Even as a staunch defender of Rob Zombie’s cinematic output, I think it’s fair to say that his career post-Michael Myers has been a bit of a mixed bag. Various big-budget original projects (Tyrannosaurus Rex), visionary remakes (The Blob), and stories grounded in reality (Broad Street Bullies, based on the 1970s Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey team) were announced and subsequently scrapped during the past decade, which would’ve seen Zombie’s talents stretched further than ever before. Instead, Zombie has found himself working in straight-to-DVD animation (The Haunted World of El Superbeasto), the low-budget realm of Blumhouse Productions (The Lords of Salem), and the dubious space of fan-backed crowdfunding (31). As you can imagine, even though Zombie had more creative freedom with these three projects—due to the lesser risk—the results vary between the most ambitiously original he’s ever been to feeling like he’s simply going through the motions on autopilot.
I’m no artist, but I imagine it’s a constant struggle for those with a ferocious fan base like Zombie. How do you try to constantly evolve within your craft and not alienate your die-hard loyalists? Do you seek to please your fans by giving them what you think they want time and time again, or do you take risks and push yourself beyond the automatic assumptions people make when approaching a new work? I, for one, would’ve loved to have seen Zombie’s take on Broad Street Bullies, because I literally know nothing about the story/sport and therefore would’ve had no preconceived notions about what I was going to see. The film would’ve been a new and fresh start for Zombie as a filmmaker, and it’s a film I hope gets made at some point in the future. I’m sure every fan reading this would love to see Zombie dive into a new genre beyond horror, as there’s nothing left for him to prove within that arena. Still, we know we’re getting 3 from Hell next year, but is he truly developing or is he stuck in a rut?
If we’re just going on his most recent film, 31, it looks to me as if Zombie has hit a creative low from which only the Fireflys can help him escape…but more on that later. For now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Zombie followed 2009’s Halloween II with 2012’s The Lords of Salem, but there’s actually a little-known, straight-to-DVD animated film that sits in between and is surprisingly his second most expensive film to date. The Haunted World of El Superbeasto—based on the stories from Zombie’s Spookshow International comic book series—is the type of film that makes you wonder how on earth it got made. In fact, the production history is just as fascinating as the film itself, as a series of delays and legal issues saw The Haunted World of El Superbeasto’s budget balloon from $1 million to $8 million, which probably means the financiers will never recuperate their money. I suppose it doesn’t matter when you’re not paying for the production, but $8 million is still an insane amount, right?
I won’t be spending too much time talking about The Haunted World of El Superbeasto because, well, Zombie’s next film deserves more of my attention. In saying that, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto is a wildly entertaining film that could only work as an animated feature. It is by far and away the most depraved, filthy, explicit, raunchy, and gratuitously exploitative film Zombie has and probably will ever make. Co-written with Tom Papa (who also stars as the titular former wrestler), Zombie’s first foray into adult animation follows an end of the world-style narrative in which El Superbeasto and his sexpot sister, Suzi-X (Sheri Moon Zombie), must prevent the unholy union between Velvet Von Black (Rosario Dawson), the foul-mouthed stripper with a penchant for gold digging, and the goofily evil Dr. Satan (Paul Giamatti). The Haunted World of El Superbeasto is a film that aims to offend the unoffendable, and it might just succeed depending on your threshold for such boundary-pushing visual anarchy.
Zombie clearly has a love for animation (going all the way back to 1996 and his uncredited work on Beavis and Butt-Head Do America), and The Haunted World of El Superbeasto is more than worthy of your time. Many people have compared Zombie’s film to the works of Ralph Bakshi, but that connection is just too easy and obvious in my mind. Yes, it’s very easy to make the comparison and call any new adult-oriented animated production a descendant of Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat, but that’d be doing a disservice to the entirety of The Haunted World of El Superbeasto and its hilarious originality. The animation is simply gorgeous and the insanely talented vocal cast Zombie recruited, some of whom I’ve mentioned above, could not give anything more to their respective performances. Plus, with references to everything from Planet of the Apes to a Benny Hill-inspired “Yakety Sax” section to a side-splitting take on Carrie’s infamous prom scene and Brian De Palma’s visuals, what’s not to love?
While it was certainly fun to see Zombie dip his toes into the world of an animated musical black comedy with The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, it is Zombie’s follow-up film, The Lords of Salem, that really stands out to me among his filmography. The Devil’s Rejects is often regarded as Zombie’s best work by the majority of fans and critics alike (you’ll be getting no complaints from me if you think of it as such), but The Lords of Salem is the first film I gravitate towards whenever I’m in the mood to revisit his work. In fear of resorting to hyperbole, let me just say that not only is The Lords of Salem in my top five horror films of the decade, but I also fully believe that if it had been made by any other filmmaker, it would be spoken about in the same light that greets films like It Follows, The Babadook, and The Witch. I don’t know why, but something magical happens when the right filmmaker and Jason Blum get together, and no producer has impacted Hollywood quite like him over the past 10 years.
Films like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Whiplash, Split, Get Out, BlacKkKlansman, and Halloween (2018) have all rode the wave of enormous critical and commercial success, but that’s not to say that some of Blumhouse’s lesser-known productions aren’t just as good. After working with budgets of around $15 million for each of his Halloween movies, The Lords of Salem saw Zombie’s imagination stretched to the limits of just $1.5 million. Obviously, working with literally 10% of the money he previously had for his last two live-action films must’ve been a shock to Zombie’s system, but the lack of funds provided him with all the artistic control he needed to make The Lords of Salem his most uniquely creative movie yet. Zombie notes that the amount of freedom he had while making The Lords of Salem was indicative of the lower budget, “…with this film I had complete control, contractually. That was the appeal. Working with a small budget is kind of a drag. But the other part was great.”
