By LOUIS FLETCHER
That a reboot of kooky sit-com The Munsters would be helmed by Rob Zombie, the rock-star-turned-director whose 2003 debut House of 1,000 Corpses kick-started a career in R-rated slasher throwbacks, raised a few eyebrows when it was announced back in 2021. That the film would stick to the original’s family-friendly tone, therefore becoming the director’s first PG-13 release, threatened to dislodge said eyebrows entirely. The logic of such a decision was questioned, with many touting the move as a radical – and thus risky – change of direction for the filmmaker.
However, such assessments are wide of the mark. Rather, when viewed in the context of his past output, this most recent project represents as much a continuation of the director’s modus operandi than a departure. Indeed, upon officially announcing his involvement, Zombie wrote that he had been chasing the project for two whole decades. Although it is often tempting to dismiss such statements as mere publicity puff, a considered look at his earlier work inclines one to credit this claim.
While The Munsters gig is understandably jarring to those who know Zombie only through his films, kitsch B-movie horror has always been the bedrock of his copious musical output. Having enjoyed considerable success with metal outfit White Zombie, 1998 would see the release of the frontman’s first solo album, and if the man’s filmic oeuvre is liberally splattered with the gore of horror cinema past, then Hellbilly Deluxe is a debut positively soaked in the stuff.
Already established as a White Zombie hallmark, the album is awash with audio sampled from the silver screen but taps a rather different vein of celluloid horror to the grindhouse flicks that so strongly inform his movies. Instead, it favors rather more camp and distinctly European fare, taking in West German co-production The Mark of the Devil (1970), Italy’s Lady Frankenstein (1971), and Belgium Sapphic classic Daughters of Darkness (1971) among others, while Hammer Horror’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) slips in to represent Great Britain.
Admittedly, the tone of all these works – with their emphasis on busts and blood so scandalous at the time – remains far removed from that of an American family sit-com but is considerably closer than the Video Nasty slashers more readily associated with Zombie the director. True, a snippet from the trailer to Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left is one of two prominent US samples to feature on the album, but the other hails from a cinema ad for Sixties horror-comedy The Undertaker and his Pals (1966), a slice of pulp much more of a piece with the album’s other influences.
Moreover, as well as permeating the soundscape of Hellbilly Deluxe, the influence of European horror curios also informs the album’s music videos, and for which Zombie took a director’s credit. Most strikingly, the presentation of ‘Living Dead Girl’ directly invokes psycho-horror forerunner The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), reproducing the blue-tinged night scenes, exclamatory intertitles, and abstract set design so closely associated with the silent landmark widely considered a masterpiece of German Expressionism. Likewise, MTV favorite ‘Dragula’ showcases the same intertextual tendencies in relation to pulp horror, paying particular tribute to a certain 1960s TV show. Zombie’s first single as a solo artist, the video apes the back-projection technique commonly employed by television production of the time and depicts Zombie careering around a city in the iconic Munsters Koach, naturally intercut with shots of his bandmates and clips from black-and-white horror movies (this being a 90’s music video and all). Taking its name from the racer built by Grandpa in the episode ‘Hot Rod Herman’, ‘Dragula’ remains Zombie’s most well-known track and unmistakably announced his love for kooky spooky’s first family long before he emerged as a feature director in his own right.
But even without prior knowledge of Zombie’s musical back-catalog, any expectation that The Munsters will represent a completely new direction for the filmmaker should be tempered by the briefest of glances at the film’s cast, for the accomplices to his latest venture are in large part the same known associates from his career so far. Thus, having featured (and typically starred) in all of her husband’s celluloid efforts to date, Sheri-Moon Zombie takes on the role of Lily Munster. Only slightly less prolific is Daniel Roebuck who, having been a fixture from The Devil’s Rejects onwards, plays the interfering Grandpa, while four-time Zombie alumni Jeff Daniel Phillips is the well-meaning Herman. In addition, the cast is rounded out with former collaborators including Richard Brake, Tomas Boykin,and Dee Wallace. Perhaps even more indicative of creative continuity are the familiar names behind the camera, including the prolific Mike Elliott returning as producer alongside Zombie, having previously worked on The Devil Rejects, 31 and 3 from Hell. Likewise, musician Zeuss returns to composition duties, marking his third consecutive score contribution.
But the parallels with the director’s previous film work don’t end at the cast sheet, assuming at least that the pre-release publicity material is anything to go by. For if there is one aspect that marks Rob Zombie’s individual style, it is ironically the homage. Like Quentin Tarantino, Zombie is an auteur not content to wear his genre knowledge lightly, packing his films with references in-joke and cameos As such, whether The Munsters turns out to be a screwball classic or barely reanimated cheese, it is certain that critics who trashed the first trailer as cheap, tacky or amateurish have arguably missed the point of the exercise entirely.
Having ditched an original intention to shoot in black-and-white, Zombie’s suggestion of a live-action cartoon – through bright, high-contrast colors and lighting filters – mirrors a similar move by the original TV show. Having piloted in color, CBS switched to monochrome film stock for The Munsters, ostensibly for reasons of cost. However, it was also ideally suited to the show’s subject matter, mimicking the horror classics which the show so lovingly referenced and sent up. Thus, the reimagining’s affectation of a stylized presentation – albeit one indebted to Disney animation over James Whale’s Frankenstein – arguably channels the spirit of the TV show, if not its precise visual language.
