Twenty years ago, musician-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie combined two types of horror films that he loved — Universal monster movies and the down-and-dirty ’70s provocations of Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven — to create “House of 1000 Corpses,” a film disowned by its original studio that went on to become a cult classic. The tale of two young couples who stumble across a demented backwoods family that engages in torture, cannibalism, and satanic rituals, it’s darkly hilarious and genuinely horrifying, packed with the kind of outrageous nightmare-inducing imagery that would characterize later Zombie works like “The Devil’s Rejects,” “The Lords of Salem,” and “3 From Hell.”
For fans of the film, the jarring juxtaposition of tones is a strength, but according to Zombie, it was less a grand plan than a byproduct of his inexperience as a director. “For a lot of years I was dissatisfied with it because you go in with an idea of what you’re going to do, but your idea and your skill set don’t match,” Zombie told IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. Zombie intended for the film to be less comic and more purely horrific, but as production progressed he saw it taking on what he describes as a “goofy” tone that he ultimately made peace with. “Now when I watch it, I can appreciate it because I would never make that movie. You can only make something like that when you don’t know what you’re doing. Sometimes that makes great things come; you do crazy shit that you would never do now because you know too much to be naive and primitive.”
When Zombie began work on “Corpses,” he was an established music video director who had never made a feature, and he found that his prior experience was helpful in some ways but not at all applicable in others. “The good part about music videos was that I knew how to deliver a product,” he said. “I had been hired to make videos for other people, like Ozzy [Osbourne]. When Sharon Osbourne gives you $300,000 to make a video, she expects a completely perfect finished video at the end of that check. So it wasn’t like being in film school and working on your short film for 18 months. No one cares if your feelings are in it. That was the good part about music videos, having to deliver things on time and on budget. The bad part was that they’re just visual eye candy. I didn’t have the skill of setting a cohesive tone and telling a cohesive story. That’s where the music video razzmatazz got in the way.”
Music videos also didn’t prepare Zombie for the jarring experience of screening his film for studio executives who hated it. “House of 1000 Corpses” was initially financed by Universal Studios and even partially shot on the backlot — you can still see the house itself on the studio tour, though the guide will be more likely to reference “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” for which the house was originally built. As a low-budget film by studio standards, “Corpses” flew under the radar during production, but Zombie knew he was in trouble after a test screening in Pomona. “The chairman of Universal was there, and after the screening — which I thought went reasonably well — all she said to me was, ‘Come to my office tomorrow, we need to talk.’ The next day I went to her office, and they said the movie was basically unreleasable.”
Listen to the full Toolkit interview with Rob Zombie below!
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.
Thus began a three-year journey during which Zombie kept fine-tuning the movie, editing and shooting new footage as he looked for a new home. Ultimately “House of 1000 Corpses” was distributed by Lionsgate, who turned it into a perennial horror favorite — for the film’s 20th anniversary, they’ve released a gorgeous new Blu-ray boxed set and Steelbook as well as a VOD edition accompanied by a new Zombie commentary track. For the most part, Zombie has stayed in the indie world, though last year he did return to Universal to make “The Munsters” — which he discovered was even more corporate and soul-crushing than when he made “Corpses” at the studio. “With ‘House of 1000 Corpses,’ at least the executives didn’t get in the way of what we were doing. Now it seems like the entire industry is run by lawyers and everyone’s afraid of getting sued. They just said no to everything, to the point that I joked that I wasn’t even sure if they’d let us call it ‘The Munsters.'”
Zombie was much happier with his experience on the follow-up to “House of 1000 Corpses,” the 2005 sequel “The Devil’s Rejects,” on which he finally found the unified tone he struggled to achieve with his debut. “Do you remember that episode of ‘Seinfeld’ where George Costanza decides to do everything the opposite of what he would normally do?” Zombie asked. “That was the motto I used on ‘Devil’s Rejects’: ‘I’m going to Costanza this movie.’ Whatever my natural instinct would be, I’m going to do the opposite. If I want to light it psychedelic, I’m going to make it drab and desaturated. I did that all through the whole movie to go against what the natural instincts I had developed from music videos. My first AD, who had done ‘Corpses,’ was like, ‘What the fuck happened since the last movie?’ I told him, ‘I figured out how to do this.'”
“The Devil’s Rejects” became another classic of the genre and even achieved something “Corpses” didn’t: positive reviews upon its release. When Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper, then America’s most popular film critics, praised “Rejects,” Zombie couldn’t believe it because “Corpses” had been so reviled. “I don’t think I ever saw a review that was better than an F-minus,” Zombie said. “That’s why it’s so funny now when I see a newer review by someone who likes it, and that it sells more action figures and DVDs and T-shirts than ever. The movie seemed doomed to be forgotten. But it was truly a cult movie; sometimes people try to concoct a cult and you can’t because it’s unpredictable. I tried to make the movie, everything about it turned out to be a total disaster, and somehow an audience found it and they loved it. None of it was on purpose — the fans just picked it up and ran with it.”