Rob Zombie’s Plastic Dreams



Jeff Daniel Phillips stars as Herman in “The Munsters,” directed by Rob Zombie.

These days, naturalism in film is treated as the default. Even in science fiction or fantasy films, where the principles he genres operate under are plainly ludicrous, realism in acting, dialogue and aesthetics are still prioritized above anything else. 

A few brave artists swim against this current: the acting of Nic Cage, the films of Wes Anderson and the works of Rob Zombie. Indeed, “The Munsters,” Zombie’s latest film, is an exemplar of this “anti-realism,” where the lack of any adherence to reality becomes its own style. 

Rob Zombie initially rose to fame as the founding member of the heavy metal band White Zombie. The band gained notoriety for their grandiose live performances and eclectic musical influences which drew from both high and lowbrow musicians and artists. Following White Zombie’s breakup in 1998, Rob Zombie started directing movies consisting mostly of homages to the horror movies of years past. His directorial style has polarized critics, with his films either drawing ire or praise.

His latest feature, “The Munsters,” is a prequel to the 1960s series of the same name and follows the titular characters as they journey from Transylvania to start a life in California. The plot itself follows Herman Munster, a reassembled corpse with the brain of a comedian, who catches the eye of Lily, a 150-year-old vampire. They get married, but disaster strikes when Lily’s father, The Count, is evicted. Herman decides that the only option is to relocate to California.

Admittedly, the plot sounds incredibly haphazard, and this is the general approach Zombie adopts when it comes to storytelling. The actual specificites of the narrative are incidental and meandering, but that is all beside the point. Zombie is far more interested in capturing the fake and plastic aesthetics of the original series and then filtering them through his auteurist lens. If any quote captures “The Munsters’” essence, it is Roger Ebert who wrote: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.”

It is almost moving how all encompassing Zombie’s love of horror is. Outside of his music, he is most well known for making the films “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” both of which are heavily indebted to seventies’ grindhouse horror and eighties’ slasher pictures. 

Everything about “The Munsters” screams subterfuge. The lighting is so garish, the cuts so comical, and the acting so over the top that you cannot help but be drawn into it. Zombie takes the aesthetics of the original show and mutates them into a bizarre, neon-drenched plastic world where everyone talks with the same stiff affect and moves as though they are in a pantomime. All this might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it really is genuine admiration. Watching a film that is so committed to its own tone is striking. These days, every mainstream picture seems diseased by a certain “cutesy-fication,” where the creators are compelled to say, in the most twee and self aware way, that they are above the bizarre aesthetics of their films. “The Munsters” stands in opposition to this practice.

However, the film is not without flaws. As previously mentioned, the story is almost indecipherable with numerous plot lines either being abandoned mid film or characters having close to no motivation. Zombie is afforded a certain amount of leeway since “The Munsters” is a children’s film, but that does not excuse how lazy and obvious the comedy in the film is. The fundamental problem is that the narrative is secondary to the aesthetics, and although that makes for an interesting stylistic experiment, it does not manage to sustain itself for 110 minutes.

If Rob Zombie was a more technically competent screenwriter, “The Munsters” would have been able to synthesize the originality of his vision with an engaging narrative. Sadly, this is not the case. The sheer audacity of the film’s visuals almost overwhelms the senses and stands in stark contrast to the current mediocrity that passes for streaming, yet “The Munsters” still cannot fully actualize. Perhaps Zombie’s future filmic endeavors will prove different.