Rob Zombie burst onto the horror film scene in 2003 with his directorial debut, House of a 1000 Corpses, a homage to 1970's exploitation/horror films where he introduced us to the Firefly clan, a family into cannibalism, the occult and murder.
Now he’s back with The Devil’s Rejects (released in the UK today), a spin-off to 1000 Corpses that picks up shortly after the first film with the Firefly clan going in the run after their house is burned down during a police raid. Starring Sid Haig, Sheri Moon, Bill Moseley and William Forsyth, Devil’s is a far more accomplished film (read our 5 star review here), and looks set to seal Zombie’s reputation as a future horror director to watch.
We managed to catch up with Zombie to ask him about his new film...
EMB: ‘The Devils Rejects’ is such a different film to your first, ‘House of 1000 Corpses’. This one seems influenced as much by Westerns and Seventies road movies as it is by horror. What inspired you to take this route with the sequel?
Rob Zombie: What inspired me is that I don’t really like sequels! There are rare occasions when a sequel is great or perhaps even better than the original, like Godfather Part Two or Bride of Frankenstein, but the cases are pretty rare. So when it became apparent that I would be making a sequel, I approached it as though I was making a completely new film.
It’s a tricky thing, because I knew people were fans of the first film, but I didn’t really want to do anything I had already done, except retain the characters. Once I had decided to have the Firefly family back I set out to change the tone of the characters and the film in every way possible.
EMB: The character of Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), hell-bent on tracking down the Firefly family and avenging his father’s death, is the kind of driven vigilante figure you associate with Westerns or revenge movies.
RZ: Totally. The great thing about William was that he kept referencing Gary Cooper. I think he thought he was making High Noon, which was good because I don’t think he’s a big fan of horror movies or knows that much about them! But he was totally into it. In his mind he was making a classic Western.
It’s funny, but when I was in pre-production with the crew I never once referenced a horror movie. Because my biggest fear when I was hiring the production designer or costume designer is that they would look at horror movies and I didn’t want that look or feel. I would leave that part to me and I didn’t want them to go and fall into the conventions of the genre. So I would tell them to go watch Once Upon a Time in the West, Bonnie and Clyde or The Gauntlet.
EMB: You can really see those influences, particularly ‘The Gauntlet’, in the opening sequence.
RZ: I told them to watch anything with desert and open road, stuff like Two Lane Blacktop. But I wasn’t just looking to specific movies, it was more about capturing that look. Y’know, every 70s movie has that look, and we just tried to approximate that at all times. House of 1000 Corpses had maybe the feel of a 70s drive-in experience but it didn’t actually look like a 70s movie. Your first movie is like an explosion of all your interests and influences all at once. After that you just kind of calm down, and focus.
EMB: There’s no reasoning for the homicidal behaviour of the Firefly family. Were you ever worried that the characters would be too much for the audience, or did you just roll with it and see where the characters took you?
RZ: I pretty much just rolled with it! The nature of this kind of movie is that if you don’t like that kind of stuff you’re not going to watch it, so you’ve already taken out that segment of the population. Also, I was looking back to the films that I love that have despicable characters like Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer. They are despicable characters but they don’t try and explain away everything about why they are like that. I like the mystery, so with Rejects, the movie isn’t about the Fireflys in the sense of why did this happen, how could this happen, why are these people like they are? You just kind of drop in and spend a day in the life of these crazy people. It’s more interesting to me without an explanation. I mean we've all read about serial killers, we can fill in the blanks.
EMB: ‘Devils’ shows a willingness to go to darker places than the first. The motel sequence in particular is brutal, and emotional. It’s not cartoon violence, it’s real and powerful. How did you get to that place and how did your cast feel about these moments?
RZ: It was tricky because someone like Bill Moseley, who plays Otis, is just not like that. On any level. He's a nice, kind of goofy guy and he was not into it at all - it was really freaking him out. He was not having a fun time.
When it became really seriously menacing after every take, he would be like ”Oh God….I feel terrible”. But I think the person I have to credit most during that scene was Priscilla Barnes. Out of nowhere she got to such a real place and stayed there that she took everyone else with her. Had she not been so real the whole film could’ve ended up a lot different. She stepped up her game and the others followed her. There were actually quite a few moments when different actors would step up their game and you could see other actors thinking, shit I better step up my game! Danny Trejo who plays Rondo told me after we were done filming; “I came into this movie thinking, “Ahh I’ll give it my C-game performance, but it soon became very apparent I had to give it my A-game performance!”
EMB: It is an incredible cast. You have a whole bunch of great cult performers in there like Michael Berryman, Ken Foree and PJ Soles. How was it working with them?
