Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects” (2005)

When director Rob Zombie made HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003), he put everything he had into it.  There was no guarantee he’d ever get to make another movie.  But that didn’t stop him from dreaming about what would happen to his characters after the credits rolled.  He began entertaining a wider world for these eccentric creations to inhabit, whereby they would have to answer for the horrible crimes they committed.  When HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES did well enough to warrant another film for the fledgling director, he knew that he wanted to make this sequel as his next picture.

Surprisingly, he took a very different tack than most sequels do.  He turned his villains into protagonists on the run, and shifted the tone from horror to a 70’s style road picture.  The result was 2005’s THE DEVIL’S REJECTS—arguably Zombie’s best film and a veritable thesis study on his aesthetic.  But more importantly, the film reinforced his reputation as a talented director by selling him to a larger audience and causing many to re-assess any prior prejudices against him.

THE DEVIL’S REJECTS is set six months after HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, in 1978-era Texas.  The Firefly clan is ambushed by a police squadron who have come to make them finally answer for their mass-murderous ways.  The squadron is led by Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), the vengeful brother of the cop murdered by Karen Black’s Madam Firefly in the original film.  His wrath is utterly biblical, making him out at times to be more psychotic and brutal than the serial killers he aims to eradicate.  After the Firefly family makes an explosive last stand in their decrepit house, the surviving members—Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Otis (Bill Moseley) go on the run and travel across the Texas deserts to escape Wydell’s persecution.  What follows is a road picture along the lines of 70’s exploitation films that brings an unflinching, morally-murky attitude to the proceedings.

Zombie retains most of his original cast from HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, further establishing his repertory of character actors.  Sid Haig graduates from supporting role to lead as Captain Spaulding, the thick-necked jester in clown makeup. Here, he’s revealed as Baby and Otis’ father, and he brings a much more grounded and realistic approach to the character—even going so far as to appear without his iconic face paint for a majority of the film.

Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, reprises her role of Baby, but gone is the annoying brat demeanor and hyena laugh she had in the first film.  Here, she’s much tougher and disciplined.  Moseley is even nastier and vicious as Otis, now with a full beard and some color regained into his previously-pale skin complexion.

The late Matthew McGrory reprises his role as Tiny, now an even-more grotesquely and disfigured burn victim.  He passed away shortly after the film was finished, so THE DEVIL’S REJECTS is dedicated to his memory.  The recently-diseased Karen Black didn’t return to play Madam Firefly due to differences over salary, so the veteran character actress Leslie Easterbrook steps into fill her shoes instead.  Easterbrook crafts a normalized version of the character that’s short on camp and long on sexual menace.

THE DEVIL’S REJECTS also contains some new faces for Zombie to focus his lens on.  As Sheriff Wydell, William Forsythe is the big bad of the film and, ironically, the one person who is supposed to be the paragon of virtue and justice.  His vendetta to avenge his slain brother completely consumes him, turning him into an intimidating and ruthless monster that just might be more brutal and unfeeling than the serial killers he stalks.

Danny Trejo and Diamond Dallas Page play a pair of aging bounty hunters who assist Wydell, albeit with admittedly unconventional tactics.  Scream queen PJ Soles makes a brief cameo as Susan, a defiant mother who won’t let Haig’s Spaulding steal her truck without a fight.  And finally, Daniel Lew plays a foul-mouth cowboy hipster, making such an impression on Zombie that he’d come back as a recurring bit player in the director’s later works.

If HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES could be considered a polished studio film, then THE DEVIL’S REJECTS is a downright low-budget exploitation film.  The tone switch between these two films necessitated a significant visual overhaul, and cinematographer Phil Parmet ably delivers in his first collaboration with Zombie.  The film was shot on 16mm stock and blown up to 35mm during exhibition in order to give a heightened, yet subtle sense of grit and texture.  Zombie and Parmet crank the contrast into overdrive with the bleach-bypass process, crushing the blacks and blowing out the highlights for a sun-bleached look appropriate to the arid desert setting.  Zombie also adds a tinge of blue and green into the shadows via color timing, which gives the image a sickly look and helps to bridge the gap between this film and its predecessor.

Zombie’s gritty, realistic approach to the visuals is reflected in the camerawork—THE DEVIL’S REJECTS is framed almost entirely in handheld close-ups, and largely eschews the wide, dynamic compositions of HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES. However, he does indulge in a few crane and helicopter-mounted shots to add a little bit of grandeur here and there. Incorporating freeze-frame opening titles (much like Ti West’s HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009) does) is the final touch that sells the conceit that this film could’ve actually been made in the time it takes place.

To create the film’s score, Zombie turned to veteran composer Tyler Bates.  In Bates, Zombie found a partner that he would continue to collaborate with over the course of several more features.  Bates’ discordant score is bombastically propelled forward by heavy percussive elements and dissonant tones.  But the lion’s share of attention to the music goes to Zombie’s inspired needle drops.  His selection is much more focused here than it was in HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, and he even refrains from including his own music.  Instead, he draws from a limited palette of classic 70’s southern rock like Elvis Costello, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers (along with the chilling Depression-era folk tune “Dark Was The Night”).

THE DEVIL’S REJECTS plays like a thesis statement of Zombie’s aesthetic conceits as a director.  He nails an old-fashioned tone that evokes the heyday of 70’s horror, but modernizes it by bringing in mixed media elements and found film footage. He also utilizes characters from a predominantly blue-collar, “backwoods” background (AKA rednecks).  Perhaps Zombie identifies with this very particular subgroup of people more than most, but they undeniably fit inside of his own personal brand: that of a moody, grungy goth rocker popular amongst small-town white youths.  These people are usually the key protagonists in Zombie’s films, albeit filtered through a 70’s time period or some other storytelling mechanism.  And as expected, masks, clowns, and other carnival-related imagery all carry strong thematic weight throughout the piece.

One of the most striking things about THE DEVIL’S REJECTS is the fact that there is very little continuity between the film and its predecessor.  Despite having the same characters, Zombie has radically shifted away from the macabre carnival/haunted house ride tone of HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and towards a sun-baked road film vibe.  It’s significantly less comical than the original film, and also less polished, favoring immediacy and realism where HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES favored high production values and theatricality.  Zombie also makes a very bold storytelling decision, in that he challenges the audience to care for a group of sadistic, psychopathic serial killers.  On its face, this is a seemingly impossible task; it’s like making a movie where Ted Bundy is the hero.  However, Zombie ably accomplishes this by creating a villain who’s even more sadistic and brutal, someone so inherently unlikeable that he makes the Manson-esque Firefly family look cuddly by comparison.  If anything, the subversive level of engagement Zombie achieves with his audience is arguably the film’s greatest accomplishment.

THE DEVIL’S REJECTS was well-received upon its release, doing better both financially and critically than Zombie’s debut. It even earned a glowing review from an unlikely source: Roger Ebert.  Ebert’s endorsement of Zombie’s vision caused the film community to look at him in a different light.  He was no longer a novelty act; he was now a legitimate voice within the medium.  Sure, he wasn’t making prestigious award-winning character dramas, but he was making what interested him, and more importantly he was doing it wellTHE DEVIL’S REJECTS solidified Zombie’s position as a burgeoning horror director of confidence and vision, and like it or not, he was here to stay.

THE DEVIL’S REJECTS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Lionsgate.

Credits:

Produced by: Mike Elliott, Andy Gould, Marco Mehlitz, Michael Ohoven, Rob Zombie

Written by: Rob Zombie

Director of Photography: Phil Parmet

Production Designer: Anthony Tremblay

Edited by: Glenn Garland

Music by: Tyler Bates