Naturally, seeing as this is a Rob Zombie movie, Sheri Moon Zombie stars as a radio DJ from Salem, Massachusetts, who is haunted by macabre hallucinations of a Satan-worshipping coven after receiving a wooden box containing a mysterious record by an unknown band identified only as The Lords. After playing the record on air, Heidi (Sheri Moon) and her co-hosts, Herman “Whitey” Salvador (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips) and Herman “Munster” Jackson (Ken Foree), unknowingly unleash a supernatural force of evil unto the town that has been locked away for more than 300 years. The Lords of Salem marks a dramatic shift for Zombie, who up until this point had been exclusively operating in the realm of exploitation cinema. Now, that’s not to say that all the classic hallmarks of a Rob Zombie movie (gratuitous nudity, ultra-violence, explicit language, etc.) don’t feature throughout, but there’s a maturity to the film that only comes with experience and a self-acceptance of past weaknesses.
Rather than seeking to shock or resorting to worn-out tropes of past films, The Lords of Salem sees Zombie reaching for the heights of the great horror films of the late 1960s/early 1970s. Whereas his debut film, House of 1000 Corpses, was more clearly inspired by the gonzo absurdity of something like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The Lords of Salem’s blasphemous horror is more akin to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Ken Russell’s The Devils, and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. There’s a grandness to the art direction and production design that elevates it above everything Zombie had made before, and it actually looks way more expensive than all of his previous films combined. The way in which Zombie juxtaposes the isolated darkness of Heidi’s apartment (which doubles as the real-life embodiment of her fractured psyche) with the operatic lushness of the drug-induced vision of the tentacled demon demonstrates a narrative maturity previously unseen.
I also highly recommend the novelisation of The Lords of Salem, which was co-written by Zombie and B.K. Evenson. Based on the original screenplay for the movie, the novelisation is a totally different experience to the film as we know it. Right from page one, we know we’re dealing with something different as it’s far more graphic in its detail than what we see on-screen, but that makes for a more interesting read in my opinion. Given the ability to expand in greater detail on the page, the history of the coven is more fleshed out and there’s obviously a whole lot more character work, but I still think the visuals of the movie are necessary to allow this story to thrive. My love for Zombie’s work was at an all-time high after the release of The Lords of Salem, and I could hardly wait for the release of his next feature, 31, which sounded like his version of one of the most adapted stories ever written, Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game. But sadly, this is where my excitement and praise ends.
I hate to end this trilogy of articles on Rob Zombie’s career on a sour note, but 31 just does not work for me. After The Lords of Salem saw Zombie channelling the auteurs of ’60s and ’70s horror, 31 seems like such a step back for someone as creatively visionary as Zombie. It’s derivative, ugly, and shows almost no signs of the inspiration that was bursting through the frames of The Lords of Salem. It’s the only movie in Zombie’s filmography that I actively dislike, and I have no intent at this time to go back and see if my thoughts differ after a second watch. The plot for 31 is as simple as it gets: set during Halloween, 1976, five carnival workers are kidnapped, held hostage, and forced to play a 12-hour game called “31” to avoid being tortured and murdered by their twisted captors. Sounds familiar, right? Battle Royale, Predator, The Running Man, and The Hunger Games are just a few of the stories inspired by 1924’s The Most Dangerous Game, and 31 doesn’t hold a candle to any of them, sadly.
Despite featuring an ensemble cast of Zombie favourites, Malcolm McDowell dressed to the nines, and a breakout performance from Richard Brake as Doom-Head (one of the murderous clowns hunting the carnies), 31 is clichéd exploitation and nothing more. The thing is, I totally understand wanting to once again do something completely different after The Lords of Salem, and maybe I would’ve been a little less unimpressed had 31 been Zombie’s debut or maybe even released in between The Devil’s Rejects and Halloween, but it still feels like such a letdown when compared to his previous work. “With each film, I try to adapt the style that I feel is applicable to the story. A gritty approach didn’t fit the story of my last film, Lords of Salem. I wanted to do something that was a little more grand; a little cleaner cinematically. For this, I feel like a very nasty, gritty, guerrilla-style approach to the filmmaking fits the story and the vibe of the movie,” Zombie told Rolling Stone with regards to 31 in 2014.
It’s 31′s “nasty, gritty, guerrilla-style approach” that is the biggest letdown from the visual majesty of The Lords of Salem. Again, I get why that approach worked for Zombie from his point of view, but I can only equate it to someone like Dario Argento starting the Three Mothers trilogy with the vivid beauty of 1977’s Suspiria before ending it with 2007’s visually unexceptional The Mother of Tears. So, it is with great sadness that I end this three-part retrospective on a sad note, but I’m full of hope for next year’s 3 from Hell and Zombie’s return to the family that has served him so well twice before. I’d be more than happy for him to only make Firefly movies for the rest of his career, but I have my fingers crossed that sooner or later, he’ll return with something just as unexpected as The Lords of Salem.
So, what are your thoughts on The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, The Lords of Salem, and 31? Did Rob Zombie’s move into more original content post-Halloween please you as a fan, or will you be glad to see him returning to his cinematic roots when the Fireflys are resurrected in next year’s 3 from Hell? Please leave a comment and let us know by following the information about our social media accounts, which can be found below. Alternatively, you can follow me on Twitter (@JonSheasby), and we’ll continue the conversation over there.
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