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More Horror Than Horror

Rock star-writer-director Rob Zombie isn’t only a maestro of terror — soon, he’ll begin work on a biopic of Groucho Marx that could redefine his career. But first, he has a murderous-clowns saga to finish.

Too much comfort makes Rob Zombie uncomfortable. It’s three hours before a gig in early June at a dingy rock club in Milwaukee, and the perpetually busy multi-hyphenate — writer, director, rocker, pop culture philosopher — is attempting to lounge backstage on a futon. Except it’s stocked with so many pillows that he keeps sliding off.

Finally, Zombie — who turned 50 this year but whose sinewy frame and Ghoul Power T-shirt1 make him look 10 years younger — surrenders and crouches in front of the futon. Watching Rob Zombie fight off pillows is like witnessing an extremely low-stakes version of The Blob, the 1958 horror classic that Zombie wanted to remake in the late ’00s.

Zombie has a personal credo: Don’t complain. If something doesn’t work, either work around it or drop it and move on. There’s always a better alternative than dwelling on temporary misfortune. This attitude has come in handy countless times during Zombie’s life and career, which was forged at the intersection of New York City’s punk and metal scenes in the ’80s. After that, Zombie thrived in the ’90s as the era’s preeminent self-aware arena-rock showman, and then in the ’00s when he pivoted to directing some of the century’s most indelibly gonzo horror films.

After a half-century on this planet, Zombie has established the sort of life he always wanted when he was an art-minded misfit growing up in northern Massachusetts. But he could’ve hardly planned for the way it happened.

For two years, Zombie tried to make Broad Street Bullies, a movie about the two-fisted goons who played for the Philadelphia Flyers in the ’70s. It was to be Zombie’s first non-horror movie, coming after a decade as one of the genre’s most singular and uncompromising auteurs. Zombie spent a lot of time researching the project; the problem was securing the money to make it. He began to wonder whether he would spend another 10 years working on Broad Street Bullies with nothing to show for it. So, he decided to change course.

Zombie says it took him about one second to come up with an idea for a new movie. It was another horror flick: “Five people get kidnapped randomly on Halloween night and they’re taken to a remote location and forced to survive against these murderous clowns,” Zombie explains. “It was literally something I just said off the top of my head, trying to think of the simplest idea I could think of. And [my manager] was like, ‘Yeah, that’s great. Let’s do it.’”

That tossed-off idea became 31, Zombie’s seventh picture, which he filmed earlier this year and is presently editing. Zombie took a break from 31 to play some concert dates in June — he’s also working on a new album, which will be out in 2016 — but the movie was still dominating his thoughts.

For the first time, Zombie opted to go the crowd-funding route to finance his “innocents tortured by homicidal clowns” opus. Initially, Zombie was put off by the idea. “I didn’t want it to look like you’re just begging people for money,” he says. “It seems kind of pathetic.”

But he’s come around — when 31 needed more money for postproduction after shooting wrapped in April, Zombie once again successfully solicited funds from fans.

Sheri Moon Zombie in 'The Lords of Salem.'

Blumhouse Sheri Moon Zombie in ‘The Lords of Salem.’

Zombie has described 31 as his “most brutal” film, a bold statement coming after the physical and spiritual savagery of 2003’s House of 1000 Corpses, 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects, and 2013’s The Lords of Salem. As a nerdy, introverted child raised by carnival workers — which might explain the preoccupation with demonic clowns — Zombie wanted to be like Steven Spielberg when he grew up. But in a crowded field of would-be Spielbergs like James Gunn and Colin Trevorrow, Zombie now stands apart as a tougher, meaner, and less family-friendly outlier in modern genre filmmaking, a callback to directors like Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, and Brian De Palma.

“Rob is the kind of guy that makes his vision clear to you,” says Sid Haig, the 76-year-old exploitation movie veteran who has appeared in five of Zombie’s movies. “He just tells you what he wants and then he gets out of the way and lets you do your job, which is the way most directors should work.”

Much of the hand-wringing about Hollywood’s single-minded devotion to big-tent, broad-appeal franchises concerns the supposed lack of movies for grown-ups. But the predominance of “one size fits all” filmmaking also hurts people like Zombie, who makes movies for the twisted, alienated teenagers that lurk inside seemingly well-adjusted adults.

