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Cover Story: Rob Zombie

| September 1, 2016


There’s good news and bad news, Chicago. First, the master of spectral ceremonies Rob Zombie won’t be in town this Halloween season. Sure, he cackles, it was a horrific hoot launching his very own local haunted house at The Odeum in Villa Park in 2013, the Great American Nightmare, which featured attractions based on splatterpunk films he directed, like House of 1,000 Corpses and The Lords of Salem. “But that was a lot of work,” he declares. “So I’m not going to do it this year because I just don’t have enough time. This year I’ll be on tour, and I’ve got a new record coming out (The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser, in case you were wondering) and a new movie coming this month (31, starring his go-to gorehound actors Meg Foster and Malcolm McDowell, in a spooky script about – gulp! – an amusement park peopled with killer clowns). And there’s only one of me, and only so much time in the day, so you can’t do everything all the time.” The good news is Zombie will appear at Riot Fest on Sunday, September 18 performing his classic album Astro-Creep: 2000.

And the man isn’t big on delegating. Someone else could orchestrate his Nightmare, he sighs. “You can pawn the project off onto other people, but then you really don’t have any control over the quality.” So – be it the movies he makes, the graphic novels he draws, the Alice Cooper-inspired Goth-metal music he’s been making since he first formed the band White Zombie in the mid-‘80s (before going solo with Hellbilly Deluxe in ’98), or even the acrylic paintings he does, simply for his own amusement – there’s only one modus operandi that he follows: “If my name’s on it? People will know that I am part of it, 24/7.” Not bad, as artistic credos go. But happily, he has scares enough to go around this trick-or-treat season.

In some ways, it’s like Zombie – born in Massachusetts as Robert Bartleh Cummings – has got a grim-achievement bucket list he’s checking off, year by year. Personal theme park? Check. His own pinball machine, Spookshow International, featuring ten of his songs, plus the voice of one of his regular stars, veteran film actor Sid Haig? Check. Voiceover roles in box office smashes like Guardians of the Galaxy, in which he played Ravager Navigator? Check. But he casually dismisses them all as part and parcel of pursuing his craft. He’s known Guardians director James Gunn for years, he explains, and he voiced characters in his earlier flicks Slither and Super. So the Ravager offer, he says, “Was one I never even thought about – it was all part of our ongoing relationship.”

Don’t get him wrong, Zombie cautions. “I don’t ever look at it like a bucket list. These things are all great, and I love having a pinball machine. When I was a kid, KISS had a pinball machine, Elton John had a pinball machine, even Ted Nugent. So having a pinball machine? You always just associated it with rock stars. So I always wanted to do that, and the opportunity arose, so I went for it. And it’s great – it’s a really high-quality machine.” Does this Renaissance man ever get so involved in I diverse undertakings that he has to stop and remind himself that he makes music, too? He laughs. “Not really,” he says. “I made the new record before I made 31. So I always plan it out, so I can fit everything in. And it’s not easy, you know? The days go by quick, and there’s only so much time. And movies are very time-consuming. Once one starts, that really is a time suck.”

Zombie insists that there’s no central theme to Electric Warlock, his sixth set overall. Even though there’s a certain Roger Corman/B-film aesthetic running through self-explanatory anthems like “In the Bone Pile,” “Well, Everybody’s Fucking in a U.F.O.,” “The Hideous Exhibitions of a Teenage Gore Whore,” and “In the Age of the Consecrated Vampire We All Get High.” Not to mention the elaborately-dubbed sonic snippets “The Last of the Demons Defeated” “Super-Doom-Hex-Gloom, Pt. 1,” and “A Hearse overturns With the Coffin Bursting Open.” Ever since he was a kid, the singer loved horror films, and it makes perfect sense that – after attending the Parsons School of Design – he wound up working as a production assistant on one of the most surreal TV shows ever, Pee-Wee Herman’s neo-psychedelic Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, before heading down a different path with White Zombie. As he began directing its videos, he incorporated some of his favorite movies into the work, like the German Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Stanley Kubrick’s still-stunning A Clockwork Orange.

The guy can’t help it – he just thinks visually. No matter what he’s tinkering with. When writing a song, for instance, he hears the music in his head first, then begins conjuring up characters and a storyline that complement said tones. “And these stories come alive, as if they’re mini-movies, wanting to be constructed,” he explains. “And once I get inside them, I can create a soundscape for these non-existent movies, eventually. Or that’s the way I’ve always pictured a song, from the start of the first riff to the moment I play it onstage. The music always comes first.”

Still puzzled by his process? Look at it like this, Zombie adds, helpfully. “If I played you a piece of score from a film – without you even knowing what the film was – you would immediately start picturing something. That’s how movies work – the score is being created simultaneously. So for me, the sound of the guitar, the drums, or the groove of the music I hear in my head gets my mind focused, and I go – in my head – ‘This is what it sounds like to me.’ Then I hear the words appear beside the music, and that’s how it starts to come together for me. I’ve just always worked that way.”

