Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on May 13, 2005, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Back when I originally reviewed Rob Zombie’s HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES here, I called it “a balls-out tribute to the genre classics of the ’70s that pushes the R rating to the limit.” But it turns out I hadn’t seen nothin’ yet.

The Devil’s Rejects: Unleashing Decades of Terror

The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie’s follow-up feature (opening July 22), blasts out of the projector like a creature let loose after being entombed for three decades, out for blood and seriously pissed off. By accident of timing or by design, the movie lays waste to the recent trend toward “safe” scares and overproduced FX extravaganzas and gets back to the genre’s nitty-gritty. This is the Terminator of horror films.

Defying the Trend: A Return to Raw Horror

It’s clear from the opening scene, in which a bloodied and fully nude female corpse is dragged across the property belonging to the demented Firefly family, that Zombie is going for balls-out, stab-you-in-the-throat horror, and nobody—not his backers, not the legions of decency and not the MPAA—is going to stop him. (How he got away with an R for this film is something I don’t dare question.) This is that rare piece of horror cinema where you truly can’t anticipate how bad things are going to get, and Zombie is not only merciless in his depiction of evil deeds, he dares to empathize with the most heinous characters imaginable—and dares you to empathize with them as well. And this time, not just the material is informed by 70s genre fare, the cinematic approach is as well. Zombie’s use of freeze-frames, handheld camera and choice songs on the soundtrack evokes that seminal decade like no movie since, yet there’s nothing show-offy or self-conscious about his technique. He’s simply making a movie in a style he clearly loves, while shocking the pants off you in the process.

Provocative Beginnings: Setting the Tone

And despite his stated intent to be nothing but dead serious this time out, The Devil’s Rejects is often pretty damn funny too. Fans might think there’s no way Zombie could come up with an introduction for Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding to rival that in Corpses, but Spaulding’s profanely hilarious first scene here will prove them wrong. Throughout, Zombie evinces a talent for colorful four-letter language to rival Quentin Tarantino’s, as well as an even stronger penchant for casting horror and exploitation cinema’s best character actors. Of these, only Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree has a significant part, but genre fans will find it both oddly reassuring and damn entertaining to see supporting roles that could have been filled by Central Casting instead populated by the likes of Geoffrey Lewis, Danny Trejo, Steve Railsback, P.J. Soles and Michael Berryman, who delivers a couple of hysterical and well-timed Star Wars jokes.

Cultural Touchstones: Pops of Nostalgia

There are a few other pop-culture references strewn along the bloody highway here, but these serve to sustain the period ambiance, and the moments of black humor provide momentary relief and variation from the sustained tension and carnage. There’s nothing funny at all about the mayhem enacted by Spaulding, Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), who take to the road after their house is raided by the cops in the movie’s opening setpiece. Leading the law-enforcement charge is Sheriff John Wydell (William Forsythe, as lean and mean as he’s ever been), whose brother (played by Tom Towles in the previous movie) fell victim to the demented brood and who has sworn vengeance upon them. Nasty, protracted, gut-wrenching vengeance, preferably. The madness of his obsession, and the lengths he’ll go to satiate it, make him little different from the Fireflys themselves; they just happen to be on opposite sides of the law. (When he realizes the roots of the Fireflys’ names, Wydell consults with a local film critic, a pompous nerd—played by an uncredited Robert Trebor—who may represent Zombie getting a little payback of his own.)

Creating Empathy: The Firefly Family’s Dynamic

Keeping an audience caring about what happens to people who clearly couldn’t care less about the lives of others is a difficult trick, even in a grueling and gruesome horror tale, but Zombie pulls it off. That’s in large part due to the demented family camaraderie established by Haig, Moseley and Moon Zombie, whose playful/deadly sexuality is gleefully capitalized on by her husband. It might not work in a less accomplished film, but on only his second feature, Zombie proves himself an assured craftsman, and receives sterling support from cinematographer Phil Parmet, who creates stark and scary Southwestern imagery; the remarkably detailed/decayed production design by Anthony Tremblay; Glenn Garland’s evocative editing; Tyler Bates’ flavorful score; and the cringe-inducing makeup FX by Wayne Toth. It’s not the gore itself that’s truly scary in The Devil’s Rejects, though, but the savage intensity of the violent sequences, and the feeling (rare even in horror films these days) that lives really are in danger.

From Music to Film: Rob Zombie’s Transition

Zombie has said that he will henceforth be eschewing music to focus on filmmaking; he doesn’t even allow himself a tune on the Devil’s Rejects soundtrack that might interrupt the period mood. And more power to him. The Devil’s Rejects demonstrates a commitment to horror that’s always welcome, and feels like such a pure and all-encompassing expression of what he loves about the genre that it will be interesting—and likely harrowing—to see where he goes from here.

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