Zombie’s work isn’t for everybody, nor is it meant to be, but there was a time when he could be classified as a mainstream director. Zombie’s best film, The Devil’s Rejects, opened 10 years ago this month on more than 1,700 screens — which means a movie with no likable characters and multiple scenes of murder, torture, and psychological mayhem was accessible in most communities across the country on opening weekend, just as CGI dinosaurs and bib-donning yellow blobs are in 2015.

Zombie subsequently was handed his own franchise, with 2007’s Halloween reimagining pulling in $80 million worldwide, and 2009’s Halloween II doing about half of that.2 They weren’t exactly home runs commercially, but given their modest budgets, the Halloween movies were moneymakers. But larger industry forces nonetheless conspired to marginalize Zombie and his bruising, polarizing work.

Zombie’s The Lords of Salem is his most purely frightening film, a witchy riff on Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick that replaces the rawness of The Devil’s Rejects with a new disquieting elegance. The Lords of Salem wound up grossing just more than $1.1 million during a brief theatrical run that opened on 354 screens, or about one-fifth the number of screens that showed the far more violent The Devil’s Rejects.

Even in the niche-y world of horror, Zombie is a renegade. Instead of stocking his films with lithe, photogenic millennials, Zombie prefers his repertory company of ’70s-era character actors like Haig and Ken Foree. While Zombie did take part in the remake craze that has seized the genre in the past several years, his Halloween films empathize with the killer, Michael Myers, fleshing out a backstory to which Carpenter’s original film only faintly alludes. In Zombie’s movies, the gore is never dispensed gleefully, but rather with blunt force.

“I didn’t grow up thinking movies were there to be forgettable entertainment that were supposed to please me,” Zombie says. “A lot of people think, Oh, when I go to the movies I don’t want to have to think. I never thought that. The movies that I loved as a kid were things like Taxi Driver or Bonnie and Clyde or Dirty Harry — they didn’t seem like they were there to please the audience. They confronted you with heroes that were completely unlikable and endings that were sort of vague. That’s the way I thought movies were.”

Zombie's 2007 reimagining of 'Halloween.'

Dimension Zombie’s 2007 reimagining of ‘Halloween.’

During our conversation in Milwaukee, Zombie alluded to an upcoming project he couldn’t talk about. All he said was that it wasn’t a horror film, and that it would “break the perception” of who he was as a director.

The news broke one week later: Zombie is attached to direct an adaptation of Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House, Steve Stoliar’s memoir about working for Groucho Marx during his final years in the ’70s. Screenwriter Oren Moverman — whose previous credits include Todd Haynes’s kaleidoscopic Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There and the recent Brian Wilson movie Love & Mercy — is working on the script, which Zombie expects by Labor Day. Assuming the script is satisfactory, Zombie plans to move forward with Raised Eyebrows once he wraps on 31.

A movie about a comedy legend in decline brings to mind antecedents like Sunset Blvd. and Ed Wood, not the grindhouse fare with which Zombie is associated. To the contrary, Raised Eyebrows has the makings of a prestige film. In the right hands, it might even be Oscar bait.

When Zombie phoned last week for a follow-up chat about Raised Eyebrows, he said he has a “very serious” vision for the film that would eschew the conventional biopic structure.

“It’s not really a biopic,” he said. “I wouldn’t want a young actor to play a young Groucho, because I think it would just be lame.”

Zombie, a Marx fanatic since childhood, raved about Raised Eyebrows in an interview several years ago, which caught Stoliar’s attention and got the project rolling. Zombie got hooked on the Marx Brothers around the time he discovered Kiss and Wes Craven.

“Groucho and the Marx Brothers, they had a really big renaissance in the ’70s,” he said. “The movies were always on TV, so I’d always watch the movies. And You Bet Your Life was always on television. Now TV’s so fragmented that people really only watch what they want to watch. But when there was like only a couple channels, you just watched what was on TV.”

