Of all the characters who could get the "let's check in on our old friends from years ago and see what they're up to" sequel treatment, I would not have supposed that people who we last see dying in a stand-off with the cops would be good candidates. But underappreciated horror auteur Rob Zombie doesn't have anything better going on, and a notable problem getting projects financed, so a 14-years-later follow-up to The Devil's Rejects it shall be. And thus it is that the literal very first action that 3 from Hell - for that is the follow-up's name - must take is to explain why, exactly, torture-happy psychopaths Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley), Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie), and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) happen to not be ribbons of lifeless flesh. The explanation, by the way, turns out to be sheer evil cussedness, or something close to it. So that's one mystery solved.

This information is presented to us in the form of news footage and headlines, and this sets up pretty much the whole of the film's short first act. It seems, for a little bit, that Zombie has a scheme in mind for 3 from Hell to be something of a joke about the way that stories of extreme violence are sold by the media, something that we all agree is horrible, just horrible, while greedily devouring the details of just how horrible it all is with prurient zeal. After dropping hints about the Mansons through the first two movies in this newly-formed trilogy (House of 1000 Corpses preceded The Devil's Rejects by two years), Zombie brings in Ted Bundy as well, in assembling swatches of found footage to tell of how the Devil's Rejects were taken up as a counter-culture cause in the wake of their arrest, with crowds of late-stage hippies protesting their imprisonment for a full decade, as the Reagan '80s click along to their end. It's not exactly new stuff, but Zombie and his crew - cinematographer David Daniel, editor Glenn Garland - have obvious enthusiasm for creating new old footage and indulging in '80s news iconography. It's never as purposeful as the previous films' exhumation of the 1970s (indeed, it arguably never amounts to more than a joke), but there's a zest for the joy of filmmaking that was profoundly absent from Zombie's last feature, the miserable drudgery of 31, and that kind of delight in cinema for cinema's sake is hard to turn down, especially when presented with the absolute earnestness and enthusiasm Zombie demonstrates here.

There's little doubt in my mind that this opening sequence is the best thing the film has on offer. The high-speed flow of information in the collage-like assembly of footage gives it a strong boost of momentum, and re-introduces the three last survivors of the Firefly clan with relatively unobtrusive bits of exposition, while slowing down or even stopping to let small, individual scenes re-expose us to the grotesque vibe of the performances. The best of this is a lovingly-lit close-up that allows a visibly ailing Haig to pound out a supervillain monologue before the film lets the actor off the hook- Haig's absence from the film creates a giant hole that would be enough to argue by itself that this is the least-effective of the three movies, but at least Zombie offers him a glorious send-off.

It doesn't seem that there's any obvious reason why the movie couldn't continue in this mode forever, but it settles into something much more sedate and uncomplicated pretty quickly after Haig's big scene. In fact, it settles into basically re-running The Devil's Rejects, albeit with a very different first act. Otis and Baby are in prison now, so the first order of business is a prison escape movie, albeit one done up in traditional exploitation movie tropes, complete with a psychotic lesbian prison guard named Greta (Dee Wallace, hamming up a storm). From here, it grows substantially more familiar: Otis and Baby, now joined by a previously unmentioned brother, Winslow Foxworth "Foxy" Coltrane (Richard Brake), stave off boredom for a few hours by taunting, humiliating, and finally murdering a few people, after which point they head off on the road, leaving a few bodies in their wake, and then at last enduring a pitched battle with the forces of order. Not law and order, in this case; the siblings' attempts to keep clear of the U.S. cops sends them across the Mexican border, where they wind up on the wrong side of a crime lord's personal army of assassins in luchador masks.

It's not exactly the same thing as last time; more than it's the same general ingredients with different emphases. The influence of The Wild Bunch is felt far more keenly than last time, not least because of how fully the Mexico sequence abandons even the limited pretense of horror to transform fully into a Western, albeit a stunningly gory one with half the cast made up of jabbering psychopaths. It still finds the director idling along in a comfortable groove: the overall aesthetic, notwithstanding its genre trappings and the Mexican iconography is a direct re-run of The Devil's Rejects, with the same dirty tinge to the color grading, the same sweaty sheen on the actors, the same choppy editing that gives a nervy jangle to even the most banal moments. This is a good groove for Zombie, to be sure, though it's really the first time that he's directly repeated himself; for all its faults, even 31 at least tried to come up with something new. Better the easy throwback quality of 3 from Hell than the nasty tedium of that misfire, especially since Zombie actually seems to like making this movie, a feeling very pointedly absent from 31.

Still, there's not all that much to it. The acting is on-point: Moseley and Moon Zombie have never been better, even as the latter has been explicitly given license to go even bigger with her zany, manic chattering and giggling than before. And Brake, the only element of 31 one that one would have wanted Zombie to hang on to, effortlessly falls into the rhythm of his co-stars' performances, even if his character is a bit too similar to Moseley's as written. And the sense of nihilistic hopelessness that the film starts cranking up as it enters its final showdown works well at the level of pure thriller mechanics; like any good neo-Western, the film is mostly concerned with making sure that everything is awful and everyone will die and it will be horrible, because these characters are all too caught up in their own animalistic bloodlust to ever consider a better way of living, and these are good characters to hang that feeling on.

What it lacks is any greater resonance beyond "psychos are sure psychotic, ain't they?" It's a huge void next to The Devil's Rejects, into which Zombie poured all of his nostalgia for and hatred of the 1970s, crafting one of the 2000s best "end of an era" stories. The 1980s don't emerge with any kind of specificity in 3 from Hell, and after that opening news footage sequence, you'd never be able to tell when it was set, anyway. That, in turn, changes the Fireflies from nightmarish avatars of a dying Zeitgeist into garden-variety anti-heroes. The film still works on the level of ultra-violent anti-hero action film, and this filmmaking team and these actors are extremely well-positioned to tell that kind of genre story; but it's ultimately pretty formulaic, even if it's a satisfying formula. One supposes that this is the very best that Zombie is capable of putting together right now, and good for him for not letting it drag him down like 31 did; but I do regret to imagine that the most interesting horror director of the 2000s will be reduced to this kind of cozy, well-made pastiche for the rest of his career.

Reviews in this series
House of 1000 Corpses (Zombie, 2003)
The Devil's Rejects (Zombie, 2005)
3 from Hell (Zombie, 2019)