When I first heard of White Zombie frontman Rob Zombie’s directorial debut via “House of 1000 Corpses,” I didn’t pay it much heed, especially since the promo material made the film look like a low rent rip-off of several superior ’70s splatter flicks. Most of the subsequent critical reviews and word of mouth seems to bear my assessment out. Thus, when I heard Zombie was at it again with “The Devil’s Rejects,” I didn’t give the new film a second thought. That is, until I stumbled across the trailers. While I pretty much knew what to expect, content-wise, I was struck by the visceral energy and aura of meanness that the trailers conveyed. They immediately reminded me of the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and I got the feeling that perhaps Zombie had captured some of that essence. However, this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been suckered in by a flashy trailer (“Casshern” perhaps being the worst case of such a misstep), so I still had my reservations.
The film begins with a dead woman’s body being dragged through the woods by a deformed, inbred brute, and it just gets worse from there. The dilapidated home of the Firefly family, a notorious band of serial killers, is surrounded by a battalion of heavily armed police led by hard-nosed Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), who informs his green deputy that they are about to dish out an “Alabama ass-whoopin'” of biblical proportions. After a vicious gun battle, two of the family members, Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), escape and meet up with their dad, Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) at a seedy hotel. What follows is an hour and a half of supreme nastiness at a level that hasn’t been seen for quite some time.
An unappetizing vomitorium of relentless, pointless slaughter and a baffling level of nihilistic sadism akin to Chan-wook Park’s “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance,” “Rejects” is a hectic mishmash of themes and images from ’70s renegade horror films. The film recalls several genre touchstones, such as the aforementioned “Massacre,” “Last House On The Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes,” as well as headier films like “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Badlands” and “Natural Born Killers.” However, these films are just parts that Zombie uses to cull together a script for his movie. There is no higher purpose or deeper thinking involved with “The Devil’s Rejects,” making it merely an exercise in filmmaking for its director, and virtually every sequence, effect and camera trick can be traced back to one of the films mentioned above.
Rob Zombie’s love for ’70s schlock extends to the cast as well, with blaxpoitation star Haig leading the way, along with cameos by genre icon Michael Berryman (“The Hills Have Eyes”), the instantly recognizable Geoffrey Lewis (“Tango & Cash”), and porn queen Ginger Lynn Allen doing what she does best.
But back to the nastiness.
The film leaves you with a dirty feeling similar to the aftermath of watching “Salo: The 120 Days Of Sodom,” but that film actually had a point. “Rejects” resides firmly at the bottom of the totem pole of cinematic sleaze with the likes of Takashi Miike’s “Izo” and “Ichi The Killer.” The problem is that Zombie lacks Miike’s imagination and doesn’t possess the skill of Oliver Stone. “Rejects” stumbles in much the same way that “Izo” and “Ichi” did, in that it wants to wallow in its own repulsiveness while at the same time trying to garner sympathy for a clan of aimless psychopaths. This is a nearly impossible task and Zombie just isn’t up to it.
All that being said, I must admit to liking the film on a very base level. There is a primal energy that infects the main characters — a raw, animalistic urge on the audience’s part to see vengeance doled out to the Fireflies. If ever anyone deserves it, they do, and Zombie’s gritty camerawork helps transmit this energy to the audience. There is a palpable sense of joy in seeing the Fireflies getting their comeuppance, as well as anger at the prospect of them getting away with it.
The other bright spot is the soundtrack. Zombie is a talented musician and it shows in his effective mix of Hillbilly rock and cacophonic sound effects that once again bring back the memories of “Massacre” and “Left.” In fact, Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper should be getting royalty checks from Zombie. And, finally, we can’t forget the humor. Yes, I am using that word in the loosest possible sense. Nevertheless, the film does have moments of humor, mostly achieved through clever dialogue and sight gags, that elicits guilty laughs from the audience despite the film’s horrific situations.
So what we’re left with is an ugly mix of vile sadism and black humor that is tougher to get your arms around than it has any right to be. For that I give Zombie full credit. “The Devil’s Rejects” may be trash, but the musician-turned-filmmaker knows it, and to his credit, shows no ambitions of wanting, or needing, more from his film.
Rob Zombie (director) / Rob Zombie (screenplay)
CAST: Sid Haig …. Captain Spaulding
Bill Moseley …. Otis
Sheri Moon …. Baby
William Forsythe …. Sheriff Wydell
Ken Foree …. Charlie Altamont
Matthew McGrory …. Tiny
Leslie Easterbrook …. Mother Firefly
Geoffrey Lewis …. Roy Sullivan