From the start, Rob Zombie was more a multimedia happening than a rock star. Sure, the music was rousing, but it was the total package that put it over. A pop-culture scholar with a macabre bent, Zombie knows how to mix and match elements to his own ends, creating videos that dropped him in the middle of a German Expressionist nightmare, artwork that crossed Ed "Big Daddy" Roth with the pages of Famous Monsters Of Filmland, and an image that's part late-night horror host, part Charles Manson cultist. Scraggly beard, demonic eyes and all, Zombie has never been less than a craftsman at whatever he chose to do, and that included his feature-film debut, House Of 1000 Corpses.
A technically expert, meticulously designed homage to '70s grindhouse cinema, Corpses let Zombie direct horror-movie scenes that he must have been wanting to try for years, and he produced some unforgettable moments in the process. No one knows how to draw out the sinister undercurrents of a Slim Whitman song quite so well. Unfortunately, Corpses turned into overkill, both in the figurative and literal senses. As the body count mounted, the scares began to wear off, and the film started to look more like an exercise in joyless retro-appreciation than like its own film.
The Devil's Rejects picks up where Corpses left off and eventually runs into the same problems, but it first confirms Zombie as an estimable director, regardless of genre or other occupations. Returning to Corpses' 1970s-era back roads, it follows Corpses' family of sadistic murderers as they attempt to elude tough-talking lawman William Forsythe. Sid Haig, a cult figure best known for his role in Spider Baby, leads the clan as Captain Spaulding, a gas-station/roadside freak-show owner who goes on the lam with thrill-killers Sheri Moon Zombie and Bill Moseley. Their flight takes them from a rundown tropical-themed motel—where they terrorize a traveling band of country musicians led by Geoffrey Lewis—to a sleazier-than-usual whorehouse.
Zombie fills The Devil's Rejects with thrilling setpieces, pays homage to his inspirations without outright ripping them off (most of the time), brings back some cult-movie icons (hello, Mary Woronov and E.G. Daily), and works in some profanely clever dialogue: Anyone wondering about the logistics of chicken-fucking or the marketing problems of a robot-themed brothel won't be disappointed. It's an audacious piece of filmmaking, but after a while it grows exhausting to watch, particularly when it becomes clear that violence is going to lead to more violence without much story or conscience surfacing. Rejects might, in its way, be the perfect horror film for a moment when endless cycles of revenge have become institutionalized as global politics, but in the end, it's hard to walk away unnumbed by so much blood and so many unanswered screams.