the sheer genius of Rob Zombie

By India Sabatar

More than horror!
For most people, the sadistic nature of torture porn is repulsive. And it was for me too. I found faces getting burned, legs and arms getting sawed off and the realistic depiction of disemboweling to be repellant. This was not art, but a demonstration of societal failure and not my idea or art or fun. And yet today, I not only watch torture porn, but also actually enjoy it. This didn’t happen because I became sick and twisted, but because Rob Zombie taught me to love what I found repulsive and, maybe worse, taught me that I should love what is repulsive. I am a full-blown splatter film intellectual, a connoisseur of the depraved. I no longer have a problem with Hostel, Saw and The Hills Have Eyes except that they’re stupid. I no longer cringe at violence, but pay attention to the way these films are lit, deploy horror movie stereotypes, create endless and elaborate variations of well-worn plots and use music in shocking and inventive ways. In other words, what I see is neither torture nor porn, but art.

Most people know Zombie as the co-founder and front man of the metal band White Zombie. He was always attracted to what one might call dramatic excess. His influences growing up tended towards the dramatic. He found inspiration from classic slasher films, such as Friday the 13th, Halloween and The Last House on the Left and musicians who use the iconography of horror, such as Alice Cooper, Queen and KISS. He claims that his love of blood soaked atrocities and the glam side of murder came from his parents not allowing him to watch horror movies when he was a boy—who knows, not everyone who is denied repeated showings of Dracula ends up a practitioner of such jaunty violence. He has written and directed six films to date, five more or less in the torture porn, horror variety and a straight-to-dvd animation flick.

Mr. Zombie himself!

Zombie’s first film, House of a 1000 Corpses was my first film of his and the one that led me down the path to torture porn fandom. It starts with the oh-so-obvious horror movie cliché of a group of teenagers (Bill, Mary, Denise and Jerry) visiting the gallows where Doctor Satan, a malicious surgeon, was hanged for torturing mental patients—on Halloween! Captain Spaulding, a psychotic clown who runs a gas station/museum-of-oddities/fried chicken stand (Zombie loves to pile on the clichés), gives them directions that leads them straight to a backwoods family of homicidal psychopaths. The family members are all named after Groucho Marx characters: Mother Firefly, a flirtatious old woman; Otis Driftwood, a Charles Manson-like adopted son; Tiny, Mother Firefly’s giant and deformed son; Rufus Jr., another huge son, and Baby, Mother Firefly’s only daughter and a sadist. Zombie understands that horror is about personality (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, etc.) and it is his ability to populate his film with old-fashioned characters that gives them both depth and an odd type of glamour.

This family of Grouch Marx imitators invites the kids to stay with them (really, who could resist), but soon the two couples are separated, beaten and tortured. They dissect Bill. Otis sexually and physically abuses Mary. Baby scalps Jerry, for not knowing the name of her favorite actress—Hollywood again! And they chain Denise to a bed and dress her as a doll. Denise’s father, a police officer tries to find them, but is quickly killed off by the family. Otis skins him and wears his flesh in front of the captured daughter, which as a form of torture should be some type of Freudian nightmare or complex. That Zombie sees torture porn as a series of artistic possibilities and challenges might point to a deficit of moral and ethical character, but there’s no denying his ability to mine the tropes of horror for new aesthetic possibilities and kicks.

Otis, an unusual name
Soon after, Baby stabs Mary and Denise is lowered into a pit. She ends up in a labyrinth of skeletons and creatures before being caught in Doctor Satan’s lab. There she finds her friend Jerry being taken apart along with many other still living people in various stages of mutilation. She escapes and sees the daylight. One shouldn’t miss Zombie’s subtle use of dark and light and how they work in conjunction with and deviate from the plot. Hysterical, she runs onto a road where she hitches a ride and immediately collapses from exhaustion. Captain Spaulding and Otis are both in the car and she is brought back to Doctor Satan’s lab where the film ends with her screams. The film is one long nightmare, as I hope this description conveys, but Zombie always relays that nightmare in artful and imaginative ways.

For such a sick set of events, I didn’t look away once. I was conflicted. I knew what I was seeing was horrible, but I liked it. Zombie had split my brain as surely as Doctor Satan takes pleasure in letting people live in a state of mutilation. For the first time ever I was completely separated from a movie and viewed it as I would an art show or performance piece. I could watch it, because normal aesthetic concerns such as identifying with characters, empathy and the hope for a happy ending had all been removed. Instead, I was confronted with nothing more than the sheer power of Zombie’s artistry. Honestly, it was exhilarating.

You should look away, but you can't: Zombie genius
Clearly, I would not be able to stop. I began watching other Torture Porn movies to see what I had been afraid of and the truth hit me like a bucket of blood to my addled brains. I used to be afraid of watching them and now I was afraid of just how unspectacular they all were. Zombie had given me art in a genre that I was sure I despised and now I needed that art in that form and what scared me is that I wouldn’t be able to get it. Sure, you can find a good evisceration anywhere and if you want to get canonical and classical there’s even a good one in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The problem is that you need more than blood and the grotesque to make a good horror movie.

Shakespeare, the originator of everything!
Zombie’s genius is that he doesn’t just subvert horror movie clichés, that’s an old trick and has been a staple of horror movies since Wes Craven’s Scream. Instead, Zombie embraces the clichés, takes them for real and blends them into one huge stew of abstraction and ridiculousness, as if it were all some big performance piece. If that’s not enough, the sadistic killers are a loving family. I had to have more of this feeling.

I was disappointed when Zombie’s following films had less blood and torture, which gave House of 1000 Corpses its gleeful sense of the absurd. Its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, had less torture, less gore and doesn’t come close to the manic intensity of the first. I had started to like this family and their back swamp psychotic ways and felt they were going soft. Zombie’s latest film, The Lords of Salem, has very little blood, but my-oh-my is the story brilliant. He imagines the birth of the Anti-Christ by telling the story of the Anti-Virgin Mary. It was all I wanted and more. It is as if Zombie comes alive as an artist when he can tell a story in all its glory. Of course, the sequel wasn’t as satisfying, because there was less of a story to tell. Let Zombie loose in full storytelling mode and he can even make a genre as corrupt and stupid as Torture Porn come alive. Like all great artists, Zombie made me realize that I had interests and desires that I wasn’t even aware of and now that I know about them I can’t wait for him to give me more!

Zombie knows story

©India Sabatar and the CCA Arts Review

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