Back in 2001, Rob Zombie, global heavy metal star, directed his first feature film, House of 1000 Corpses. Its schlocky exploitation soul was abandoned by producers to the whims of post-production purgatory for three years: shelved because of its freakish nature. Zip forward 17 years and Zombie is a horror icon, an auteur with a wide range of decent titles under his belt. His music background stoked the flames of a filmmaking career via horror-infused rock, garnering him a passionate fan base. Extensive use of his music in genre films secured him longevity. Sampling from popular films, Zombie bound himself to the horror genre from the start of his career. He name checked exploitation heroes and monsters in abundance, probably educating generations of metal fans in the same way Alice Cooper did before him.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Exploitation
In 2000, growing popularity, nominations at the Grammy’s, collaborations with big names, and an eventual theme park House of Horrors for Universal landed him in the perfect position to do what he’d been dreaming of for years: make a horror film he could imbibe with the same layered genre appreciation.
From the outside, House of 1000 Corpses looks like a scuzzy low-budget flick, and for many readers it probably hid on the top shelf of a rental store with the nastier stuff. As is often the case with horror, general audiences and money-men can’t quite see past “gruelling” subject matter or gore. But Zombie’s film is surprisingly buoyant for all its nihilistic trappings. It’s a gleeful brand of self-aware craziness that Zombie has utilised countless times since, winking and grinning at his audience with that demented camaraderie that fuels the horror community.
In basic terms, Zombie uses rock’n’roll ideology to make his gnarly characters and seedy world easier to enter. Many people will probably be surprised at how funny House of 1000 Corpses is, but also how well realised. Zombie shows an eye for detail and gorgeous imagery from start to finish. The mise on scene screams Americana and exploitation in equal measure. There’s the neon carnival of Captain Spaulding’s House of Horrors, the accomplished western-infused cinematography, country/metal soundtrack, and of course the characters. Zombie’s colourful collection of backwoods carnies is custom built to appease the horror house standards of 2000’s youth. And boy do they deliver.
Family from Hell
As a family unit, the Firefly’s are vying with Tobe Hooper’s Sawyers for worst family of The South. Sid Haig, the exploitation star of Jack Hill films like Spider Baby, is a keystone to Zombie’s early success as the iconic Captain Spaulding; foul-mouthed gas stop attendee, horror museum runner, murderer, and all-round prankster. Haig’s work in The Devil’s Rejects is more accomplished, sure, but Spaulding’s integral to setting up Zombie’s cinematic world right there at the start of House of a Thousand Corpses.
Bill Moseley infamously overacted the Hell out of Tobe Hooper’s dodgy over-the-top Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel, but here he’s a more restrained and frankly ghoulish villain: the albino Manson-type Otis Driftwood. Moseley is integral again to another one of Zombie’s interests: the Manson clan. On a similar note Zombie has received flak over the years for giving big roles to his wife Sheri Moon, an actor of inconsistent talent, but in House of a Thousand Corpses, she nails it. Baby is a perfect rockabilly Manson girl, with a narky laugh and a touch of necrophilia, she embodies much of Zombie’s aesthetic: loud, proud, and totally deranged. Along with Moseley, it’s a dark perverse trip into rockabilly sadism.
Aside from the main players, Karen Black (Invaders from Mars, The Easy Rider) is as hospitable a horror mum as any other, arguably outdone by Leslie Easterbrook in The Devil’s Rejects. Tom Towles (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) plays a solid tough cop, and Dennis Fimple (King Kong) is an absolute goddamned disgraceful delight as Grandpa, a sweary sadistic patriarch. The role would end up being his explosive last.
Fimple and Black are Tobe Hooper alumni, further cementing Zombie’s debut as a love letter to the horror legend. Eaten Alive, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Funhouse appear to have had quite the impact on a young Rob Zombie. House of 1000 Corpses is totally indebted to Hooper, and in the grander scheme of Zombie’s CV appears a bold hello and goodbye to overt autuer-adoration. Its almost like he wanted to get his fanboying out the way before cracking on with a film career.
Considering that the film was shelved for three years, you’d expect a film loaded with the kind of shameless degradation we’ve seen from the Serbian Film‘s and The Human Centipede‘s of the world. This is not that film. Failing to look past Zombie’s theatrical effects and pantomime execution leaves the viewer marooned in shameless dirgy exploitation. It’s the shame shit Tarantino has dealt with for years: well-made, smart, referential cinema, made for a specific audience, lambasted by zealots for going too far. The idea that House of 1000 Corpses was too extreme or even nihilistic seems nothing but laughable in the haunting world of 2017.
The sad thing is that Zombie just missed the boat in terms of shameless retro-fitted nostalgia porn. In a world where Nicholas Windyn Refn delivered a pretty, but hollow, giallo hark-back in The Neon Demon, and where shows like Stranger Things bank on millennial obsession with 80’s chic, it seems criminal that Zombie’s exploitation hark-back was shelved for so long. Especially when films like House the Devil, The Green Inferno, and The Guest have emboldened a bankable nostalgic streak in popular genre film. Funnily enough, compared to those releases, Zombie’s debut has become exactly the type of sideshow B-feature it was emulating. Its the most honest of the post-2000’s pulpy horror hark-backs, hands down.
Honestly, House of 1000 Corpses is by no means Zombie’s best film, its his debut and he’s just finding his feet. The first two acts are a lovably gruesome kidnap murder pantomime, somewhere between Texas Chainsaw and Rocky Horror then the final act goes full tilt into heavy metal music video territory. Dr Satan, the boogeyman of Zombie’s world, is revealed to be very real in an over the top Nazi scientist, zombie occult extravaganza of a finale. The film wobbles around this dopey conclusion, but in the context of its pulpy inspirations, there’s something appreciable about its shamelessness.
No Turning Back
The quality of Zombie’s filmmaking has increased with each project, as has his ambition. But even for a debut, House of 1000 Corpses offers something quite unique, a love letter to some of the nastiest hits of horror, and more specifically Tobe Hooper, sincerely crafted and unrelentingly brutal, but most of all loving.
Within the confines of its exploitation adoration Zombie’s debut delivers a a kind of taste board of genre touches. He takes Hooper alumni back to the years of his adolescence and lets them loose. He loves what he loves and House of 1000 Corpses is a sort of manifesto of terror which announced Zombie’s specific style and interests, whilst forming a full circle between life-long loves. Going back and watching this now, gives you new found appreciation for Zombie’s talents not as a purveyor of shock tactics, but an adoring fanboy who’s never forgotten where he came from.