I continue to be fascinated by Western culture's reaction to violent imagery in film. Since the birth of cinema, acts of undue harm, injury and all-around atrocities have been widely seen in the movies, from the sanitized genocide depicted in early war films and Westerns, to the more graphic post-Vietnam exploitation cycle led by such taboo-breakers as 'Night of the Living Dead' and 'Last House on the Left,' to today's modern torture chambers slash snuff films, where titles like 'Saw' and 'Hostel' automatically guarantee big bucks at the box office. But the one constant over the past hundred years or so of celluloid carnage has been that the more graphic the violence, the greater the outrage. Yet I can't help but wonder -- shouldn't it be the other way around?
Indeed, in this era where Freddy Krueger has become the Henny Youngman of horror and Chucky is a cuddly killer doll that any parent would feel safe letting their child fall asleep clutching, isn't there something a bit terrifying about the idea that violence is acceptable in movies only if it is watered down, and not shown as the ugly and brutal act it really is? And that audiences love nothing more than a good, visceral thrill, as long as they are not confronted by its implications? As popularized by the likes of 'Rambo' and other violence-filled '80s action movies, the good guy can blow the bad guy's head clear off with an Uzi and we'll still cheer, as long as we don't have to stick around long enough to see the guts cleaned up off of the pavement.
Rob Zombie's 'The Devil's Rejects' is a film that, perhaps more than any other of the past decade or so, understands this contradiction -- and eviscerates it. Not since 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer' in 1986, and 'Last House on the Left' more than a decade before, has a film come under such fire for being such an irresponsible paean to violence, an ode to irresponsibility that supposedly revels in the atrocious acts it depicts and glorifies the subhuman degenerates that commit them. Even if Zombie is once again returning to the same well he mined with 2002's 'House of 1,000 Corpses,' in 'Rejects' he has crafted the rare sequel that is much more successful at what it aims to do. 'Rejects' is not as much "fun" as 'Corpses,' which is precisely while it is morally superior -- that Zombie refuses to feed our hypocritical love of violence even while he seems to be pandering to it, is the subversive masterstroke that gives 'Rejects' such kick.
That's a pretty large claim to make, and one that is perhaps impossible to defend before 'The Devil's Reject's growing legion of detractors. Indeed, the first 60 minutes or so of this movie is tough to sit through, and will probably send most screaming for the hills. Zombie has taken the core four characters from 'Corpses' -- a makeshift family of deviants so bloodthirsty they make Bonnie& Clyde look like Ernie & Bert -- and sends them on a sun-drenched cross-country road trip straight to hell and back. But because the visual style of 'Corpses' had more pop art leanings, filtering its carnage through a funhouse-like plasticity -- think a darker, meaner, more psychotic version of 'The Haunted Mansion' ride at Disneyland -- it was thus far more palpable. Instead, 'The Devil's Rejects' borrows from different cinematic traditions, so it cuts much deeper. Recalling the gritty, grindhouse sensibility of '60s and '70s cinema, particularly 'The Wild Bunch,' 'Straw Dogs,' 'Last House on the Left' and 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' 'The Devil's Rejects' is really a true crime pulp fiction, not a gothic horror show. Which is precisely why it seems to have caused such extreme reactions in viewers, and even pissed off a few fans of 'Corpses' that expected a more predictable genre sequel.
Indeed, when I saw a special screening of the film last year, about a month before it hit theaters, I counted about forty walkouts. Seriously. And no amount of plot recap will likely dissuade you, if you are the type already predisposed against this kind of movie, from dismissing 'The Devil's Rejects' out of hand. Yet for me, what saves Zombie's film from being just another example of shamelessly exploitative and irresponsible trash is that, like his cinematic forefathers Sam Peckinpah, George Romero and Wes Craven, Zombie realizes that without any cultural or political subtext even the most ghastly of images have no long term resonance. Unlike all the remakes of early '80s slasher and genre movies that are currently flooding the multiplexes, where hi-tech style regurgitate the visceral horrors of the past but without any thought towards what originally made them so revolutionary, 'The Devil's Rejects' is not just another cynical vehicle out to rape the past, but a wry comment on what continues to make wickedness so damnably attractive. As fine and dangerous a line as it dares to tread, 'The Devil's Rejects' turns its demented outcasts into folk heroes, but refuses to condemn and repudiate them. Yet still we keep watching. Which begs the question -- is that the movie's fault, or ours?
'The Devil's Rejects' is presented in 1.78:1 (slightly opened up from its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio) and 1080p/MPEG-2 video. Even more than the standard DVD release, this Blu-ray transfer accurately mirrors the theatrical presentation I saw, with the tinted, washed-out desert hues intended by Rob Zombie and his director of photography Phil Parmet reproduced perfectly, looking simultaneously clean and detailed yet gritty and lived-in.
Though it is not exactly sepia-toned, 'The Devil's Rejects' is largely awash in desaturated colors. The muted hues on Blu-ray look nice and solid, with no apparent chroma noise (not to be confused with intentional film grain, of which there is plenty) or smearing. Contrast is intentionally whacked, with whites often blown out, yet blooming is never so severe that the transfer doesn't retain a raw, '70s naturalness. Blacks are also surprising consistent and deep, even in some of the most washed-out and highly-contrasted sequences.