This immersion in Groucho filtered into Zombie’s early movies — the killers in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects are named after Marx Brothers movie characters such as Captain Spaulding and Otis B. Driftwood. The wittiest scene in The Devil’s Rejects concerns the vengeful Sheriff Wydell seeking the counsel of a Gene Shalit–like film critic who dispenses trivia about Marx’s starring role in Otto Preminger’s Skidoo and mourns that Marx’s death in 1977 was overshadowed by Elvis Presley’s death three days prior.

In spite of the Groucho-size Easter eggs in Zombie’s previous work, the reaction to the Raised Eyebrows announcement was bemused consternation. Eventually, Stoliar felt compelled to defend Zombie’s involvement via an op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter.

“As is often the case in Hollywood and elsewhere, an artist is being judged by what he has done,” Stoliar wrote, “rather than what he is capable of doing.”

Back in Milwaukee, Zombie almost broke his “no complaints” rule when talking about the “ghetto” of working in metal and horror. When record companies actually sold records, mega-selling metal and hard rock groups like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses were the backbone of the industry. But the bands that record labels spent time promoting were “safer and alternative,” Zombie says. Similarly, when Zombie made House of 1000 Corpses at Universal, he was disappointed by how the studio’s rich history of horror films — dating back to Frankenstein and Dracula — wasn’t represented by the posters dotting the studio offices.

“Metal and horror gets treated just slightly better than porn,” Zombie says. “I don’t want to name names because I don’t have anything against anybody. But someone will make a certain type of movie, and they clearly have a wide scope of what they can do. And then someone makes some tiny little indie movie that showed nothing, [and] that guy’s going to direct the next James Bond movie? People just don’t understand [that] directing is directing.”

Zombie in 2015.

Rob Fenn Zombie in 2015.

Born Robert Cummings in 1965 — he legally changed his surname 31 years later — Rob Zombie grew up ignoring the separation between high and low culture. As a young cinephile, Zombie loved Kubrick and silent films as much as he adored horror. His musical interests were similarly omnivorous — he got into punk after buying a Blondie tape at Kmart, which led to the Ramones and Dead Kennedys. But unlike many punks, Zombie never felt the need to abandon the arena-rock bands he was raised on.

“I didn’t really get the division,” he says. “You know, I loved the Bad Brains, but I loved Van Halen, too.”

This aesthetic — gritty, street-level appreciation for old-school rock-and-roll theatrics — carried over to White Zombie, the scuzz-rock outfit that Zombie formed in 1985 and polished over the next decade into a platinum-selling MTV staple. The success of White Zombie — as well as Zombie’s thriving solo career, which launched after the band’s breakup in 1998 — gained Zombie entrée into filmmaking. Directing music videos was Zombie’s film school. He made so many videos that he yearned to make an actual film.

Zombie’s fame and bankability as a musician opened doors at Universal, where he “sort of half-ass pitched this idea” for House of 1000 Corpses, drawing from his deep knowledge of ’70s films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes to brainstorm an homage about a psychotic family that terrorizes a group of road-tripping twentysomethings. The studio signed off on a small budget, and Zombie was suddenly making his first feature on Universal’s back lot.

“I quickly found out the theme park is more important than any production going on there. We would have to stop if the trams were going by,” Zombie says. “And [the set] was very close to the Jaws ride, so you could hear the Jaws ride at times when we were shooting.”

Zombie admits that Corpses didn’t turn out like he hoped it would. His intent was to make a movie as disturbing as the B-movies he grew up on. While Corpses shows flashes of promise — the excruciating “I’ll Remember You” sequence foreshadows the leap Zombie made with The Devil’s Rejects — too much of the movie relies on kitschy imagery more appropriate for a Rob Zombie music video than an intense horror film.

Given what came later in Zombie’s filmography, Corpses now seems “kind of goofy,” Zombie says.3 But it’s still the most controversial movie he’s ever made. Completed in 2000, Corpses didn’t come out until 2003, after Universal and then MGM refused to put it out. In order to buy it back from Universal, a “very family-friendly-ish studio at that moment,” Zombie convinced the studio that Corpses was “a worthless piece of shit” so it would lower the price. Universal obliged, and Zombie sold it to Lionsgate.

