House of 1000 Corpses is an energetic, lively movie, but it is also a substantially dysfunctional one, better-suited for demonstrating writer-director Rob Zombie's all-encompassing love for the horror genre than for working as an audio-visual narrative object. It's the kind of first feature that a filmmaker needs to get out of their system so they can go on to do something batter later on, and we have in front of us an especially clear example of that dynamic: about two and a quarter years after the April 2003 release of House of 1000 Corpses, Zombie's sophomore effort, The Devil's Rejects, hit theaters, and it's an across-the-line improvement. The raw savagery that was apparently meant to fuel that first film is present in its sequel in full force, and Zombie is almost entirely successful at staying clear of the aimless, "well, what if we did this?" stylistic experimentation that turned his debut into such an energetic, colorful muddle. But The Devil's Rejects isn't just an improvement; it's one of the great horror-thrillers of the 21st Century, easily the best of the nihilistic genre films of the post-Saw 2000s, and arguably the single best of the grind house throwbacks that every wannabe Tarantino spat out, the way they all spat out quippy gangster movies the decade before. And I include in this calculation Tarantino's own grind house throwbacks.

Like House of 1000 Corpses before it, The Devil's Rejects is incredibly forthright about its influences, though now we can calculate the formula much more simply: this is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Bonnie and Clyde (Zombie offers two other major touchstones: The Wild Bunch and Badlands. I'm not sure that I see the former, but the latter actually makes perfect sense: this is sort of like the mirror universe version of Badlands, a corrosive nightmare of deserts instead of a floating dream of rivers, in which violence is not the senseless act of confused youth but the deliberate outburst of nihilistic adults). And it somehow manages to earn that lineage: the combination of Bonnie and Clyde's "fuck your rotten society" youth rebellion energy, and TCM's "okay, we fucked society, and now there's nothing left but death and madness" aesthetic brutality results in one of the few films of the modern age whose antisocial nihilism doesn't feel cynical and hip, but ripped out of the artist's guts. Whatever else we can possibly say about Rob Zombie, I think you'd be facing an extremely difficult fight to argue that most of his work as film director isn't deeply personal and important to him. And The Devil's Rejects is almost certainly his best film - not my favorite, that's likely to be 2012's The Lords of Salem for as long as I remain the absolute idiot you have before you, but his best - largely because it is the purest, most focused articulation of his artistic worldview.

Which isn't a pretty thing, mind you, though it's not nearly as trashy and nasty as a quick perusal of the film's plot might suggest. The film picks up in May 1978, some seven months after the events of House of 1000 Corpses, with the police finally launching a successful raid against the Firefly compound, after the disastrous failure of the one seen in the previous movie. That raid resulted in the death of Deputy George Wydell (Tom Towles), and it just so happens that the new raid is being led by that man's younger brother, Sheriff John Quincy Wydell (William Forsythe), whose desire for revenge will turn into something just as rabid and psychotic as any of the actions taken by his deranged quarry. For quarry there shall be: though the police are mostly victorious in routing the Fireflies, taking Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook, replacing Karen Black) in custody and killing most of the others, Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) and her half-brother Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) are able to escape. Forsythe also finds conclusive proof that local gas station owner/house of horror huckster/clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) is associated with the Firefly family as well, and the good captain has a plan in place for just such an occurrence as a small army of angry Texas cops breathing down his neck, one that involves traveling with all due caution and all possible speed to the residence of his former partner in crime, Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree).

None of that is gets us to the nasty trashiness. For that, we must follow Baby and Otis to Kahiki Palms, a wretched little motel in the ass-end of the desert where they cross paths with Banjo and Sullivan, a traveling folk band that appears to be at least somewhat religiously-motivated. That makes them irresistible targets for a pair of serial killers looking to let off some steam, and for a healthy chunk of the middle, the film shifts gears to watch as they torment this new set of victims with extraordinary psychological and sexual cruelty, on top of the expected physical torture. And here we see the gonzo gore showman Rob Zombie of House of 1000 Corpses bow out of the way, to be replaced a colder, more controlled Rob Zombie, one who's interested in plumbing the depths of raw savagery that humans are capable of. It's an appalling moment, devoid of prurience (though I suppose that's in the eye of the beholder). The sequence is so squalid and sordid that it probably makes its point more than it needs to, and it certainly needn't go on so long (and even longer in the director's cut, which adds back in two minutes of especially repugnant sexual humiliation), but it's potent; of all the films that have self-consciously applied themselves to the business of copying The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I think this is the one time that the filmmakers involved really "got it": the motel room hell that The Devil's Rejects portrays here comes exceptionally close to capturing the profound rage present in Tobe Hooper's nightmare of a morally-deranged post-Vietnam America.