But punching the clock as a film director, then, is Zombie’s vision, unfettered. Minus all reins but studio budget constraints. Which, he sadly admits, have been tightening of late. The face of horror cinema is changing, and not for the better. When he made The Devil’s Rejects – the ’05 follow-up to his hit ’03 directorial debut, House of 1,000 Corpses, about a group of bumbling teenagers who cross paths with a Texas Chainsaw Massacre styled psycho clan – his allotted budget was $7 million. “And at the time, that seemed like a low-budget movie,” he says, somberly. “But now, if I went to make The Devil’s Rejects, they’d give me $1 million. And I couldn’t cast all those people. I couldn’t have all those sets, those locations. It would all have to take place in one house, with a small group of unknown actors, because names like Meg Foster and Karen Black, they get paid a certain amount of money. And I like filling my movies with actors that I’ve enjoyed watching or working with over the years – that’s the thrill of it all for me.”

What killed the horror genre? Easy, Zombie replies – the cheap found-footage phenomenon, ushered in by The Blair Witch Project and clubbed to death by its legion of unoriginal imitators. “So the problem that I have now making films is that you could make those found-footage movies so cheaply, with unknown actors, for about $300,000. But you can’t make another type of movie that has name actors, big sets, special effects, and make it for the same price. It can’t be done. So that’s what hurt everything – the dynamics have really changed, and the math has changed so much that you can’t afford to do it anymore.” To finish 31, Zombie was forced to crowd-fund his entire post-production costs. “Because that’s usually where you run out of money – in editing and effects and music,” he says. “But to make the film that I envisioned, I had to go other places to get more money, because you couldn’t really crowd-fund a decent enough budget to make a quality film.”

For 31, the director admits that he called in a few favors. And the stars respected him so much, they instantly agreed. “I’ve worked with Malcolm McDowell many times – we made Halloween and Halloween 2 together,” he says. “He’s a great guy, and he really helped me out of a bind on this one, because for the role he plays, I needed somebody really iconic. It’s not a big role, but when that character appears, it needs to be very memorable. And Malcolm came in at the last minute and did it for me, and it turned out great.” Ditto for the spooky-eyed Meg Foster, he adds. “This is the second time she and I have worked together, and she’s super cool, and super nice – it’s always great working with her.”

Without giving too much of the plot away, yes, Zombie says, he was tapping into many people’s lifelong fear of grease-painted clowns. “But not really,” he argues. “The idea started that way, but it didn’t really finish that way. As the production progressed, there was a pretty wild amount of variations on the clowns – some don’t even look like clowns at all. Because I thought if it was just clown after clown, that becomes monotonous. So I messed with that template a bit.” 31 has already screened at a couple of film festivals, and audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive. “I think it’s the best film that I’ve done, and I feel like it’s one made right for the fans – this is the one they’ve been waiting for,” he states, unequivocally.

The Eli Roth school of torture porn has gradually played itself out, as has Japanese and Korean Ring type tropes of backwards-walking purple children’s cadavers skittering down the stairs. Just not frightening any more. Instead, there’s a more thoughtful – albeit ‘70s retro – spinoff, led by less blood-spattery directors like Ti West, whose moody masterpieces like The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and Sacrament hint at hidden chills without bludgeoning you with them.

Ditto for Robert Eggers’ recent creepy indie The Witch, which found its subtle menace in historical Salem-era mindsets. “Horror is always changing – it’s almost like as soon as somebody creates a label for it, it’s over,” says the auteur, who has purchased the rights to Broad Street Bullies, about the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, and will next get behind the film camera for Raised Eyebrows, about the life of legendary comedian Groucho Marx. Knock wood.

A few years ago, Zombie was scheduled to helm an extravaganza called Tyrannosaurus Rex. It never materialized. “That’s the nature of the business, and it happens with every single director,” he swears. “You just don’t know. You start, something falls through, things change, you just don’t know. I never consider any project happening until I’m actually on set, making the movie. It doesn’t matter what’s been going on, who’s promoting it or whatever – until you’re actually there, working, it always has the potential to fall apart. It doesn’t matter who you are. Big, big directors – people I know – they’ve had huge movies, and they’ve prepped them for a year, two years, and then? Nothing happens. It’s just a screwy business. Like, right now, Raised Eyebrows should be the next movie – we’ve got the script, we have the financing, we have our start date. But even now, something can happen. Things just change so quickly. But until I’m making it, I don’t know for sure that that’s the next one.”

The process Zombie found that he really enjoys is editing. He doesn’t disappear into the dank confines of some impersonal studio to streamline his visions – he does it at home, like other current directors like Robert Rodriguez, of Sin City renown. “And it takes forever, but it’s fun – no complaints,” he says. “These last three movies I’ve edited at home, and that’s really the best way to do it.” Has he ever seen something otherworldly? Run into something his logic could not easily account for, or explain away. He pauses for a minute. “Nooo…” he proffers, tentatively at first, then tacks on a more definitive, “No. Everything appears to be as it appears to be. No ghosts. Nothing supernatural. Even Donald Trump is exactly as he appears.”

One final hypothetical question for this whirling dervish of creative energy, then. If he actually did manage to secure some time off, where would he go? What would he do in such leisure hours? “Well, it doesn’t happen very often,” he cedes. “But I like being home in my time off, because I get to do something that I wouldn’t normally be doing, because I love to paint. And being a painter, you know, involves no one but me, whereas everything else I do involves a lot of people. Touring involves a lot of people, making movies involves way more people, even making a record involves a small group of people. Painting is just me. Alone. Painting. And that’s really the greatest retreat.”

– Tom Lanham

Appearing 9/18 at Riot Fest, Douglas Park, Chicago

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