On the surface, The Munsters might seem out of step with what you might expect from Rob Zombie. But being out-of-step is kind of his bag. The hard rocker turned House of 1000 Corpses director has remained something of a notorious underdog on the fringes of the film industry, having built up a loyal cult fanbase across his nearly 20-year filmmaking career while staying largely on the bad side of critics and general audiences. It’s true that Zombie’s films aren’t for everyone—they are exercises in excess and bad taste, indulge in gore, introduce unlikeable characters who espouse uncanny, inhuman dialogue, and align us with the monsters just as much as their victims.
So, when the news came that Rob Zombie was helming a Munsters film, many didn’t know what to make of it. Longtime Zombie fans (like me) were elated that the director would get to lead a feature-length adaptation of a property he is known to hold very close to his heart, but still a little uncertain of exactly how he was going to go about it. Zombie has always existed comfortably within the MPAA’s rating of R, notorious for his upsetting depictions of hardcore violence. Zombie naysayers, meanwhile, derogatorily questioned the director of The Devil’s Rejects making a filthy, perverse white-trash iteration of a beloved ‘60s family sitcom, one inevitably starring his wife, Sheri Moon, whom he is devoted to showcasing in all of his films. But those who have affection for Zombie’s work and understand his artistic sensibilities knew from the start that there was no one better to do a remake of The Munsters than Zombie, whether he wanted to reimagine the series as R or PG.
Rob Zombie loves monsters, but his films are made the most uncomfortable by how the director extends his empathy—how he’s curious in depicting the effects of violence just as much as he is in inflicting it. As Willow Catelyn Maclay notes, Zombie creates “a lived-in quality for his characters that complicates our relationship to the violence on-screen.” As far back as his debut House of 1000 Corpses, Zombie has aimed to articulate that the victims of his villains and antiheroes—the latter his usual choice of protagonist—should be mourned by us after we’ve watched them be torn apart.
Like the cheerleaders in Corpses or the traveling band in The Devil’s Rejects, these future corpses, mangled and maimed for our (voyeuristic) entertainment, had lives that have been cut short. The kidnapping of Charly (Sheri Moon), final girl of 31, and her night-long battle against bloodthirsty clowns might signify mindless torture, but there is genuine pathos to her character, her journey and her transformation from the violence inflicted upon her and her friends. Some described Zombie’s take on Halloween as adding extraneous backstory, ruining the unknowable character of Michael Myers. Instead, it adds a queasy dimension to Laurie Strode and the emotional texture of the narrative, even more so in Halloween II. In each of his films, Zombie wants us to reckon with what we’re watching. In an age dominated by true crime, it’s a worthwhile reckoning.
This empathy is just one part of what makes Zombie’s films hard to swallow, what has somewhat isolated him as a filmmaker and what makes his work so distinct from the rest of contemporary horror. In 2022, it’s a genre too often preoccupied with literalizing the theme of “trauma” to the point where it’s rendered hollow and where the horror is forced to take a backseat. As perhaps most blatantly recognized in his two Halloween films and The Lords of Salem, Zombie can tackle topics like trauma and addiction thoughtfully without sacrificing genre, through creating a cinematic environment where the horror of violence and suffering is not purely metaphorical, but real.
In the wake of troubled productions and meddlesome studios on both of his Weinstein-produced Halloween remakes, Zombie has been forced to retreat further to the filmmaking outskirts. More recently, he has had difficulty getting his films made at all. His follow-up to Halloween II, an R-rated animated film entitled The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, had a long road to its eventual direct-to-video release, while The Lords of Salem received backing from Blumhouse (a microbudget of $1.5 million). Most distressingly, 2016’s 31 was financed through fan-backed crowdfunding, and his Rejects threequel, 3 From Hell (another shoestring budget), received an extremely limited, three-night release through Fathom Events before dropping on VOD.
This all funnels into Zombie’s newest feature, his Netflix adaptation of the The Munsters, a family-friendly American sitcom from the 1960s about the goofy, supernatural Transylvanian clan who struggle to fit in among the suburbia of their neighborhood on Mockingbird Lane. If you’re well-acquainted with Zombie, it’s as if his career has been leading up to this.
