Thursday, July 28, 2005

Rob Zombie: The Coming-Out Party

Since I’ve been on the subject of movies, I’d like to give a quick report on the theatre experience I enjoyed tonight, a nefarious masterpiece that does its genre, which itself is not easy to define, very proud. The film I’m talking about is the Devil’s Rejects, Rob Zombie’s second gratuitous foray into sadism, violence and feral, subversive humor. At the risk of being labeled a hack at movie criticism, and having not read or heard any peer reviews, I must declare that this is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable films of the year, and probably the best original “horror flick” I have seen in recent memory.

Since probably most movie fans will balk at such a claim, maybe even laugh, I feel that a little background is in order. Everyone knows that Rob Zombie is a total freak. His music, which flirted with the mainstream for a minute in the early and mid 90s, was primarily tasteless new metal, heavy guitar thrashing noise with occasional moments of catchiness. Above all, White Zombie’s chief calling card was a zealous alignment with all things evil, in a satanic Halloween type way. His videos, album covers and song lyrics were rife with demons, death, ghosts and ghouls.

Though I don’t know very much about his music catalog, nor whether he takes any of that shit seriously — I mean come on, the guy’s surname can’t really be Zombie, can it? (sarcasm alert) — I can definitely say that somewhere in his reasonably successful but unsensational rock career, the man picked up a few things about visual presentation, editing and spectacularly violent entertainment. This can be viewed as either negative or positive, depending on who you ask, but the ultimate verdict is that Zombie has dug himself a well-deserved niche in movie-making with his nimble grasp of translating an artistic vision to the big screen. (More on why in a second.)

So a few years ago, I had the privilege of watching the first installment in this postmodern, 70s schlock horror tribute (that might be oxymoronic, but this is my blog). Though the initial film, House of 1,000 Corpses, left much to be desired, particularly in the way of coherent storyline or character background, it served as a visceral grand buffet of colorful imagery, irreverent Tarrantino-ish dialogue and often frightening (yet admittedly scatological) humor. Therein, a surprisingly impressive writing and directorial debut emerged.

1,000 Corpses was so chock full of literary and cinematic allusions and absurd butchery, in fact, that I had no choice but to treat myself to a second viewing the next day. Shortly thereafter, I read an interview with Zombie — one in which he was surprisingly coherent and down-to-earth, — where he described his plan for the sequel. Based on his brief summation, I thought, at the time, this sounds like it could actually work. So I must concede that I approached Devil’s Rejects with some bias.

Still, I found it difficult to believe how well the movie expounded on and developed the strengths of the first. The visual and verbal carnage remained in tact, and the witty, if depraved, dialogue sparkled, but in two important ways, I realized I was watching a genuinely fantastic piece of entertainment .

First and foremost, the story was adroitly conceived and unshackled by the disjointed mental masturbation of the first. Read: there were far fewer, if any, meaningless scenes or infused crosscuts of gore and sexual ruination. That is not to say these elements were absent, as no claim could be more misleading. Rather, this time around, Zombie’s acute sense of incivility served to accompany and enhance the plot. In short, everything added up.

The second major improvement, one that I feel was a crowd-pleasing surprise, was the excellent score and soundtrack. Given what I stated earlier about Rob Zombie’s musical career, the choice and positioning of sounds in this picture are nothing short of remarkable. Because some of the more memorable scenes are aided and abetted by the track list of 70s hard rock, Southern goth and blues, I will refrain from giving too much away. But imagine my ears’ surprise at the timely placement of sounds from the Allman Brothers, Joe Walsh and Lynard Skynnard, among others, interlaced, no less, with bodily dismemberment.

About the story itself, well, it isn’t worth too much discussion here, as the central elements are more or less familiar ones. The demented, blood-savvy clan of skinsuit-wearing creatures, AKA the Devil’s Rejects, is on the run from an equally vicious, god-fearing west Texas sheriff, played beautifully by William Forsythe. Take that formula and throw in a traveling country music band, a rustic but ghetto-style pimp, a Mexican maid, an ill-begotten mother and son, a bestial chicken rancher, the freak from the Hills Have Eyes, a porn starlet, ex-con bounty hunters, Rob Zombie’s deliciously hot wife, a WWF wrestling legend cameo, lots of guns, lots of nudity, lots of sex, drugs, booze, death and gore, and, lest I forget, an evil clown, and you can probably begin to imagine what kind of film we are dealing with.

Is it vile? Yes. Is it disturbing? Yes. Is it exploitive? Absolutely. But it’s also funny, fast-moving, explicit, scary, smart and always pushing the envelope. The “nothing is too taboo” mantra extends to religion, law and the value (or lack thereof) of human life. I’d be remiss not to add that the cast, while not A-list (thankfully) is more than solid. If there is a clear weakness in the Devil’s Rejects, it may be that it possesses an inherent air of submissive, violent treatment of women. And I will acknowledge that, if you see things this way, it probably undermines the entire project. But I’d argue that the strength and unnatural evil of the two female leads discredits this perception.

Overall, I see in it elements of the Coen brothers, Tarrantino, Kubrick, Peckinpah, Hooper and any number of groundbreaking 70s horror directors. So, if you dig those people’s work, you will undoubtedly find something here to suit your fancy. It’s definitely not for all tastes. Zod knows this film may rank high on the all-time list of crass, disturbing and graphically violent grind-house features. But if you want to glimpse your primal side, and feel the pulsing intensity of a nihilist madhouse, presented in a polished, stylized format, the Devil’s Rejects gets the nod.

Huge McFriendly ups to Zombie and Co. Check it out if you have the balls. And go straight to hell.
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