Before he made his feature-filmmaking debut with House of 1000 Corpses in 2003, Rob Zombie’s brand was already well established in popular culture. His music career peaked with the 1998 album Hellbilly Deluxe, featuring his most popular single, “Dragula.” The song, about a vampire who likes to have sex in the back of his evil car or something, hits on all the imagery that would later define his movies: rednecks, witches burning at the stake, rats feasting on dead cats, cool devil stuff and Vincent Price movies. Are his films as juvenile as his music? Pretty much. But more shocking than any of the blood and guts Zombie throws at his audience is just how convincing he is as a visual artist. Zombie’s best work, like The Devil’s Rejects and the perpetually-underrated Halloween II (2009), are that of a genuine horror auteur. They spend time with ugly degenerates who commit cruelty for cruelty’s sake — and in Zombie’s world, that hopelessness is partly the point.
Unfortunately, Zombie’s latest — 3 From Hell (capping off the trilogy that began with Corpses and Rejects) — indulges in his worst tendencies: It’s peppered with cringeworthy dialogue and anchored by a regrettable performance from his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, all while retreading territory better explored in his previous movies. Like the nü-metal music craze Zombie arose from, it seems that now his filmmaking has passed its prime, which is a shame given how unique his voice is in the horror genre.
At the end of The Devil’s Rejects (spoilers forthcoming for a 14-year-old film), the titular serial killers are gunned down by a squad of police officers as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” blares on the soundtrack. It was a fitting ending for the unsavory trio of Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), Baby (Moon Zombie) and Otis (Bill Moseley) — fate finally catching up with characters who killed with reckless abandon. 3 From Hell opens with an endless pastiche of ‘70s newsreel footage explaining how the trio miraculously survived dozens of gunshot wounds and are now regarded as folk heroes by some of the public. This newsreel footage mainly feels like filler — sloppily edited, repetitive and loud, yet it does contain the single best sequence of the entire film, in which we are treated to a brief cameo from the late Haig being interviewed on Death Row. Haig passed away last month after years of illness, and his gaunt frame here is a far cry from the pot-bellied clown he played over a decade ago. Still, he could bring that same lunatic charisma up until the end, and it’s a joy to see him a final time.
Of course, Baby and Otis eventually escape from prison and meet up with a new compatriot, Winslow (Zombie regular Richard Brake), a half-brother to Otis. From there, the plot is nearly a carbon copy of The Devil’s Rejects, where we watch the gang torture and humiliate a close-knit group of middle-aged folks and then find a hideout where a relative of one of their former victims seeks revenge. The only crucial difference is that Zombie is working with a far smaller budget this time around, and the movie’s visuals suffer as a result, trading in the grainy lo-fi look for straight-to-video cheapness.
Take away that striking aesthetic, and you’re essentially left with Zombie’s script, which frequently pivots from derivative to annoying. Moseley and especially Brake commit themselves admirably, but Moon Zombie remains the most perplexing casting throughout all of her husband’s movies, and he always has to cast her in a crucial role. As Baby, she is hamming it up with some of the hackiest dialogue imaginable, often while screaming.
In fact, this feels like what would have happened if a different, less-talented director had gotten together the same cast in 2007 and made a completely disposable sequel. Fans of the original may have picked it off the shelves at Blockbuster, watched it, swallowed their disappointment and never thought about it again. It hits all the same beats as before, but without any of the grace or wit that made the House or Rejects so memorably nasty. If, like myself, you’ve stuck with Zombie throughout his film career, this is at least watchable. It just can’t make a compelling case for its existence.