“When that came out, everyone fucking hated it. Everyone hated it,” Zombie says. “If there was a review that was better than F-minus, I never saw it. And now everyone’s like, Why don’t you make classic films like that one? It’s crazy. There seems to be definitely a waiting period where as soon as it’s 10 years old, it’s suddenly awesome, no matter what the fuck it is.”

Critics were kinder to The Devil’s Rejects, a sort of sequel that Lionsgate green-lit after Corpses became a hit on DVD. Roger Ebert called Rejects “a gaudy vomitorium of a movie” and meant it as praise. Zombie himself felt more assured in his craft on Rejects — his bravado extended to boldly scoring the film’s climax to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” which reads as cliché on paper but in the context of the film pushes Rejects to the extreme of orgiastic, Peckinpah-style psychosis.

Sid Haig in 'The Devil's Rejects.'

Lionsgate Sid Haig in ‘The Devil’s Rejects.’

“He just had a better grasp of where he was going and how to get what it was that he wanted,” says Haig, who played the gregarious Captain Spaulding in both films. “It was a big transition, and I think everybody was unnerved about how it was going to work in Rejects. I think after the first day I knew — I saw that he’d come a long way. In working [on] Corpses, he just learned a lot, and it translated to Rejects.”

“Some people can fucking hit a home run on their first time at bat making a movie,” Zombie says. “But I couldn’t.”

What’s amazing about Rejects in retrospect is how much Zombie was able to get away with. The film’s centerpiece is an extended sequence set in a roadside hotel where traveling country band Banjo & Sullivan4 is held hostage by the Rejects, played by Bill Moseley and Sheri Moon Zombie, Rob’s wife and frequent leading lady. The dread that Zombie creates as the victims are violated in various ways is unbearable. Like Taxi Driver, a frequent reference point for Zombie when talking about his own work, The Devil’s Rejects probably wouldn’t get made today.

Zombie insisted on keeping tensions high on the set as well.

“It was super hot in that room, it was super claustrophobic, you’re in there for hours and hours and hours and [the actors] stay in a certain mind-set,” Zombie says. “The more real it is to them the better they are. And it starts fucking with them, you know? If you’re making an incredibly depressing movie for six weeks, I’m sure you’re not in the best of moods.”

The actor having the hardest time was Moseley, who plays Otis, the most demented Reject — he’s the one who forces Priscilla Barnes to strip at gunpoint not long before murdering her husband.

“I said to him, ‘Art is not safe, Bill.’ We’re not here because it’s supposed to be fun,” Zombie says. “We’re in here to make something great.”

For William Forsythe, whose unhinged performance as Sheriff Wydell gives The Devil’s Rejects much of its emotional resonance, the toll of making the film was ultimately worth it.

“Rob reminded me of the older, classic filmmakers that I had the privilege to work with, the kind they just don’t make anymore,” says Forsythe, who reteamed with Zombie on his next film, Halloween. “Was the film hard to make? Of course. Any one worth a damn always is. But it is that kind of hard work that makes it truly gratifying. The feeling you want to feel is that you would march into hell to get it right. In this case that is exactly what happened.”

It was time for Zombie to break out of his crouch — his preshow dinner had arrived. Upstairs, about 100 fans were waiting for a meet-and-greet. After talking with Zombie for an hour about his movies, I had almost forgotten about his other job. For Zombie, performing for a couple thousand metalheads is a nice change of pace.

“You know, doing records, you do it in a vacuum. Doing movies, you’re really doing it in a vacuum — you just don’t have interaction with people,” he says. “But [on the road], I have constant interaction all the time, so it’s good.”

Onstage that night, Zombie mentioned his bass player’s recent concussion, which occurred during an onstage mishap at the previous night’s show in Chicago.

“If he’s here to party, ARE YOU HERE TO MOTHERFUCKING PARTY?” Zombie asked. As always in Zombie’s world, there was no time for complaints — only new possibilities. 

Filed Under: Movies, rob zombie, The Devil's Rejects, The Lords of Salem, The House of 1000 Corpses, Music, metal, rock, Halloween, Groucho Marx, 31, Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House, Steve Stoliar

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden