As a horror filmmaker, Rob Zombie has fostered an impassioned following over the past two decades, with a body of work characterized by its black humor and unvarnished violence, made all the more engrossing by the perverse but productive sympathies the director has for his movie monsters . Now, Zombie has completed his most shocking venture yet — an adaptation of the wacky, wholesome ’60s sitcom “The Munsters.” With friendly faces and a very conspicuous PG rating, the film is unlike anything Zombie has done before and arguably his most boldly stylized work yet.
“A lot of people have said to me: ‘Finally, I can watch one of your movies with my kids,’ which I don’t have kids so that’s kind of meaningless to me. But that’s nice!” Zombie tells Variety. “This is how I got into everything as a kid. This is for the next wave of monster fans coming our way. This movie is the gateway drug for more hardcore horror.”
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment releases “The Munsters” on digital platforms, Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday. The film stars Sheri Moon Zombie, Zombie’s wife and enduring marquee lead, alongside Jeff Daniel Phillips and Daniel Roebuck, two more of the filmmaker’s regular collaborators.
Moon plays the spirited vampiress Lily, who falls head-over-heels for Phillips’ newly resurrected forest-green rockstar Herman Munster. The Count, Lily’s fretful father, is played by Roebuck, who “almost drove off the road because he was so excited” when he first learned of the project, according to Zombie.
“Dan would have been a ’60s sitcom actor,” Zombie says. “If you ask him for his favorite actor, it’ll be Don Knotts. He loves Paul Lynde. That’s his wheelhouse.”
While Zombie remains fiercely loyal to the tone of the original ’60s sitcom with his film, the director also recognized that it wouldn’t stand on its own legs if it primarily attempted to replicate its source material.
“Sometimes they make ‘Star Trek’ movies. I was such a fan that, no matter how good those movies were, I would just feel like, ‘Well, that’s not William Shatner. What the hell am I watching?’” Zombie says, explaining the tricky task of revamping a beloved property.
The filmmaker found his shock of the new in what at first seemed to be a creative limitation: Universal would not give “The Munsters” a go if it was filmed in black-and-white, as the original ’60s sitcom was. Although disappointed at first, the requirement led Zombie to consider what “the opposite of black-and-white” would look like, trailblazing a ludicrously colorful, hyper-saturated aesthetic for his monster mash. The resulting visuals are completely distinctive from the original series, while keeping with its core eccentricities.
“Sometimes you’re dealing with a certain scenario. You can walk away from it, but that doesn’t create anything. You figure out how to deal with it,” Zombie says. “Sometimes you create something you would have never created.”
Zombie still managed to sneak in a brief black-and-white interlude: a recreation of the show’s opening credits, featuring the Munsters walking through their manor’s doorframe one-by-one. The homage featured prominently in the first teaser for the film, which introduced fans to the cast members in character.
“When they were in the trailer, the studio wanted to take those few moments and make them color because they thought if people see a black-and-white shot they’ll be confused,” Zombie says. “I’m like, ‘People aren’t that fucking stupid.'”
Along with the intense palette, Zombie’s mission to thoughtfully expand on the original series is also evident in the film’s premise, which he describes as an “origin story.” Dodging the fish-out-of-water comedy of the show, the new “Munsters” serves as a proto-pilot of sorts, largely exploring the family’s lives in Transylvania before they came to America. Viewers are treated to the Frankensteinian creation of Herman, his and Lily’s Paris honeymoon and the Count’s dizzying financial collapse.
“That was always my vision, even 20 years ago,” Zombie says. “To start the movie on Mockingbird Lane and assume people are totally up to speed seems weird to me.”
Zombie’s dream of directing “The Munsters” predates the release of his debut feature, 2003’s meatgrinder horror film “House of 1000 Corpses,” which first began as a Universal production. Zombie expressed his enthusiasm for the property to the studio’s then-chairman Stacey Snyder, only to learn that a new take was already in development at the time. After putting his hopes aside, destiny came knocking over a decade later.
“In 2016, I was talking to one of my producers who was off on another movie. I asked what he was up to. He’s like, ‘Oh I’m working on “The Munsters” at Universal,’” Zombie explains. “I was like, ‘What the fuck?! Oh my god, I always wanted to make that movie. Let me get in there and take a meeting.'”
The director soon began to overhaul a burgeoning project “aimed at preschoolers” that originally focused on Herman and Lily’s son, Eddie. “It didn’t sound that appealing to me,” Zombie says.
But Universal then elected to begin exploring television options for the property, according to the filmmaker. Plans for a feature were axed. But three years later, the same producer came back to Zombie, saying the studio had hit a dead end once again.
“I was basically like, ‘Give me a fucking break with this. Call me when it’s real. I’m tired of going down Mockingbird Lane with you every few years,’” Zombie says. “Then eventually it became real. Then COVID fucked it all up.”
The director shares that “The Munsters” was forced to pump the brakes as the entertainment industry configured health and safety protocols for productions to operate during the pandemic. But after so many starts and stops over the years, Zombie was determined to see “The Munsters” through and prevent his dream project from slipping through his fingers. Although filming was on hold, the production continued to build sets in Budapest.
“One thing with movies is you can never let them shut down because they just die,” Zombie says. “As long as the studio is still spending money, you get them on the hook. If Budapest shut down, one hundred percent it would’ve been a disaster.”
After the entire production finally arrived in Hungary, Zombie took note of how preposterous his actors looked in costume next to crew members. He decided that the film’s visuals necessitated an equally conspicuous performance style to keep everything of a piece, pushing his ensemble to act in a way that “any other director would tell them to tone it down.”
“When I saw everyone in their makeup, I thought, ‘This looks like a live-action cartoon. They don’t even look like they’re actually real. They look like they’re made out of rubber. They look fake,’” Zombie says. “It’s out of touch with the style of how people make movies now. But that was what I felt that it had to be. I approached it in other ways at first. What if I light it realistically? It didn’t seem right. It needs to be hyperreal.”
Moon, Roebuck and Phillips give wildly emotional performances, matched by their Transylvanian surroundings, which provide plenty of comic opportunities for spooky gags, elaborate interiors and gregarious creatures. But the film’s tone doesn’t waver once the scenery changes to Mockingbird Heights in its final act, offering an equally ridiculous, “overly ‘Leave It to Beaver'” vision of suburbia that the Munsters must now call home.
“One of the things the studio kept complaining about [about] was, ‘We don’t understand what the time period is.’ It doesn’t matter,” Zombie says. “It’s just a mishmash of everything that is frozen in time. That’s how I remember childhood. And that’s how I remember ‘The Munsters.’ I was such a TV fanatic as a kid. I loved everything. So this movie has as much in common with ‘The Munsters’ as ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ ‘Green Acres’ — it’s everything.”
“The Munsters” is now available to own on digital, Blu-ray and DVD. The film is also available to stream on Netflix.