Admittedly, the image is sometimes unstable. For example, there is a scene early on where Sheri Moon Zombie flirts with soon-to-be-victim Geoffrey Lewis in front of an icebox, and there is some weird coloring to their faces that didn't seem to match the rest of the picture. I also noticed select shots where detail seems to falter a bit and the sense of depth to the image flattens out, such as the interiors of the now-infamous hotel room massacre. However, this seems to jive with how I remember the film looking theatrically, so I can't say it is a fault of this transfer or the Blu-ray format. All in all, 'The Devil's Rejects' offers a more life-like, detailed visual presentation on Blu-ray than on the DVD, so on that level it delivers the goods.
Lionsgate offers up another double whammy of Dolby Digital EX Surround and DTS-HD High Resolution ES Surround soundtracks. Though neither can quite match the quality of a Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio lossless mix, both still deliver a very strong audio presentation that more than accurately captures the film's rough, eclectic and ballsy sound design.
With Rob Zombie of course being a platinum-selling rock act, you wouldn't expect anything less than a kick-ass soundtrack for 'The Devil's Rejects.' But even being a fan of Zombie, I was surprised at how evolved his use of period music had become since 'House of 1,000 Corpses.' Zombie knows how to use a vintage tune to great effect, such as during the opening credits, where his montage-like combination of score, sound effects and quick-cut still frames perfectly sets up the film's intended mood and tone. It is a postmodern pastiche in some ways, yet does not violate the film's own internal logic. Which is quite an accomplishment, at least compared to the rash of imitators that followed in the wake of 'Scream,' which were flush with modern pop/rock covers of old songs which may have been fun, but did little to make us believe we were inhabiting a real world that existed outside of MTV.
That said, technically both the Dolby EX and DTS-HD tracks are excellent. Dynamic range is surprisingly wide for a film made in low-budget, guerilla-style conditions. Dialogue always sounds natural, and even the old-school songs feel full-bodied and rockin'. Granted, there is some harshness to the high-end and somewhat flat low-bass coming from the subwoofer, but it seems intended and is appropriate to the material. Surround use is also aggressive throughout, not only with rear effects such as gunshots and other action/fight sounds, but again with the music. Zombie really seems to have put in a great deal of effort to make 'The Devil's Rejects' sound both weathered and modern, and it works like gangbusters.
Though the two-disc Unrated Edition DVD of 'The Devil's Rejects' was loaded with extras, unfortunately space limitations on Blu-ray mean most of the previous set's goodies have been trimmed. Which is too bad, because though some of the supplements on the DVD were hit or miss, it did contain a terrific 144-minute documentary called "30 Days in Hell: The Making of 'The Devil's Rejects,'" along with bloopers and other cool stuff.
Anyway, of the supplements that have been ported over, at least the two audio commentaries are quite good. Filmmaker Rob Zombie flies solo on track one, while the rejects themselves Sid Haig, Bill Moseley and Shari Moon Zombie have a grand old time on track two. Those who only judge Mr. Zombie on his scary good looks will be surprised by his contribution here. Far from some screeching death rocker, he is well-spoken, intelligent and studied. This guy clearly loves classic '60s and '70s genre pictures, and smartly pays homage to the films that inspired 'The Devil's Rejects' without sounding like an overactive fanboy. He also offers a good deal of insight on the production end of things, but having already seen "30 Days in Hell," even a commentary as strong as this one can't quite compete. However, the cast commentary is a hoot, with Haig as ringmaster. It is almost scary how much fun these three seem to have had making the picture, at least considering its subject matter. Yet this track might be the film's best defense, as Haig, Moseley and Zombie offer some much-needed perspective to the film's detractors, who understandably had trouble separating the glee in which the actors infused their character's psychotic behavior from an actual bloodlust on behalf of the filmmakers. Definitely worth a listen, even if you hate the film.
Up next is a collection of eleven deleted scenes, all of which appeared on the previous DVD. For once, I liked many of these scenes, and felt they should have been added back into the movie as part of the Unrated cut. In fact, there is one sequence feature Sid Haig and a very nasty throat cutting that is far sicker than anything in the movie -- I'm surprised Zombie didn't add it to the longer version. In any case, these are worth watching... if you can take it.
I also want to give Lionsgate props for porting over the custom menus from the previous DVD, which feature the main cast -- in character -- introducing various parts of the disc. Out of all the studios supporting Blu-ray and HD DVD, Lionsgate is the only one so far to offer cool, full-motion-video menus on their disc titles. And that is definitely something I'd like to see more of on both next-gen formats.
'The Devil's Rejects' is a tough, uncompromising film, and as violent and bloodsoaked as you've probably heard. However, it is ultimately the social commentary filmmaker Rob Zombie weaves into his narrative that elevates 'The Devil's Rejects' above the merely exploitative. Lionsgate has put together a solid Blu-ray release, with a transfer and soundtrack that accurately represent the film's intended '70s look and feel. However, the disc's extras can't compare to what was offered on the standard DVD, but at least we still get the Unrated Cut of the film. Overall, this one is definitely worth at least a rent for genre fans, and those with strong stomachs.