RZ: It was like a dream come true in a lot of ways because as a kid I was such a big fan of certain movies that these actors had done. And, I mean, a fan to an absurd degree where I would’ve seen their movies hundreds of times. Then you meet them and they are exactly how you imagine and hoped for. No one was a disappointment. The great thing is they’re all terrific actors but they’ve all been pigeonholed and typecast and a lot of them a lot of them - like Ken Foree - can't even get work! He hasn’t been in anything for years and it’s not because he doesn’t want to.
They were a pleasure to work with - all ready to work hard and kick ass. No prima donna bullshit.
EMB: Did you have anyone in mind specifically for the parts?
RZ: Ken I had in mind for his role and I really wanted to work with William but I didn’t write the part specifically for him. I had a wish list of people I wanted to get in there. A couple of people I didn’t get. I really wanted to get John Saxon in there, and David Hess. It didn’t work out, for some reason. Maybe next time.
EMB: Funny you mention David Hess, because the way you use music in the film reminded me a little of ‘Last House on the Left’. The juxtaposition of what is often very gentle music with really harsh images.
RZ: One thing I've always hated is when people use heavy metal music in horror movies. It’s just so obvious, so over the top. So something like the Terry Reid songs we used in the film - they’re beautiful but they’re also really creepy and sad. The whole movie to me has a sad overtone to it. You know that the Firefly family are sort of doomed; you know that the Sheriff is sort of doomed. So the whole thing is really sad and those songs were just so perfect for that mood. The Allman Brothers’ songs – they’re like sad outlaw music. Not heroic at all. It’s like that really great Manson documentary that came out in 70s that has this sort of flute folk music running through it. That is so…creepy. Nice music with horrific images. A lot of people don’t get it. They’re like “oh yeah that’s funny, its supposed to be a funny juxtaposition”. I wasn’t thinking that it would be funny. I just thought it would have a lot of emotion.
EMB: Was it easy getting the licence for those songs?
RZ: Getting the licence wasn’t so bad – it was the eventual cost. I mean Rejects is not a big budget movie. This sounds kind of pathetic but when we were done shooting we had $50,000 dollars left for music. So after the budget for the songs came in at $900,000 we were thinking “OK we’re only $850,000 short…” Somehow we made it work; we got all the songs. I don’t know how. People cutting deals I guess…!
EMB: It’s well documented that you had some difficulties getting ‘House’ released the way you wanted it. How about this time around?
RZ: This time around it was totally different. I wish there was more of a story – it’s so boring. There is no story! Lions Gate left me alone 100%. They never got involved.
EMB: Was that something you stressed up front?
RZ: Well I stressed it, but you never believe it’s going to happen. They were very smart. They would come down to the set and see the dailies and they were like ‘this is great, we’re gonna stay out of your way’, and they actually did.
EMB: So you had final cut?
RZ: I didn’t contractually have final cut but they gave it to me. The only cuts I made were to get a rating.
EMB: Perhaps that’s because ‘Rejects’ is less gory and more atmospheric. The violence is often implied. What makes a good horror film for you – is it the extremity element or the suspense element? Or both?
RZ: Atmosphere and characters. I have always been drawn to horror movies that are character driven. That’s why I like Dawn of the Dead so much. I like the scenes with the characters isolated at the mall much more than the scenes with the biker gang having their entrails being pulled out.
I never wanted Rejects to be a special effects extravaganza. That’s why I love Texas Chainsaw Massacre, because it’s so simple. Like the girl being put on the hook - you don’t actually see anything. It’s like the scene in Rejects with Priscilla Barnes in the hotel room. Her face sells the whole experience.
My favourite horror films are pretty typical. Dawn of the Dead is probably my favourite; when that movie came out, that was the first time I had seen anything like that in a theatre. It came outta nowhere and blew my mind. So, you’ve seen Dawn and you think this is as crazy as it can get, right? Then I saw Cannibal Holocaust! I was living in New York and stumbled into some shitty Theatre on 42nd Street. I was like ‘Jesus Christ, where the fuck did this come from?’
Texas Chainsaw Massacre is another film I love but, again, I love it for the characters. The characters in that film are so compelling and funny.
EMB: The Firefly family are like a cross between the Chainsaw family and the Manson family aren’t they?
RZ: Absolutely. But they’re also like the characters from Bonnie and Clyde or Near Dark or the guys in The Wild Bunch. I just love the idea of hanging out with isolated groups of people who are outlaws. Crazy, desperate outlaws.
The Devil's Rejects is released in the UK on August 5th.