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Director Spotlight: Rob Zombie

Rob Zombie at Comic-Con 2007, promoting Halloween
Rob Zombie at Comic-Con 2007, promoting Halloween
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It's easy to feel conflicted about the films of Rob Zombie.  At Zombie's best his films are eloquent love letters to the old school horror classics of bygone days, but at his worst they are mere paeans to excess and style over substance.  Zombie's film career thus far has been relatively brief with only four live action films under his belt, and therefore most of his excesses as a director/screenwriter can be chalked up to what is essentially youthful exuberance - but the undeniable fact remains that watching a Rob Zombie film can be an exhausting experience, and not always in a good way.  The now iconic Captain Spaulding (played with demented glee by Sid Haig) says it best in House of 1000 Corpses, Zombie's 2003 film debut: "You like blood?  Violence? Freaks of nature?"  If you do, keep watching Rob Zombie films and you won't be disappointed.

House of 1000 Corpses and its 2005 sequel The Devil's Rejects are probably Zombie's strongest films to date and definitely the strongest examples of a recurring theme in his work - that of family and the strong, not always positive effects it can have on people.  House of 1000 Corpses is extremely similar in plot and structure to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and like that 1974 classic it features a twisted nuclear family as its central antagonists.    House of 1000 Corpses works, as does its sequel, for the simple reason that the viewer empathizes with the villains - even though the Firefly family engage in acts of torture and murder that would sicken even Leatherface and his cannibalistic kinsmen, it's hard not to feel some degree of respect and even admiration for their familial loyalty to each other.  This theme of familial bonds is emphasized even more in The Devil's Rejects, a brilliant sequel which uses role reversal to great effect - in this film the Firefly Family are as much victims as victimizers, hunted like animals by a relentless sheriff whose desire to avenge his brother's death in House of 1000 Corpses drives him  slowly but violently mad.

Zombie's focus upon family dynamics does not always stand his films in good stead, a sad fact which can be seen in his 2007 remake of Halloween and its original 2009 sequel Halloween II, both of which fall under the category of interesting misfires.  One might think that the story of Michael Myers would benefit from this angle of storytelling, but in the case of the Halloween franchise less really is more.  Michael Myers is a frightening character in the original franchise precisely because so little concrete information is revealed about his motives and he can therefore serve as a blank slate, a sort of mirror for the viewer to see his or her fears reflected in.  When Myers' background is revealed Zombie inadvertently turns him into a somewhat sympathetic character, much to his films' detriment.  Another strike against Zombie's Halloween flicks is Malcolm McDowell's scenery chewing performance as Michael Myers' nemesis, Doctor Samuel Loomis.  In all honesty, it's at least as much the fault of Zombie's screenwriting as McDowell's (over)acting, but the fact remains that this iteration of the character can't hold a candle to Donald Pleasence's performances in the original franchise.  Pleasence invested the role of Loomis with a subtlety and understatement all his own, no mean feat considering that the character was often written like a cross between Captain Ahab and Van Helsing, and it is exactly this subtlety and understatement that Zombie's Halloween films lack to their detriment. 

All told, it's probably still to early in Zombie's filmmaking career to come to any conclusions about his flaws or merits.  While he definitely shows great potential and his obvious affinity for classic horror films serves him in good stead, Zombie must learn to keep a tighter grip on the reins if he wishes to become a truly great filmmaker.