Rob Zombie has style. Whether you like it is another story. It’s impossible to deny that “white trash pastiche” is his thing. He’s enamored with unwashed 1970s aesthetics, wears his love of unflinching brutality on his sleeve, and equips his characters with more profanity than a drill instructor.
These staples have also become the rallying cries of his detractors. The unifying criticism being that he makes the same film over and over: ugly, vulgar, brutal, and with the glorification of his monsters and villains. That’s largely true, and it’s a feature. Not a bug. It’s also part of why I love 2013’s Lords of Salem. If it’s not his best movie, and I’m not sure that it isn’t, it’s at least his most interesting. Circumventing the trademark brutality of Devil’s Rejects and his Halloweens, Zombie instead channelled the surrealism of French auteur Jean Rollin in his pursuit of moody satanic horror. Many balked at the lethargic pace and rejected its focus on atmosphere, insuring financial and critical disappointment. Zombie stepped out of his cinematic comfort zone, and perhaps felt punished for doing so. The end result seems to have sent him back to more familiar territory for his follow-up feature, 31.
I haven’t seen 31 yet, but the reviews coming out of Sundance haven’t been terribly favorable. Many are panning it, though the recurring caveat seems to be that it’s at least well-made enough so that his most devoted fans will find much to savor. It looks like we’re back in hillbillyland, though, where classic rock tunes score explicit gore-filled carnage, and grimy characters, good and bad, rule the day. Oh, and Sheri Moon Zombie’s in it, as always. I’ve seen some positive thoughts crop up over this past week, but the consensus is that we’ve seen this Rob Zombie movie before. A few times. So now we’re collectively asking whether the writer/director has anything else up his sleeve, or if The Devil’s Rejects will forever represent the apotheosis of his filmmaking career.
I don’t think it matters. There’s plenty to enjoy about his work (not every film has clicked with me and that’s fine), and while I’m saddened that 31 sounds less like Lords of Salem and more like Devil’s Rejects, that’s not going to prevent me from seeing it. It’s probably not going to stop me from enjoying it, either.
Should any filmmaker, or musician, or author, have to step outside of his or her comfort zone in pursuit of their craft? Last month, that question was asked of Quentin Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight. I don’t think The Hateful Eight can be dismissed as a “Tarantino’s Greatest Hits” package anyway, but even if it was, I disagree with the idea of chiding him for it. The argument has a little more basis in Rob Zombie’s work (at least with his first four films), and it’s currently taking shape around 31. I see why, but I don’t believe it’s fair.
Zombie doesn’t need to step outside of the territory he currently monopolizes. I wouldn’t have wanted Dario Argento to stop making movies about black-gloved killers in the 70s and 80s, and I certainly wouldn’t have deterred Jess Franco from putting Lina Romay in roughly 100 movies throughout his career. Many say they’re tired of Zombie’s foul-mouthed, unlikable characters. And his continual use of wife Sheri Moon Zombie (excuse him for having a muse). Stop it with the classic rock, they say. Not everything needs to be “fuck this” and “fuck that.” But why should he listen? These tropes and staples are what interest Rob Zombie, and we the audience can decide whether or not we want to watch his movie. George Lucas once said he made Star Wars for himself, because it was the kind of movie he always wanted to see, but nobody had ever made. Every artist should do the same, when allowed.
By the way, none of this is intended to suggest that Zombie wants to make the same old thing over and over. For starters, his long announced hockey comedy is something I hope will one day see the light. But if all we get out of him from now on happens to be grimy aesthetics and pointed f-bombs delivered by under-utilized character actors, then I’m pretty okay with that. Zombie doesn’t owe us anything except his vision. How we respond to that is what’s up to us.