Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Rob Zombie doesn’t like to be called “sir.”
While living in Chicago one fall, I once stopped at a pumpkin patch by the side of the road to choose a jack-o-lantern. Like most pumpkin patches around Halloween, this one was temporary: a swath of hay surrounded by chicken wire, covered with dozens of pumpkins – and most important, presided over by a wizened, white-trash eccentric.
I picked out my pumpkin and went over to pay. The redneck running the patch had stepped out of a hundred down-home dive bars, juke joints and bait shops. His hairline crept back from his brow, leaving his wrinkly forehead to glint in the sun. What was left of his hair sprouted from the back of his head like a mullet of dried old straw. He wore an old, blue vinyl jacket and tight, faded jeans. One of his front teeth – no bullshit – was missing.
I opened my wallet to pay him and saw I only had a 20-dollar bill.
“Can you change a twenty, sir?” I asked.
When he said the word “sir,” the pumpkin-patch redneck smiled with his mouth as his brow clenched and his eyes flashed at me.
It was daylight out, but there was no one else in the pumpkin patch. It occurred to me to leave. I didn’t.
Rednecks believe that there’s something special about being a redneck, but here’s the weird thing: That’s all they’re proud of. They’re not proud of being working people, because a lot of them are unemployed fuck-ups. They’re not proud of being poor, though many of them are. They’re not proud of being from the south, because rednecks exist in hulking numbers north of the Mason-Dixon line. A lot of them are proud to be white, but not even racism explains it, and this breed of pride is found in many other social and ethnic groups.
No, rednecks think there’s something to be admired, respected and feared in their very essence. They think that because they’re rednecks, we should respect and fear them so much that we don’t even need to call them “sir.” The word “sir” carries with it the condescension of the upper class, and rednecks won’t have it.
I’ll say this for Rob Zombie’s movies: They made me think long and hard about why they suck. I’m about as forgiving and crazy a moviegoer as there is. I adore ultraviolence, and I am willing (to the point of notoriety among my friends) to embrace a sicko vision – but I have little patience for Zombie’s first two movies, House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. (I’ll reserve judgment on his remake of Halloween.)
My lack of patience for Zombie’s movies puzzles me, because they have lots of stuff I usually like:
• A rustic setting.
• Lots of violence.
• Sex appeal.
• White trash antiheroes (a character type that appears in a lot in my own fiction).
• Walton Goggins.
But it’s Zombie’s redneck pride that ultimately sickens me. At the center of his freshman and sophomore efforts, he places a trio of white-trash sociopaths who go around serial-killing. The first movie follows a more standard slasher-movie formula – a bunch of hapless kids on a roadtrip get slaughtered – while part two shifts into the mode of a western and follows the three as they maraud around some podunk area before getting gunned down by cops.
Before I go on, let me pre-empt some potential straw-men that may get marched in my direction:
I am not a prude. Like I said before, I love extreme storytelling, and if a filmmaker (or an author) justifies the use of violence (or sex or profanity) of any kind, I’m there. Hell, my favorite Shakespeare play is Titus Andronicus, and three of my favorite movies are Blue Velvet, The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en.
I am not a closet conservative. I suppose this point is tied into my not being a prude, but I don’t think movies have to have happy, uplifting or otherwise redeeming endings to be considered good art. I don’t even think a movie has to have characters with redeeming qualities to be considered good art. I don’t think a movie has to have a redemptive theme or a theme with redeeming qualities to be considered art.
In other words, a movie can be mean, cruel and charmless while still being great art. I usually file these under “Movies I Appreciate As Great Art But Never Want to Watch Again.” A Clockwork Orange is an excellent example of a great movie I never want to see again.
But goddammit – Zombie’s first two movies just suck, and it’s because Zombie and his three antiheroes seethe with the same redneck pride as that old coot who sold me a pumpkin.
Case in point:
In The Devil’s Rejects, the three psychos kidnap a random family. For some reason, one of the three rednecks (“Otis B. Driftwood” – oh, how droll) orders two of the family members (the dad and one of his sons) to go with him to where he’s buried something. They do, and once the two guys dig up whatever it was, the psycho reveals he’s going to kill them both. The two guys fight back, but eventually Otis bests them both. Before he kills them, he delivers this line:
“I am the devil, and I am here to do the devil’s work.”
Something about this scene pissed me off when I saw it, and it’s taken me until now to recognize the redneck pride that powers Zombie’s characters. The family that gets killed in Devil’s Rejects is exceptionally harmless, flavorless and typical, but while watching them get killed, I couldn’t help but think: This actually happens to people. Random, normal, happy people get killed by sociopaths for no good reason.