Further, any accusation of overacting directed at Zombie’s cast would ignore the fact that while Fred Gwynne’s Herman, Yvonne De Carlo’s Lily ,and Al Lewis’ Grandpa are all iconic figures, they are not characterizations exactly brimming with subtlety. After all, sitcom performances as a type are rarely marked by nuance, and The Munsters was by its very nature a pastiche of existing archetypes. Similarly, if the 2022 reboot appears low-rent by contemporary movie standards, one should consider that the director is paying tribute to a televisual production that was itself low-budget, with production values to match. Given Zombie’s obsessional regard for his sources, we can be certain such affectations are deliberate.
Beyond the opportunities it affords for Zombie to indulge his penchant for recreating period stylings, The Munsters’ latest outing also allows him to satisfy another key preoccupation. Billing the courtship of Lily and Herman as ‘the greatest love story ever told’, the reboot pitches itself as a prequel of sorts, and filling in the blanks in his source material has ever been a chief concern of the director. Of course, we are increasingly used to origin stories, alternative timelines, and spin-off character narratives as mainstays of twenty-first-century media, with rights holders seeking to squeeze as much content as possible from lucrative intellectual properties; it would therefore be disingenuous to describe the approach of Universal’s latest horror reboot as ground-breaking in and of itself. However, Zombie’s earlier works suggest that his love of lore and indulgence in back-story are genuine obsessions, rather than narrative convenience or half-baked solutions to a crowded franchise timeline.
Indeed, consummate horror writer Kim Newman once described 2007’s Halloween as in effect ‘fan-fiction’, and one can see where he was coming from. John Carpenter’s original is a stripped-back thriller with a realistic location and human antagonist, which nevertheless uses the portent-heavy dialogue of Dr, Loomis and the evocative setting of Halloween night – when the natural and supernatural supposedly converge – to imbue its murderous Shape with the suggestion of otherworldly evil. Importantly, the film is a tightly structured affair, avoiding any unnecessary details that might undermine the delicate central duality of man/monster Michael. When NBC mandated additional scenes to extend the running time for the film’s network premiere, it was therefore with reluctance that Carpenter provided padding material that fleshed out Myers’ history with Dr. Loomis, bringing the narrative in line with its commercially necessary follow-up then in production.
Interestingly, this apocrypha becomes the driving force of Zombie’s remake, allocating as it does considerable screen time to Michael Myers’ childhood development, seeking to provide both an explanation for the incomprehensible Shape and back story for elements as inauspicious as Dr. Loomis’ six-shooter. There is no narrative impetus for these additions, and in some cases, they seem to work against the original’s plot. For example, the young Michael’s gradual progression to homicide stands in marked contrast to Carpenter’s nightmarish scenario, in which a seemingly untroubled six-year-old inexplicably murders his sister. Further, in attempting to present a three-dimensional Myers, Zombie brings his boogeyman out into the light, demystifying his villain and lessening the film’s capacity to instill terror. After all, the more we know, the less we fear.
Instead, Zombie’s willingness to devote screen time to such tangential matter betrays not a craftsman’s need for tightly planned construction, but a fan’s desire to spend time with these characters for their own sake. Michael Myers – not Laurie Strode – stands at the center of his film, suggesting that, like fellow horror grandee Guillermo Del Toro, Zombie’s chief interest is in his monsters. This tendency towards anti-hero worship is also evident in the Firefly saga, with House of 1,000 Corpses far more interested in its murderous triumvirate than the experience of their victims, while the sequels elevate the motley trio to protagonist status. In this case, such a focus does not undermine the characters’ horrific impact, since their menace was never based on mystery in the first place, having always been vocal, front-and-center participants without the faintest whiff of the supernatural. Unlike the inscrutable Shape, increasing their screentime does not affect the film’s ability to perform its primary function – to constitute a vehicle for gory, madcap carnage.
However, whereas Zombie’s previous work has been projects in which backstory is either actively detrimental or arguably incidental, The Munsters ideally suits this narrative bent. The sit-com form is by its nature designed to facilitate interpolation – to tell as many discreet narratives as its core set-up can accommodate. Thus, as long as the trajectory of the latest movie feasibly leads into the family setup of the CBS series – or at least does not contradict it – this latest version cannot undermine its source. There are no overarching plot progressions or series-long side stories to get bogged down in or to deftly circumnavigate. In short, while the reboot may be good, bad, or anything in between, it has very little prospect of being controversial.
Finally, it is interesting to note that The Munsters apparent uniqueness within the Rob Zombie canon is not, in itself, entirely novel. For while it is true that the director has plowed the same gore-splattered furrow with the majority of his output – the Firefly trilogy, the Halloween reboots and 31 are all slashers of the knowingly ‘grindhouse’ school – one production stands out amidst this company of throwback slashers.
Sandwiched between Halloween II and 31, 2012’s The Lords of Salem represents an isolated dalliance with the occult horror of the 1970s, swapping out usual The Funhouse influences for Rosemary’s Baby and The Fog. Although less dramatic a pivot than that from 3 from Hell to a PG-13 family comedy, the shift is nevertheless significant, and all the more notable for standing within a filmography that is otherwise so remarkably consistent in tone and influences. The Lords of Salem is also the director’s only past movie to truly embrace the supernatural and surreal, and in doing so dared to be different long before Mockingbird Lane came a-calling. This earlier change of direction was also Zombie’s most critically successful motion picture to date, which should be of some comfort to those trepidatious about the director helming the resurrection of Lily and Herman.