Watching the The Hills Have Eyes has helped my clarify some of my thinking on The Devil's Rejects - I'm sure all of my readers have been anxiously waiting for this to happen!
I had a hard time talking about The Devil's Rejects because while I thought it was impressive for what it was, I also thought that "what it was" was pretty repulsive. Looking at it through the lens of The Hills Have Eyes helped.
In The Hills Have Eyes, the nice, normal, American family is attacked and brutalized by a group of outlaw, mutant cannibals. What's interesting from a po-mo 21st Century perspective is that the American family isn't mocked. Craven doesn't idealize them, either, but the movie is definitely on their side. They are the victims of a monstrous assault and even though they are, in a way, "trespassing" on the mutants territory (though it's more like they stumbled onto their hunting ground), the movie's source of terror is their realization that they are outside the protection of civilization, that they are dealing with true outlaws, and that their only hope is to respond in kind.
Note: as the final shot of the movie makes clear, this is not, like, perhaps, Straw Dogs or Dirty Harry, a movie about how, when all is said and done, a man has to be a man and get his hands dirty because the law has its limits. Rather, the close up of Martin Speer's face in a murderous rage suggests that vengeance/feuding outside of the law leads to a downward spiral into sub-humanism for everyone involved (see also the ending of The Descent).
Now, The Devil's Rejects is like The Hills Have Eyes, except told from the POV of the mutants and, to a certain extent, idealizing their outlaw ethos. Zombie doesn't aestheticize their violent actions, like Peckinpah does in The Wild Bunch: he keeps everything completely unpleasant. At the same time, despite the horrible things they do, they're obviously the movie's heroes: we're meant to root for them to escape the forces of law and order, who are presented as bigger monsters than the outlaws. They're also presented as hypocrites, which, by the movie's values is a lot worse than being a monster.
As a filmmaker, Zombie's major asset is that he's willing to go all the way - he doesn't flinch. This may be a good sensibility for a horror movie director, but, as I've said before, I don't think its enough. Rejects is more assured in terms of tone than House of 100 Corpses, but it seems to achieve that assurance by narrowing its range. It's a more coherent movie than its predecessor, a more completely realized "vision", but, in many ways, it has even less to offer to this horror fan. There's no order here - nothing to measure any fall against, nothing to terrorize.
The Devil's Rejects is one of those movies that is trying so hard to be outrageous - it's so obviously pushing buttons - that I can't help but feel that actually getting outraged about it is kind of pointless. It isn't trying to hide its nihilism, for example, or pass itself off as something it isn't.
Though there's a certain purity to what Rob Zombie does in the movie that I (perhaps against my better judgment) can't help but admire, I still think there's something fundamentally wrong with a movie that is such a fully-realized valentine to violent, nihilistic outlaws. Not necessarily "wrong" in the "I don't think it should ever have been made"-way, but definitely "wrong" in the "I can't in good conscience recommend that anyone actually ever see the movie and I'd even be willing to engage in endless debate with its supporters on the internet"-way.
For what it's worth, I'm interested in seeing what Zombie will do with his Halloween remake.