And that's the heart of the film, really. 2005 is late to be making a diagnosis of how badly the psyche of the United States was bruised by the Vietnam War, the collapse of the Great Society, and the failure of the late-'60s optimism, but The Devil's Rejects is awfully good at doing that thing, timely or not. Setting House of 1000 Corpses in 1977 was a frippery, a chance for Zombie to indulge in his affection for a certain era of iconography; setting this film in 1978 is crucial to every single other thing it wants to do. This is specifically a story about the end of the 1970s, not remotely a phrase that has the same august mythological weight as "the end of the 1960s" does, but for a writer-director who was 13 years old at the time the film takes place, there's an evident set of associations that this specific period carries with it, and he does a superb job of letting those associations bubble up through the film itself.

In Zombie's depiction, the 1970s are exhausted and angry: everything was shitty already, and they've been getting shittier, and there's no reason to assume they won't get shittier still (if I can be permitted the cardinal sin of using this film's unplanned, 14-years-later sequel 3 from Hell as supporting evidence: that film has a brief shot of Ronald Reagan's official presidential photo that carries such an unmistakably disgusted whiff of "and there's that asshole" that I can't help but suppose that the overall sense in The Devil's Rejects that as bad as the '70s could be, the '80s are somehow going to be worse, is no accident). It is a film about a period of time in which political rot and general social and cultural decay have led to a country in which the only thing left is for immiserated people to gleefully abused and destroy other immiserated people as a means of getting at the only pleasure to be had, however sick and degenerate that pleasure might. Zombie sees other forms of pleasure to be extracted in the clothes, the cars, and the classic rock of the era - The Devil's Rejects has one of the great classic rock soundtracks of any post-classic rock movie, including the definitive use of Lynyrd Skynyrd's much-abused "Free Bird" - as well as the gritty and nasty exploitation cinema that he's here re-creating, but even these relatively innocuous amusements are all breathing their last as well, shortly to be replaced by the most visually ugly decade of the 20th Century.

It is, in short, a bizarrely melancholic film for one that seems, on its surface, to be entirely nihilistic and vicious. In fact, it is melancholic because it is nihilistic; or maybe I should say that it's nihilistic because it's melancholic, and nihilism is the only sane response it can imagine to the uninterrupted decline that starts with Altamont (the catastrophic Rolling Stones concert, not the supporting character, though how could that character name be an accident?) and ends in Reaganomics. If, as some have maintained, the film ends up generating sympathy for the three psychopaths at its center, it's not altogether because it views them as charismatic anti-heroes - very little is charismatic about either Sheri Moon Zombie's tittering maniac or Bill Moseley's messianic thug, by which I do not at all mean to impugn either actor; they're both quite good, even Moon Zombie, who gets shit on a lot for this performance, but it's exactly what the film wants her to do. The sympathy (if that's even the word) is because it views them as being symptomatic of the violence and depravity in America, not its cause. Just look to how it generates absolutely no speck of sympathy for Sheriff Wydell, who as a representative of law and order is part of the cause, part of the whole diseased structure of the country as it merrily goes to Hell.

And so we get things like that wonderful "Free Bird" finale, portraying the Devil's Rejects as fundamentally tired but unwilling to give up, willing themselves into one final burst of energy for the sake of using that energy while they still can. I don't think Zombie likes his characters, but he does, in some way, respect them; they are honest in a dishonest world. Honestly insane, honestly depraved; and that, when all is said and done, is the sick joke of The Devil's Rejects. It's about a world that's gone too far wrong to salvage it, even visually (Phil Parmet's cinematography - he was hired for his documentary experience, including as a cameraman on the most "the '70s are evil and America is doomed" movie of all, the great Harlan County, U.S.A. - has the desiccated yellow look of something dead that's been left in the sun, and he amps up the graininess to make things look even scuzzier; to say nothing of the filth and sweat that clings to every character like an aura), and in such a world, the monsters are just as worth of admiration as the nominal heroes, who are really no less bloodthirsty, just more official about it. It's not a film with flashes of dark wit and mean absurdity - there's a delightfully ridiculous scene about the character's Marx Bros.-derived nicknames that starts out as a cinephile in-joke and ends in petty, ugly name-calling - but Zombie has almost entirely purged himself of the wacky joys of House of 1000 Corpses. With this film, he came into his own as a director, and even if he didn't really stay there for more than the duration of this one shoot, I think The Devil's Rejects is sufficient on its own to argue for Zombie as one of the most important horror filmmakers of the 21st Century.

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