Before becoming one of the most divisive filmmakers in horror with the likes of Halloween and The Munsters, Rob Zombie was just a musician trying his hand at the film industry. House of 1000 Corpses came together fairly quickly following a failed attempt to reboot The Crow, but the rock star’s Hollywood career almost never was due to post-production controversy that left his directorial debut on the shelf for three years.
Production on Corpses was completed in 2000 before Universal Studios refused to release it due to its objectionable content. MGM later came on board to distribute it in 2002 until a tongue-in-cheek remark by Zombie caused them to cancel the deal. Finally, Lions Gate signed on and released it in April of 2003, launching Zombie’s film career as well as a franchise that would be followed by 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects and 2019’s 3 from Hell.
Unsure if he’d ever be granted the opportunity to make another movie, House of 1000 Corpses finds Zombie throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Although he was still finding his voice, the effort established many of the tropes that would go on to define much of his cinematic oeuvre: crazed rednecks, genre actors of yesteryear, a Halloween setting, curse-laden dialogue, senseless violence, and a killer clown.
On a rainy Halloween night in 1977, 20-somethings Jerry (Talking Dead host Chris Hardwick), Bill (The Office star Rainn Wilson), Denise (Erin Daniels), and Mary (Jennifer Jostyn) make a pit stop at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen while working on a book about roadside attractions. Spaulding (Sid Haig) tells them about the local legend of murderous surgeon Dr. Satan, leading them on a path to their doom.
When their car breaks down, the friends find themselves at the home of the deranged Firefly clan: sadistic drifter Otis (Bill Moseley), cackling minx Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), coquettish matriarch Mother Firefly (Karen Black, Easy Rider), masked giant Tiny (Matthew McGrory, Big Fish), hulking mechanic Rufus (Robert Allen Mukes), and crude Grandpa Hugo (Dennis Fimple).
Corpses owes a great debt to the works of Tobe Hooper, particularly The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The “group of friends break down near a spooky house” plot is practically a genre unto itself, but where Zombie takes the setup is anything but conventional. Leaning into the Dr. Satan mythology, the last act unravels into a surreal nightmare that brings to mind the work of Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci, complete with a monstrous villain (albeit a terribly ineffective one), The Professor, that bears resemblance to House by the Cemetery‘s Dr. Freudstein.
The film isn’t as immoral as Universal’s reaction suggests, but it certainly stands out among the slick, star-studded slashers that studios were churning out at the time. Zombie’s horror sensibilities are a little on the nose, from plot to characters to production design, but that doesn’t render them powerless. Even with one foot planted in camp, there’s something unsettling about Corpses. Having never made a feature, Zombie leans on his ample music video experience for a somewhat nonlinear structure. The deluge of interstitial nonsequitors are largely fruitless, but they make for an interesting case study for a first-time writer-director.
Time has shown casting to be Corpses‘ biggest strength. Mosley revives the spirit of his Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 character, Chop Top, while channeling a bit of Charles Manson. It’s a potent combination for Corpses, though he would lean almost completely into Manson for The Devil’s Rejects and deliver his career-best performance. Haig came out of retirement for Spaulding, making a despicable character likable and completely changing his life in the process. Zombie gets a lot of flack for casting his wife, but why wouldn’t he want to work with his partner? Baby is a bit of a one-note character, but she pulls it off with ease. Black brings a campy eccentricity that the recast Leslie Easterbrook lacked in the sequel.
With so much invested in the villains, there’s not much on the page for the protagonists to sink their teeth into. Hardwick and Wilson’s personalities shine through, but Daniels and Jostyn struggle to make an impact in the shadows of such bold performances. Tom Towles (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) and Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight) play police officers, lending themselves to one of the most memorable sequences in the film.
In celebration of its 20th anniversary, House of 1000 Corpses has received a new Blu-ray edition from Lionsgate. The premium box features artwork by Graham Humphreys and comes with a poster illustrated by David Hartman, a photo book curated by Zombie, and six art cards by Hartman. A Steelbook edition featuring artwork by Vance Kelly with a semi-transparent slipcover is also available exclusively at Best Buy. Although I appreciate the care put into the packaging, it was a missed opportunity not to go all-out with a new transfer and give the film its 4K UHD debut.
The two-disc set is loaded with extras, but Zombie’s new audio commentary is only available digitally. It’s a bizarre choice — a timing issue is the only logical explanation I can fathom — but thankfully the Blu-ray is packaged with a digital copy including the track. Zombie notes that it’s his first time watching the movie in its entirety since recording the first commentary for the DVD 20 years ago. (Read about some of the things I learned from the track here.) The previous commentary is also included.
The Blu-ray sadly does not replicate the film’s DVD menus — perhaps the best in the history of the medium — but the “Tiny Fucked a Stump” segments are included as an extra. The first disc also carries the original making-of featurette, a short compilation of behind-the-scenes footage, brief interviews with Moseley, Haig, Moon Zombie, and special makeup effects artist Wayne Toth, Fimple’s audition tape, footage of Moseley and Jostyn rehearsing an intense scene, and House of 1000 Corpses ZombieTron, a Pac-Man-style game in which you control the sheriff via remote and try to free the victims before time runs out.
The second disc houses never-before-seen content from Zombie’s personal archives. Raw EPK interviews from the set with Zombie, Haig, Moseley, Moon Zombie, Black, Wilson, Hardwick, Daniels, Jostyn, Keyes, and Toth total nearly two hours. It’s fun to hear everyone talk about the film before knowing what a cult classic it would become, from Wilson’s off-the-cuff comment about living in a “crappy little apartment” to Keyes mistakenly referring to Captain Spaulding as Colonel Sanders. There’s also 90 minutes of fly-on-the-way footage from five different days of production, brief FX footage of Dr. Satan and The Professor, the original EPK, and a rare teaser trailer.
While The Devil’s Rejects may be the objectively superior Firefly clan film, House of 1000 Corpses can be appreciated as 88 minutes of unabashedly depraved entertainment born of Zombie’s kitchen-sink approach. Like a bucket of Captain Spaulding’s fried chicken, the blood, violence, and freaks of nature taste so damn good even after 20 years.
House of 1000 Corpses is available now on Blu-ray via Lionsgate.