Accompanied by a boom of gunfire and the cornball-epic strains of “Freebird,” the final freeze frame of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects felt as conclusive as the one that concludes Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. As it turns out, though, it will take more than “20 bullets apiece” to keep Otis (Bill Moseley), Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) down. In the grand, franchise-prolonging tradition of Elm Street nightmares and Friday the 13ths past, Zombie’s new movie, 3 From Hell, reveals that the redneck serial-killer desperados of his most acclaimed freak show beat the million-to-one odds and lived through their kamikaze game of chicken with the law. “No one would have thought it possible that a human body could survive that,” a reporter remarks over the grainy newsreel footage of the prologue. You said it, pal.
Zombie introduced the murderous Firefly clan 16 years ago in House Of 1,000 Corpses, which essentially remade The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the carnival-strip-club style of his music videos. Whereas Tobe Hooper locked us into the raw panic and terror of his victims—a key reason Chain Saw’s snuff-movie power hasn’t diminished one iota in four-plus decades—Zombie seemed more interested in the perpetrators, vulgar hillbilly psychopaths who did their dirty deeds with a cocked eyebrow and vaudevillian flamboyance. By the sequel, 2005’s proudly depraved The Devil’s Rejects, the shock-rocker dropped any pretense of identifying with the “good guys,” transforming the surviving members of the unholy Firefly family into mythic ’70s outlaws, their rampage contrasted with the sanctioned sadism of The Man. (Who’s the real monster? Still the torturing rapists, Rob.) It was an ugly, cruel film, but one made with an undeniable grindhouse zeal—a vision, however depressing.
The Fireflies look even less like villains, and even more like folk heroes, in 3 From Hell, Zombie’s cut-rate and deeply unwarranted continuation of his throwback B-movie saga. The film opens with them safely behind bars. Ten years on death row hasn’t triggered any remorse in these natural born killers, but it has earned them a fanbase; like Mickey, Mallory, or Manson before them, they’ve become jailhouse celebrities, defended by hippies (“Free The Three,” goes the rallying cry) siblings Otis and Baby would scarcely hesitate to carve into mincemeat. There’s the faintest promise of something subversive in this setup, derivative (as so much of the director’s work is) but still keyed into a culturally fresh true-crime fascination. It doesn’t take long to realize, of course, that Zombie isn’t critiquing a national fixation on ultra-violence—he’s just indulging his own, without irony or much energy.
3 From Hell is more coherent, admittedly, than Zombie’s last movie, the Z-grade death-match thriller 31. We get flashes of the style that once made him the toast of the midnight-movie circuit; there’s some unholy MTV mojo in the scene where Sheri Moon Zombie, the filmmaker’s wife, muse, and perennial leading lady, strolls in slow-motion down the corridors of the big house in shackles, her punk-rock attitude inflated by a perfect Suzi Quatro needle drop. But even more so than usual, Zombie seems to be making up the plot as he goes along. It involves Otis, messiah of death and destruction, escaping custody and then using a hostage situation to arrange for the release of his nut-job sister. Zombie dispenses with Sid Haig early on, despite the fact that the actor’s profane crankiness was a genuine highlight of the series. To fill the void, 3 From Hell introduces a heretofore unseen brother, Foxy, played by Richard Brake, the hitman from 31 and The Night King from Game Of Thrones. It counts as one of the film’s only good jokes that no one seems to have heard of him.
Zombie advertises his film-buff bona fides in dashes, offering a little lesbian-prison-flick here, a south-of-the-border shootout there, an argument about Bogart and Cagney. Taking place for long stretches in motels and hotels, 3 From Hell is the closest the director has ever come to making a straight-up hangout movie. But are these characters whose company you’d really want to keep? They’re not just homicidal maniacs, but also irritating pricks. Moseley, with his bushy wild-man beard and I-am-the-devil speechifying, plays Otis like Charles Manson as a glib insult comic—his sarcasm is as lethal as his trigger finger. And Sheri Moon Zombie digs once more into her maniacal-flower-child routine with a camp relish that’s more exhausting than anything else. Some actors can make profanity sing, but here, the repetitive first-draft volleys of “fuck” and “bitch” could leave a whole convent praying for a new expletive. It makes you grateful for the laconic Michael Myers (Zombie’s or Carpenter’s), a psychopath with the common courtesy to shut the fuck up while spilling your entrails.
If you’ve seen the two previous films, you’ll know what to expect from the killing spree: lots of amused shit-talk from the killers, lots of fruitless pleading from the soon-to-be-killed, all shrilly pitched to the rafters. But the queasy, homage-happy pulp bravado of The Devil’s Rejects is in short supply. So, too, is any real danger or suspense. Maybe they’re casualties of a movie so in love with its cowboy-lunatic antagonists-gone-protagonist that it has no idea how to make them scary again. When Zombie cut, during the “Freebird” finale of the last movie, to home-video footage of the good ol’ days, it felt like a sick joke: a parody of wistful Western mythmaking. 3 From Hell, a trilogy-capper nearly as sentimental as Toy Story 3, takes the midlife-crisis anxiety of these carnage-loving freaks so seriously that you start to wonder if that moment wasn’t wholly sincere the whole time. At last, Zombie goes whole hog into depicting these atrocity-committing siblings as true countercultural anti-heroes, their cross-country massacre just a flipped bird to the squares. That’s gross. In practice, it’s also really tedious: a slow death by nostalgia.