“If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who’d make it happen. Was it possible, that at every gathering, concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back east, wherever-those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?”
“There is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to the claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever.” -Thomas Pynchon
The Fireflies, the misfit family who anchor the narrative of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, are a surprisingly functional and loving family unit – that is, when they’re not murdering or torturing innocent tourists. After their farmhouse is ambushed by a police raid, the remaining few go on the run through a series of seemingly endless American highways. His films are explicitly concerned with painting an ethnographic topography of America, but rather than sticking to the conventional symbols of subways, deserts, highways, this is the America of curios and hobbyists, a landscape of forgotten comic book stores, cheap ghost trains, roadside strip clubs, local heavy metal radio stations with a handful of listeners each. It’s a roadside America that feels like the even uglier cousin than the one Wong Kar-Wai painted in My Blueberry Nights.
The Fireflies, like Zombie himself, blend together the grotesque and the carnivalesque, pleasure and pain, desire and destruction, into an expressionistic circus of horrors. They don’t just luxuriate in their own sadism, but playfully celebrate it; like many Zombie protagonists, they exist in a state of intense hedonism, where pleasure and ecstasy intertwine. They face the prospect of torturing an innocent band of tourists with the same childlike delight with which they buy Tutti Frutti ice cream. It’s true that Zombie’s films are vulgar, crass, often ugly, and filled with bawdy toilet humour – why, then, are they consistently so heartbreaking?
Life is a bombastic overload in Rob Zombie’s cinema, a constant succession of sensual instants, a stream of effects without rest or escape. Zombie tends to get short drift by people who judge his films purely in terms of language, narrative and characterization, all of which Zombie demonstrates little interest in. To appreciate Zombie, you need to meet him at his own level, at the level of images and montage. Zombie’s movies are rich in ideas, but they never explicate these themes through dialogue. He’s less interested in getting his viewers to consciously understand his concepts than in getting them to feel them directly – how it feels to live in the same state of alienation his characters do, a mental state realized delicately through expressionistic means, purely through lights, shapes and textures.
Zombie’s films recall Murnau, if Murnau had been weaned on video nasties and freak shows instead of Schopenhauer and Ibsen (and if you think that comparison is far-fetched, keep in mind that a key scene from 31 plays out with a prominently placed TV screen in the frame showing Nosferatu, and several of his films contain jarring references to obscure silent film actors). Zombie’s movies are uncompromisingly overwhelming experiences, exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure.
The Devil’s Rejects is perhaps Zombie’s most accessible film, or, at least, the one which most completely encompasses all of Zombie’s recurring thematic and aesthetic preoccupations. Detailing the escapades of a cultish family of sadistic clowns, carnies and hippies, The Devil’s Rejects makes it clear that Zombie is a man is obsessed with the 1960s and 70s only because he recognizes that the most potent of our modern fears are rooted in cultural shifts that occurred over this decade. His filmography continuously returns to the iconography of the Manson family murders, the highly-publicized tragedy that lubricated suburban paranoia of 60s counter-cultural movement, and paved the way for other serial killer celebrities vilified and heroized by the mass media in equal measure – in particular, Zombie seems interested in the mythos of Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and the Zodiac killer. After the Manson trials and the Altamont disaster, widespread paranoia towards a whole network of vaguely connected subcultures, grew rapidly, aided by the boom in the mass media and suburban housing projects.
Intercut with the escapades of this rag-tag team of counter-cultural weirdos is shots of national news stations coverage their carnage, and FBI agents employing the technocratic powers of the state target and dispatch of them. As the narrative wears on, it becomes increasingly clear that The Devil’s Rejects is a film about rebels in a world wherein wide systems of law enforcement are being utilized to turn them into mere anomalies to be tracked down.Part of what makes The Devil’s Rejects so difficult to swallow is that Zombie stages them as villains and victims simultaneously. Their rage at the world is matched by the hostility the rest of the world directs towards them. The Fireflies are the last remaining residue of the counter-cultural movement, stumbling onwards hopelessly as the society they’ve come to love gradually disappears, taken in by the intertwined forces of surveillance, gentrification, high finance, telecommunications and modernization.
Zombie’s films are marked upon an odd mixture of gravity, humor, grotesquerie and elegy, because, although Zombie is exploring the very worst aspects of the counter-cultural movement, he’s also mourning its passing. Even the most ardent Zombie skeptic must acknowledge his prowess as a nostalgic scavenger, albeit one whose interest skews firmly towards low pop culture; his meticulous attention to detail when it comes to incorporating the posters, films, music, clothing, dietary habits, and recreational drugs of whatever period he decides to make his focus.
Zombie’s characters are philistines, not intellectuals (which is partly why it’s so easy to confuse Zombie for the former); they aren’t consciously longing for an untouched, Rousseauvian natural landscape that exists in opposition to the artificiality of urbanity and gentrification. Rather, they are nostalgic for the consumerist bric-a-brac of hidden culture. The cultural specificity of carnivals and independent record stores, of local legends and tacky dive bars.