Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Meg Shields revisits Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses to celebrate the film’s 20th Anniversary re-release.
Despite Universal Pictures’ best efforts to bury House of 1000 Corpses in a nameless grave, Rob Zombie‘s first narrative feature continues to claw its way back to the surface. The film is currently enjoying a brand spankin’ new Blu-Ray release in celebration of its 20th Anniversary, replete with all manner of behind-the-scenes goodies as well as a fresh new commentary track from its writer/director/carnival barker.
Originally released in 2003, House of 1000 Corpses set the precedent for a number of hallmarks that would define Zombie’s cinematic career: from its grungy aesthetics and comically over-the-top gore to a keen appreciation for maximalist set design. It is also, as is the case with almost all of Zombie’s films, decidedly not for everyone. Palatability is not the name of the game in this deliciously sleazy tale of four young adults who run-afoul of a seriously deranged family of backwater serial killers. So let’s settle in, cozy up with a bowl of Agatha Crispies, and give Zombie’s latest commentary for his feature film debut a listen.
Keep reading for my favorite highlights from the commentary for House of 1000 Corpses.
House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Commentator: Rob Zombie (writer/director)
1. Zombie was originally going to cameo as Dr. Wolfenstein but pulled out at the last second because — despite his monstrous prosthetics — he still felt like he looked too much like himself. Production designer Gregg Gibbs stepped up to the plate and Zombie still appeared in the sequence in a smaller role. As Zombie tells it, the metal head of the (very real) sledgehammer came off while he and Gibbs were smashing pumpkins.
2. Bonnie and Clyde actor Michael J. Pollard was quite the character on set. Zombie encourages viewers to keep an eye on Sid Haig’s face while he braces for Pollard’s improv.
3. There is a continuity error with the desiccated hand bathroom lanyard, which alternates between throwing up devil horns and flipping the bird. Zombie had never clocked the error until recording this commentary track.
4. Production intentionally kept the effects cheap to emulate the gritty feel of 1970s horror.
5. The lo-fi, grungy cutaways — including the opening title sequence and the serial killer “flashbacks” during the murder ride — were predominantly filmed by Zombie himself on a camcorder during the film’s year-long stint in production limbo. A good deal of these sequences were filmed in Zombie’s basement, which absolutely checks out.
6. According to Zombie, the close-up shot of the mop in the bloody bucket was the most challenging shot in the film to “get right.”
7. There was a running joke on set that “old man private Ryan” survived World War II but he wouldn’t survive this film. The joke was the expense of Harrison Young, who played the older version of the titular character in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film and appears here as Denise’s dad, Don.
8. A scene of Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) accusing the girls of being lesbians was cut out because it was “beyond irrelevant.” Good call Rob.
9. Exteriors of the Firefly compound were shot on the Universal lot. While having craft services at the Psycho house sounds fun, Zombie stresses multiple times that the tourist tram and the background noise coming from the Jaws animatronic were a constant pain and ruined multiple takes.
10. Relatedly, one of the reasons there’s so much Universal horror paraphernalia throughout the film — including the massive Creature from the Black Lagoon poster in Baby’s room and the cutaways to The Old Dark House — is because the IP was cheap and easy to source thanks to the production’s (at the time peaceful) relationship with Universal.
11. When the gang are eating dessert at the family’s dinner table, the actors are actually eating Tiny Firefly actor Matthew McGrory‘s birthday cake. Zombie stresses that anytime we see Grandpa Hugo eating on-screen, Dennis Fimple was actually eating during every take.
12. And speaking of McGrory, believe it or not, the production was somehow able to source a seven-foot-tall stuntman to double as Tiny.
13. There was originally going to be an entire subplot about the Skunk Ape but it was ultimately relegated to a cut-away/dream sequence. This was probably a good move but a massive loss for the small but vocal Bigfoot movie enjoyers.
14. Sheri Moon Zombie is the genius behind Tiny’s “Agatha Crispies” cereal.
15. The Fireflies are seen watching The Munsters because Zombie felt that they would share his love for show about a loving family of freaks.
16. When the cavalry shows up on the Firefly compound, there’s a shot where we pan past a sculpture of a man’s face grafted onto a fish-like body. Supposedly, this is the result of a vicious feud between the production designer and the camera operator. For his part, the production designer kept hiding effigies of his nemesis all over the set.
17. The stuntman standing in for Harrison Young had to lie facedown in a puddle for the entirety of the comically long 26-second tracking shot where Otis executes officer Steve Naish (Walton Goggins). The shot itself is slowed down, but that’s still pretty dang impressive.
18. Zombie describes Otis Firefly (Bill Moseley) as a cross between cult leader Charles Manson and blues rock artist Johnny Winter.
19. While the shoot was relatively short, the cast bonded remarkably fast. Karen Black and Sheri Moon Zombie became especially close.
20. Rob Zombie’s mom thought that her son played the bearded ghoul wearing a bunny suit that Denise (Erin Daniels) encounters in the tunnels. Zombie stresses that that is not him.
21. Dr. Satan’s bone-covered foyer was inspired by an ossuary near Prague (most likely the Sedlec Ossuary).
22. In the scene where Denise is being pursued by the axe-wielding Professor (Jake McKinnon), the axe was very real and very sharp. McKinnon wasn’t a stuntman and was effectively blinded by his head appliance, making it a near-miracle that no one (other than the breakaway door) was maimed.
23. There is precisely one split diopter shot in this film and Zombie doesn’t miss a beat in pointing out how annoying it was to keep the actors in-focus.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“House of 1000 Problems.”
“There’s like… one dog in the movie but there’s like nine animal trainers. How does that work?”
“It looks pretty real because it is.”
“Here’s the butt shot everyone seems to enjoy.”
“We always hoped these actors would get nominated for best kiss at the MTV Movie Awards.”
“Doctor Satan was very, very cool… but he wasn’t very mobile.”
“Bill has been given the luxury of overalls.”
“Better to have it look weird than fake.”
“If you’re going to have a thousand corpses it’s going to take a lot of people.”
“Cue Chris Hardwick about to have a panic attack.”
Even if you are a fan, there’s no denying that House of 1000 Corpses isn’t everyone’s cup of moonshine. This commentary track isn’t going to convert any skeptics, but if you’re down to clown — as it were — you’re going to have a swell time. Zombie straddles the line between chilled out and shimmeringly disgruntled, and definitely doesn’t do the film’s juvenile reputation any favors at multiple points, but, to his credit, he never leaves any dead air. And all told, his passion is contagious. Even if a lot of that passion is directed towards a challenging shoot and frustrating post-production.
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