Judging by its trailers and negative reviews, it was easy to shrug off director Rob Zombie’s film debut, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, when it was released in 2003. Lionsgate, the film’s distributor, had a long history of releasing disposable horror fare, so why would a film directed by a largely irrelevant shock rocker from the 90’s be any different? Granted, a lot of people still hold that opinion, but I find those who sit down to watch Zombie’s work usually come away with at least an admiration for the man’s effort, if not admiration for the work itself.
When I was in college, I had heard whispers amongst the various film circles that Zombie was an underrated director, and so one chilly October evening I decided to put the hearsay to the test and popped in the DVD to HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES. Maybe it was the time of year in which I was watching it, but something about the film immediately trigged a nostalgia center in my brain, and I was immediately drawn into Zombie’s macabre vision. Since then, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES has become a staple of my yearly Halloween viewing.
Zombie’s directorial debut was originally supposed to be with an installment of THE CROW series named THE CROW 2037. For whatever reason, that film was canned and Zombie found himself free to develop his own material. He gathered funding from Universal, whom he had a prior relationship with in bringing back their yearly Halloween Horror Nights attraction, and set about the business of shooting the film in 2000 (working with his manager Andy Gould as producer). Universal’s enthusiasm tempered upon seeing Zombie’s initial cut, and they began to fear that the film would receive an NC-17 rating. To Zombie’s dismay, Universal ultimately pulled the plug. Undeterred, Zombie bought the rights back and shopped the film around town, eventually finding it a home in Lionsgate. When the film was finally released in 2003, it met with middling success at the box office and some pretty savage reviews, but it did garner Zombie a critic-proof cult following that was strong enough to sustain momentum going into his follow-up.
HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES takes place in 1977-era Texas, where four college students are on a road trip and documenting strange roadside attractions they come across for a book they’re compiling on the subject. After visiting a cheesy museum/haunted house ride dedicated to famous serial killers and run by Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig)—a lively backwoods guy in clown makeup—the kids pick up an obnoxious hitchhiker named Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie). Shortly afterwards, their car tires blow out, so Baby offers to call them a tow truck. As a torrential rainstorm descends on them, she also offers refuge in her family’s home up the road, which they reluctantly take her up on. They arrive to find a creepy old house populated by a bevy of strange, off-putting characters: the over-sexed matriarch Mother Firefly (Karen Black), the angry Confederate sympathizer Otis (Bill Moseley) and a mute, deformed giant named Tiny (Matthew McGrory). Initially dismissive of these perceived “backwoods hicks”, the students get the surprise of a lifetime when they find out they’re actually in the company of a close-knit family of serial killers and necrophiliacs—and they’re the Firefly clan’s next victims.
In the years since his 2003 debut, Zombie has created a reliable repertory of performers he can call upon, and most of his key players (Sig Haig, Bill Moseley, and Sheri Moon Zombie) make their first appearance for him in the film. Haig plays the aforementioned Captain Spaulding, an intimidating and sassy jokester in clown makeup. Despite his outward repulsiveness, Haig’s characterization is actually quite charming and resulted in his character quickly becoming a fan favorite amongst Zombie’s devoted cult of followers.
The late 70’s indie icon Karen Black uses her unconventional beauty to lend an eerie glamor to the character of Madam Firefly. If anything, her casting shows evidence of Zombie’s familiarity with the deep cuts of 70’s cinema—films like FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) or NASHVILLE (1975).
As Otis, Moseley is all stringy hair and pale complexion, and is easily the most abrasive and menacing presence in the film. Sheri Moon was still Zombie’s girlfriend during the production of HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, but by the time of the film’s 2003 release she had become his wife. As Baby, she’s very effective in portraying an obnoxious Harley-Quinn type and taunting our protagonists with that irritating laugh of hers. Other actors of note include a pre-THE OFFICE Rainn Wilson, Tom Towles, and the late Matthew McGrory and Dennis Fimple.
