentary style look he wanted. He achieved this with The Devil’s Rejects.
The flaws in the first film are the things that make it such a time capsule of the time and the film’s relative glossy qualities including this look are one. The film feels almost too stuck in the style of the glossy teen slashers of the time. Zombie admitted he didn’t care about the teens, and it feels like he wasn’t confident enough to just focus on the family. Devils feels like a terser distillation of what he wanted to achieve.
During the period the film was in limbo Zombie shot a great deal of footage himself. This results in a film that is part extremely glossy, being shot on the Universal backlot on a high budget, and part lo-fi with home video style video shots aping snuff movies. The film’s messiness – combined with the impression that Zombie , as a first time director wanted to do all his ideas for a film lest he not make another – actually results in its charm for me, however.
The style of the film is akin to the maximalist overwhelming edits of Natural Born Killers, with Zombie mixing types of camera footage, stock imagery, split screen and solarized footage amongst other techniques, to disorientating effect. The colours – particularly in the murder ride sequence – are reminiscent of 80s Italian giallo films. As a negative I’m a big defender of Zombie, but even I must concede that this is his one film where you could reasonably argue that it feels like an extended Zombie music video.
I think Zombie bares comparison with Tarantino. Both share a fixation with the 1970s and cinema history. Zombie’s potty mouthed dialogue is like a white trash Tarantino. The greatest comparison, however, is that Zombie has a brilliant eye for character actors who either never got their due, or who fell from the public eye. Sid Haig had started in films like Spider-Baby and Coffey but had effectively retired from acting till Zombie picked him to play Spaulding (indeed Tarantino also used him in Jackie Brown and the second Kill Bill). The performances of the Firefly family are fantastic and one of the high points. Zombie even uses Hollywood legend Michael J. Pollard (Bonnie and Clyde) in the opening scene. The family became iconic, although I feel like this wasn’t their best depiction.
So how do I feel about the first entry in the Zombieverse 20 years on? In an interview before the film’s release Zombie said that he hoped the film would evoke the feeling a sleazy horror film would give him, that it was its own little world. In this regard Zombie fully succeeds. It’s scrappy and rough around the edges but it feels dirty in the best way, and like something that cannot be replicated.