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Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
This week, we look at House of 1,000 Corpses, which hit theaters on April 11, 2003. It is worth remembering that, at the time this came out, Rob Zombie wasn’t known as a horror filmmaker. Instead, the response was: "Wait... the guy from White Zombie made a movie?"
Zombie had hit it big as the lead singer of that band, which clearly had deep influences in the sort of splatter horror genre of the '70s, as shown most evidently in their "Thunder Kiss '65" video, (ironically one of the band’s videos that was not directed by Zombie). House of 1,000 Corpses took his talents to a new medium.
The movie tells a story we've seen dozens of times, though not precisely like this. Four silly teenagers (including Chris Hardwick, of all people) on a hunt for "unique roadside attractions" absolutely find one in Captain Spaulding (the incredible Sid Haig) and his gaggle of familial lunatics. Cut from the same cloth as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the family captures and tortures the teenagers, running experiments on them and generally causing some good ol' grind house mayhem.
Put it this way: When someone tells you about "Doctor Satan," do not go looking for him. It's a bad idea.
The movie has the feel of a low-budget horror schlockfest — even the poster seems straight from 1973 — and with good reason: Those were the movies that Zombie himself loved, and the ones he patterned the film after. Surprisingly, though, the film was budgeted by a studio: Universal, which had originally hired Zombie to make a theme park ride called "House of 1,000 Corpses." He ended up making this movie instead — it was filmed on the Universal lot; the house in the film is, in fact, the same house from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas — but the studio was so worried it would get an NC-17 rating that they wouldn’t release it.
Zombie ended up taking the movie to Lionsgate, which released it the same weekend as Anger Management. It was an instant hit, and Zombie said the sequel was greenlit the same weekend. That sequel was The Devil’s Rejects (2005), and Zombie had a franchise on his hands.
Why was it a big deal at the time? The movie was so gross and self-consciously over-the-top, and Zombie such an unproven filmmaker (even his name seemed to be a joke), that the film was widely panned upon release by critics, almost out of reflex. Zombie himself admitted he didn't really know how to make a film and that he had most of the movie shot before he had any idea of what his ending was going to be.
But that amateurism was very much on-brand for what House of 1,000 Corpses was trying to do, and the audience — as eager for a fun, over-the-top experience as Zombie was to give it to them — ate it up. Zombie said that Lionsgate made its money back on the first day of release, and it makes sense. This was the age when grind house was feeling appropriately retro: We wanted a movie that got legitimately down and dirty.
Whatever your thoughts about House of 1,000 Corpses, it definitely does that.
What was the impact? Zombie immediately became "the horror filmmaker who used to be in a band" rather than "the former lead singer for White Zombie." He became a brand unto himself, with comic books, television appearances, and public advocacy. He stopped making music for a while (he has since returned to albums) and focused entirely on his filmmaking.
His sequel to House of 1,000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, got even better reviews than his first film and earned him the gig directing two Halloween reboots. (The series was rebooted again by David Gordon Green and Danny McBride in 2018, and Zombie's aren’t part of the main canon.) He has directed a total of eight films now, including the final film in the trilogy, 3 From Hell, which was released last year.
Perhaps most telling of Zombie’s influence: Four years after House of 1,000 Corpses came out, directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made a Grindhouse of their own, inspired by Zombie's breakthrough. They even let him direct one of the interstitial trailers in the film, Werewolf Women of the SS.
Has it held up? Zombie admits that the movie is nonsensical in many sections. He told Screen Rant it’s “just a calamitous mess. Well, when it came out it seemed like everyone hated it. Now everyone acts like it's beloved in some way. All I see is flaw upon flaw, upon flaw... upon flaw.”
He is not wrong. The movie goes down rabbit holes, loses focus, forgets what it is about sometimes and is, yeah, maybe a little too over-the-top. But Zombie has an undeniable sense of mood and atmosphere, and there are times the movie does feel like it is as close to being engulfed in madness as its characters are.
And more to the point: The Devil’s Rejects is a legitimately good movie that shows a huge leap forward for Zombie as a filmmaker... and justifies Zombie’s eye and instincts as a creator anyway. Not that he needed the vindication: after Universal rejected his movie, they ended up making a ride out of it, the ride they paid him for in the first place. Zombie was right all along.