Despite the film boasting two cinematographers in Alex Poppas and Tom Richmond, the look of HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSESis undeniably Zombie’s doing. Filmed on a hodgepodge of film stocks from 16mm to 35mm (as well as some video), Zombie’s vision evokes the grime of 70’s horror classics like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) and THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977). His lurid color scheme punctuates the inky blackness of the Texas next with bursts of neon and cobalt blue moonlight. The camerawork makes use of several techniques that were popular in 70’s exploitation, like rack zooms and handheld photography (in addition to classical dolly and crane movements). On his first time at the feature bat, Zombie is already using his camera like a seasoned vet, ably communicating a grand vision with minimal resources.
Several elements of Zombie’s background in music videos manifests in his feature style, such as the use of heavy filtration and damaged film conceits in pursuit of a grungy texture. Continuity largely goes out the window in several sequences, yet it doesn’t hinder the coherency of Zombie’s vision. For instance, he will dramatically shift the color of a key light with a hard cut (going from white light to red), and while there seems to be no motivation for doing so, it’s curiously effective. The effect is not unlike a cinematic version of a haunted house attraction or ride, which makes the film much more enjoyable than it probably has any right to be.
Zombie also throws in various vignettes that add a music video-style punch, like found footage of burlesque dancers and a recurring “home video” motif where members of the Firefly family break the fourth wall and speak directly to camera, bragging about their murders and taunting their victims. Inspired by similar home movies that the Manson Family supposedly recorded, Zombie shot these vignettes on 16mm film in his basement after principal photography wrapped (and while the film languished on Universal’s shelf).
Being a musician himself, it’s completely understandable that Zombie would have played a role in creating the score. Scott Humphrey is also listed as a composer, and together they create a pulsing, electronic score that recalls the horror films of yesteryear. Zombie also incorporates a lot of rock music, and while he doesn’t show total restraint in including his own songs, he does make a solid effort to source tracks outside of his own discography. The result is a surprising, eclectic mix that includes The Ramones and that old Marilyn Monroe song, “I Wanna Be Loved By You”.
Perhaps because it was never guaranteed that Zombie would ever get the chance to make another film, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES is the result of a director literally filmmaking for his life. In other words, he’s throwing all of his directorial conceits into the mix in a wild bid to establish his “style”. While this approach is more or less successful, it earned him just as many detractors as fans. HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES takes on the form of a macabre circus, using the convenient story device of taking place on Halloween night as an excuse for Zombie to go wild with seasonally appropriate imagery. This is extended to the opening of the film, which itself is a tribute to those cheesy, black and white horror television programs. In the form of Dr. Wolfenstein’s Creature Feature Show, Zombie absolutely nails the chintzy gothic trappings of a bygone practice whose campiness we don’t get to see much of anymore. It also points to Zombie’s larger appreciation of classic monster movies like THE WOLFMAN (1941) and FRANKENSTEIN (1931)—the kind of movies that Universal built its studio on. It’s clear watching HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES that Zombie has studied up on the entire genre of cinematic horror, incorporating nearly every major movement from German Expressionism, to classical gothic, to the shocking visceral-ness of 70’s exploitation. Because he’s so well-versed in the language of the horror genre, he’s able to fuse it all together into something entirely original and make it his stamp.
HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES is not for everyone. On an objective scale, the film—while mostly coherent—is wildly uneven. At least for me, it’s highly enjoyable as a form of cheesy Halloween fun. It’s an instance of a filmmaker taking everything he loves about movies and gleefully putting his own twist on it. One could even argue Zombie had established himself as something of the Quentin Tarantino of horror: a style marked by strong visual sensibilities, dynamic and original characters blessed with silver tongues, and an eclectic, inspired taste of music. The sum of all its’ Frankenstein-esque parts mish-mashed together translates to a veritable carnival ride of a film. While it didn’t exactly result in a mainstream breakout for Zombie, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES gave his bid for a directing career much more credibility.
HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Lionsgate
Produced by: Andy Gould
Written by: Rob Zombie
Director of Photography: Alex Poppas, Tom Richmond
Production Designer: Greg Gibbs
Edited by: Kathryn Himoff, Robert K. Lambert, Sean Lambert
Music by: Scott Humphrey, Rob Zombie