VIDEO ESSAY: Rob Zombie and the Cinema of Cruelty

VIDEO ESSAY: Rob Zombie and the Cinema of Cruelty


feature films that Rob Zombie has made between 2000 and 2013 create new
styles of emotional and perceptual disturbance from the corpses of
cultural products past. True to his name, Zombie reanimates dead tropes,
turns, and troubles into powerful attacks on our expectations and

summoning the spirit of previous movies, particularly, Zombie
encourages us to think we are watching a familiar pattern of story and
character. We think we know how and where to be shocked or repulsed,
whom to put our faith, trust, and hope in. We let down our guard.

Into the gap between our expectations and the reality of the film in front of us, Zombie sets traps to shred our desires.

was sort of like Ken Russell films or like Polanski or some Argento
films or Kubrick. There’s only certain filmmakers who really do this –
and David Lynch does it—where just the vibe of the movie is odd all
the way through. A David Lynch movie is just odd even when people are
doing normal things. You’re like, “Why does this feel so weird? What’s
happening here?”

—Rob Zombie, The Playlist interview with Drew Taylor, 29 April 2013

movies are explicitly, extravagantly, and defiantly products of low
culture. The only sort of filmmaking less reputable than gory horror
movies is porn. Both traffic in sensation and exploitation. This is why
we need them. They’re all that’s left to break through the cool surface
of protective irony and oh-so-earnest, respectable emotionalism that so
many of us perform and parade and reward every day — to break through
into some part of our selves that few of us want to share with the rest
of the world. Such movies are the antidote to mumblecore and emo and
Oscar bait. We should watch these movies in seedy theatres where the
floors are covered with entire archaeologies of dirt, grime, rot, and
petrified bodily fluids. We should stare down at those floors and look
for our reflection, for it is there that we will find ourselves best

is why I thought of Antonin Artaud when I was putting together this
video essay. I want us to reclaim Artaud from the high cult of goodness,
where so many academics and critics have made excuses for him, tried to
tame him, tried to make him fit the higher cults. Those of us with some
academic persuasions need more shit in our systems.

I go to the library and grab a book off the shelf: Antonin Artaud: A Critical Reader, edited by Edward Scheer, where, in an essay titled “Cinemas of Cruelty?”, Francis Vanoye writes:

we want to stay close to Artaud while betraying him, as we must, since
we are trying to promote a cinema of cruelty, we must exclude all pure
and simple representations of cruelty (Sergio Leone?), all reductions of
cruelty to violence, crude sadism and blood, we must therefore exclude a
good part of the cinematic production of the past and especially the
present. Quentin Tarantino, for example, and his emulators, French or
American, who make of cruelty an object of representation and of
spectatorial pleasure.

such a betrayal of Artaud is necessary in France, but it sure isn’t
necessary for me, an American, someone whose tax dollars have funded
atrocities throughout the world, whose political system is nothing if
not cruel, whose economic system is designed to strengthen the powerful
and marginalize the weak. No no no, we need a cinema of cruelty that
matches the cruelty of our hearts and citizenship. We need
representations that show us ourselves. We need images that make us want
to look away at the same time they make us want to watch. The Devil’s Rejects
shows us, for instance, sadists we at first fear and detest, and then
it shows us that these are our heroes, and it gives us just enough of
the necessary tropes to make us want them to suceed in what we know is
sadistic. These, the film says to us, THESE are your heroes. They could be tour guides at Abu Ghraib.

What Zombie recognized in his Halloween movies is that our slasher films are character studies in disguise. The 2007 remake of Halloween
tempts us to learn to love Michael Myers, tempts us to recognize him
within the realm of child psychology, tempts us to recognize him as our
child or ourselves. He is no mere cypher, no flat archetype, but rather a
black hole of desire to attract our matter. Halloween II
is another world altogether, the beginning of a new (more explicitly
Lynchian) direction in Zombie’s work, an oneiric trap. Real and unreal
don’t exist in such a world: they are each other. We seek realities, but
Halloween II and The Lords of Salem refuse to give in to that desire, and instead show us that our need for the real is a need for comfort.

want our movies to be respectable, we want the feelings they give us to
be ones we don’t mind exalting to our families and friends. Those are
the movies we’ll give Oscars to, those are the movies we’ll assign our
students to watch, those are the movies we will proudly display in our
living rooms, those are the movies we’ll invite our friends to. Movies
that confirm our respectability. Movies that help us feel good about who
we are.

the practice of cruelty there is a kind of higher determinism, to which
the executioner-tormenter himself is subjected and which he must be determined
to endure when the time comes. Cruelty is above all lucid, a kind of
rigid control and submission to necessity. There is no cruelty without
consciousness and without the application of consciousness. It is
consciousness that gives to the exercise of every act of life its
blood-red color, its cruel nuance, since it is understood that life is
always someone’s death.

—Antonin Artaud, “First Letter on Cruelty”, trans. Mary Caroline Richards

If Rob Zombie’s movies understand nothing else, they understand that life is always someone’s death.

does this feel so weird? What’s happening here? Our perspective is
being readjusted, our shame exposed. We have not earned the comfort we
desire. For a moment, we must recognize what perhaps we have
unconsciously known, the horrid truth we have repressed: that we are not
the innocent victims, but rather the executioner-tormenters. And deep
down, that’s what we’d rather be.

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons,, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.

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