I myself have considered how depressing it would be to get killed by someone like Zombie’s antiheroes. What if a hopped-up redneck knifed me?
The thought lights a bright rage inside me, because as morally dubious as this is to admit, I believe that some lives are worth more than others, and it pisses me off that someone like Otis would enjoy taking my life based on the deranged calculus in his mind that his life is worth more than mine based solely on the fact of his redneck pride and his status as a redneck. By contrast, my life would be worth nothing.
(Side note: Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “Zombie instilled that rage in you – isn’t that a redemptive quality?” Perhaps, but read on.)
Redneck pride also drives Zombie’s first movie, House of 1,000 Corpses, which I grudgingly concede is marginally more successful. Certain scenes in it work as funhouse riffs on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre formula, but redneck pride still ruins the overall experience.
To wit: Rob Zombie adores the preternaturally ugly Sid Haig, a talented actor and all-around OK guy from what I know. Haig’s chinless, pockmarked, scraggly head is the centerpiece to Zombie’s first tribute to redneck pride, and what a centerpiece it makes. Haig plays a sadistic old hick who runs a murderous roadside attraction in Bumblefuck, Texas. Zombie introduces us to this character by having him kill two bumbling armed robbers, and it is in these opening kills that we get to see one of the key features of redneck pride: dumb fearlessness.
Shouting down two armed robbers is a good example of dumb fearlessness, but rednecks have it in excess. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but: Do you know what a redneck’s last words are?
“Hey, watch this!”
Rednecks operate under the delusion that dumb fearlessness is synonymous with courage, when it’s no different than not knowing to come in from the rain or to pull your hand away from a fire.
Soon after his introduction, Haig’s character meets the doomed road-trippers who get killed during the movie. Naturally, one of them makes a wisecrack about how funny his store is, which prompts the following exchange.
Captain Spaulding: I know what your problem is.
Bill Hudley: What’s that?
Captain Spaulding: Ya’ll think us folk from the country’s real funny-like, dontcha?
Bill Hudley: Jerry …
Captain Spaulding: Yeah, well saddle up the mule, ma. Slide me some grits, I’s got to get me some edu-cation, uh hu hu hu.
Bill Hudley: Jerry …
Captain Spaulding: You asshole!
This scene goes on forever, and it shows us yet another quality of redneck pride: kneejerk sensitivity. It also shows us how redneck pride is a perverse form of chivalrous honor. In other words, rednecks take courage and pervert it into dumb fearlessness, and they take honor and pervert it into kneejerk sensitivity, making them ready to fight to the death for any slight, regardless of its magnitude.
But even that doesn’t nail down why I think Zombie’s movies suck. There’s nothing wrong with making a bunch of sociopaths your heroes. Thomas Harris managed to make Hannibal Lecter a successfully alluring figure, and Harris is a fucking hack. Why couldn’t Zombie pull it off?
I submit that Zombie’s own redneck pride (or at least his affinity for it) derailed his vision. Oliver Stone made a good movie with two sociopathic rednecks at its center (Natural Born Killers), but Stone does not suffer from redneck pride. Instead, Stone took Quentin Tarantino’s excellent script and used it as a vehicle to explore a multitude of themes. He also made a damn entertaining movie.
Zombie spent two movies with his trio of antiheroes, and throughout them both, Zombie shows nothing but unfettered contempt for non-sociopaths and laughable affection for his three antiheroes, going so far as to play Lynyrd Skynyrd’s magnificent anthem “Freebird” in its entirety as they ride to their death in a hail of bullets at the end of Devil’s Rejects.
I can’t stress enough what a god-awful, embarrassing choice that is. Zombie created three characters whose sole animus was redneck pride, and he made them spend two movies screaming and killing harmless people. Somehow at the end of this mess, Zombie felt like he had earned the right to play one the most soaring rock anthems in history as they died. Oh, how fucking quaint. (Remember when I considered the possibility that the rage Zombie had instilled in me was a redemptive quality? The “Freebird” choice negates that, because it exposes Zombie as a fanboy hack who probably showed his screenplay to his friends and said, “Aren’t these characters awesome?! I’m a-gonna play ‘Freebird’ when they die!”)
I don’t mind that Zombie’s first two movies are charmless bloodbaths that lack redeeming qualities. I don’t even mind that he populated these movies with sociopaths and fueled those sociopaths with redneck pride.
I do mind that he doesn’t know what a hack he is. I mind that he thinks the mere presentation of depravity equals art. It’s no different than a redneck who thinks there’s something funny about looking at roadkill – and who gets pissed off at you for not laughing with him.
That’s redneck pride.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.