Slaying-It: Why Rob Zombie is one of the Great Living Horror Filmmakers (Part 2)

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How are we supposed to feel at the end of The Devil’s Rejects, when the three remaining members of the titular family drive their car straight into a police blockage, while Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Freebird’ plays on the soundtrack? The threat to the stabilization of Western society is eradicated, yet the only resistance to the pull of gentrification has been eradicated. If there’s a tone of heroism to the ending, it’s not because the Fireflies have achieved anything substantial, it’s because the ability for an individual to choose how they face death is perhaps the most noble act that exists in Zombie’s twisted moral universe. Has the evil been vanquished from the world? Of course not.

The most brutal, sadistic tendencies of the Fireflies are also demonstrated by Zombie’s law enforcers, the primary difference is that the latter are protected by institutions that allow them to hypocritically exercise these tendencies while simultaneously telling themselves that they are on the side of the moral good. What the savvy viewer realizes is that the Fireflies are doomed from the start. Once made a target of the state, there’s only so long before they can outrun its agents. They can live for a while off the grid, but before long they’ll encounter the forces of restriction, and they’ll become mere horror stories related on the afternoon news, their story reduced to a five minute segment, picked apart by psychologists and criminologists, who make it their mission to rationalize and contain anything that is considered perverse and dangerous in this world.

Most of the time, Zombie’s best moments are the most unreal, the most purely iconographic. With his most recent film, 31, he seems to root a whole film in the playful abstraction in the best scene of The House of 1000 Corpses, in which his main characters boards a twisted ghost train that plunges them into a claustrophobic, hallucinatory tour of the most notorious serial killers of the 21st century. The plot is jarringly stripped-back: on Halloween night 1976, a group of carnival workers are kidnapped whilst on a road trip, and wake up in an impossibly huge warehouse run by a group of psychopaths dressed as 19th century aristocrats. The aristocrats inform them that they have been selected to play a game of 31, an annual tournament which sees them locked in the labyrinthine confines of the building for twelve hours while being hunted down by a series of sadistic killers. The only goal of the game is to survive until morning.

Throughout the narrative, Zombie periodically cuts to the aristocrats discussing the course of the game from their terrace, as they place bets on how long each participant is likely to make it. As with late period Tony Scott, who must surely be another one of Zombie’s heroes, 31 is edited as if by a madman, more concerned with accumulating suggestive details, striking combinations of light, texture, geometry and movement, than with mapping out coherent spaces or actions. Because 31 is set entirely within a self-contained, underground warehouse with no clear sense of geography, it allows his imagination to be stretched to abstract extremes. Zombie’s compositions ingeniously utilize the geometry of in-camera objects and architecture, diving the frame along internal grids, shapes and angles, as in a stand-out sequence set in a miniature circus; strings of multi-colored LED lights are always scattered dotted around the foreground of the image, abstracted by Zombie’s shallow depth of field into immaterial dots of color, like watercolor splotches.

Alongside this, the set itself is lit with huge pools of purple and turquoise, emitting from no apparent source. This painterly, fantastical framing, with colour and light being designed as a sequence of abstract and notional patterns, deliberately works against the literalist design of a film like The Devil’s Rejects, and establishes 31 not as a film about the sociopolitical reasons behind the death of 1960s countercultures but purely about the shift in mood, in headspace that accompanied it. If The Devil’s Rejects is a film about what the death of the 60s looked like, 31 is a film about what it felt like. The deliberate staginess of 31’s set-up deliberately calls to mind Murnau’s horror features, and we see this again in the way the characters are set in opposition to their environments, a surplus of in-camera objects takes on an otherworldly, uncanny quality through Zombie’s lens, enclosing and entrapping, echoing the characters’ diseased claustrophobia.

Zombie’s camera is the physical embodiment of force. At the moments of most intense violence, it physically mimics the blunt motion of a chainsaw, swinging from close-up to close-up haphazardly, a relentless physical thrust which doesn’t let up. With every moral choice his characters take, the more tightly they become embroiled in the structures of force. When a diabolical clown named simply ‘Sex’ attacks another character with a knife, the camera embodies the motion with a forceful velocity, panning from a tracking shot of her behind to the victim’s chest with a motion that mimes the ferocious plunge of the dagger. During the interstitial periods, the camera abandons the perspective of any character and instead takes the perspective of the imagined narrator, which could either be Zombie’s or the aristocrats, taking in the rest periods of the characters with a studied distance, as in a brief dining scene, which sees the characters seated at a table, silhouetted against an otherworldly green, glowing backdrop, the trees surrounding them forming borders like calligraphic squiggles.

Read Part 1 of this feature here.

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English student, filmmaker and writer for Alternate Takes, MUBI Notebook, Film International, Mcsweeney's, Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, The Vulgar Cinema and Sound on Sight. Too crazy for boys' town, too much of a boy for crazy town.

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