The Munsters has been a direct source of inspiration for Zombie since childhood, so much so that it went on to lend the title for his most well-known solo song, “Dragula,” the name of a dragstrip car built by Grandpa Munster in the episode “Hot Rod Herman.” Zombie had been chasing a Munsters film since before his debut feature Corpses back in 2003. Over the course of more than a decade, the studio kept hitting dead ends with adapting the property. They even tried a previous route with Zombie, in which the director attempted to overhaul an initially preschool-focused narrative about Herman and Lily Munster’s son, Eddie, before Universal decided to ax it in favor of a potential TV series. Three years later, an early producer of Zombie’s who had been trying to get the project off the ground with Universal from the start came knocking, and that’s when things finally became real. Despite COVID coming in at the same time and forcing the entertainment industry to readjust its health and safety protocols, Zombie didn’t let that keep him from holding out hope on The Munsters. Finally given the concrete chance he’d been waiting for, he was determined to keep his dream project from shutting down.
Removed from the accessible nature of the film (Zombie notes fans have come to him excited that they can finally watch a film of his with their children), The Munsters is exactly the kind of Munsters adaptation that Rob Zombie would make: Not a backwater, R-rated gorefest, but a complete and total profession of love for a piece of pop culture and for filmmaking, from a director who remains steadfast in his vision despite the constant limitations thrown his way. Under the thumb of the studio, Zombie had to give in to creative restraints, but this only led to the director working his way around them, crafting an even more imaginative film. “Sometimes you’re dealt a certain scenario,” Zombie explained. “You can walk away from it, but that doesn’t create anything. You figure out how to deal with it. Sometimes you create something you would have never created.”
Disagreement over making the entire film black and white like the original series led to Zombie’s use of the complete opposite: Vivid, garish color. It created a flamboyant, hyper-saturated pop-art film that’s just as cartoonish as its characters. The performances from Sheri Moon Zombie as Lily Munster, Daniel Roebuck as Grandpa Munster, and Jeff Daniel Phillips as Herman Munster are so exaggerated and over-the-top that they make the film feel distinctly like it’s from another era, but still allow the tone to stay in line with the show.
The narrative is an origin story, Zombie’s vision from the start, not assuming the audience is entirely caught up on the series. It follows the hijinks-laden creation of Herman Munster by mad scientist Dr. Henry Augustus Wolfgang (Richard Brake), whose doltish assistant Floop (Jorge Garcia) accidentally implants the brain of a flop comedian instead of a genius. Herman’s inception comes at just the right time, as poor Lily is desperate for love but perpetually disappointed by the Transylvanian dating scene. Goofy Herman is Lily’s dream man, and the two meet, fall in love and get married. This is much to the chagrin of The Count (Grandpa Munster, pre-Grandpa), who disapproves of the dimwitted Herman. It’s Herman’s density that puts the family in financial peril, as a scheme concocted by The Count’s vengeful ex-wife, Zoya (Catherine Schell)—in alliance with The Count’s estranged, werewolf son, Lester (Tomas Boykin)—ends up forcing the Munsters to start a new life in sunny California.
Zombie’s Munsters film turns out to be the only kind that he could have directed: An extremely earnest, incredibly cheesy adaptation that stays true to the show while being suitably inventive. He creates an off-beat origin story for the Munster family that is neither superfluous nor redundant and always utterly gorgeous, putting the consistently dull, muted color palettes of modern films (chiefly and ironically, Netflix fare) to shame.
This all adds into why Zombie is one of our most vital working filmmakers. From House of 1000 Corpses to Halloween to 31, Zombie could be considered narratively and stylistically out of touch. The cornball dialogue that no real human would ever speak; the career-spanning affection for backwater outsiders; the undaunted efforts to make his wife a star, to the point where his Munsters narrative could be construed as Zombie’s own profession of love for her. Never hip with the rest of his filmmaking generation, never too favorable with critics and just as spotty with general audiences—but that’s why his increasingly shaky presence in modern filmmaking is even more crucial. That he even got to make a Munsters film, a major IP produced by Universal (in their home video division) and distributed by Netflix, is something of a little miracle.
Rob Zombie’s filmography may be considered by many to be lowbrow sleaze worthy of denigration, but The Munsters should best demonstrate that it’s not some sadistic penchant for mindless violence that dictates Zombie’s artistic proclivities, but commitment to a distinct vision and genuine love for filmmaking in the way that he wants to go about it. Zombie is often admonished for making tasteless, crass art that shocks and offends, despite imbuing it all with immense empathy. But in a release slate that has become progressively homogenous, and as Zombie manages to miraculously keep making films in spite of an industry more hostile now than ever, shouldn’t weird, outsider art probe us to consider that particular art as increasingly vital? “[The Munsters] is out of touch with the style of how people make movies now,” Zombie told Variety, “But that was what I felt that it had to be.” If we live in a culture that says no to that kind of creative mindset, then it’s all the more important that Rob Zombie keeps making his films.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at Gawker, The Playlist, Polygon, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more. You can follow her on Twitter.