Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Rob Zombie: Heavy metal musician, film buff ... and superbeast?

Rob Zombie is not the devil. At Revolver magazine’s April Golden Gods Awards in Los Angeles, his stage presence was that of a long-haired, bushy-bearded heavy metal headbanger in an inverted pentagram goat’s head tee, but the man speaking now is a calm, soft-spoken optimist and vegetarian.  Although he’s a musician who has added director, illustrator and comic book creator to his resume over the years, he’s more likely to be rejected by the devil than to become a Superbeast. Still, Rob Zombie is a hell of an entertainer.

It’s an exercise of multimedia calisthenics to speak with Zombie about work. Aside from his Halloween franchise reboot and its sequel, or the animated “adult/monster/sex comedy” The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, Zombie is involved in no less than five projects he can talk about. When he picks up the phone in late March, he’s prepping for his “Gruesome Twosome” tour with another theatrical hard rocker Alice Cooper that ran for almost two weeks at the end of April, after which he’ll tour with the Mayhem Festival until August. His February album, Hellbilly Deluxe 2 – the sequel to his 1998 solo album – is still a hot topic, as is the March episode of CSI: Miami he directed and a new comic book, Whatever Happened to Baron Von Shock.

But before he was Rob Zombie, multi-tasking Renaissance man, he was Rob Cummings until he legally changed his name in 1996. Cummings relocated from Haverhill, MA, to New York City in the early ’80s and, in 1985, formed the industrial rock band White Zombie – named after the 1932 Bela Lugosi flick and heavily influenced in sound and lyrics by supernatural and slasher flicks. Shortly after leading the gritty troupe to success in ’92 with La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol. 1 and Astro-Creep: 2000 in ’95, he issued a solo album and broke up the band in 1998. Driven by the visceral sounds of “Dragula” and “Living Dead Girl,” the first Deluxe was a hit and followed up with three more studio albums and a live album before returning to hellbilly country. In between, Zombie was ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence, and wrote and directed two cult flicks, House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, and two Halloween installments.

Through it all, the 45-year-old Zombie says he remains unaware of what the popular perception of him is (“I don’t know what the hell people think about me”) but says he’s always just been about fulfilling his two passions of music and movies, which he says he love equally.

“Working in film, I’m behind the scenes so I love that. You’re just creating this entire world from scratch, but performing is totally different.”  

“It’s sort of the two sides of my personality. One side that’s got to be big and loud and gigantic where you feel you need to explode all over this arena, and the other where I literally just want to be locked away for eight months in a tiny room with an editor.”

“Basically after doing one, I always need to do the other,” he says.
The sides of Zombie’s personality were evident long before his first foray into directing feature films in 2003, and his music has always contained homages to the silver screen. For example, Hellbilly Deluxe 2 has two werewolf songs, one reference to “Frankenstein,” and borrows movie names for songs like “Mars Needs Women,” “Virgin Witch” and “The Man Who Laughs.” The reason is “every song for me is almost like a movie that doesn’t exist.”

“Sometimes I’m writing about movies that do exist, but even when I’m not, it’s the direction my brain goes. I see all the visual elements in the music as I write it.”
For a kid split between two passions, his start in music was natural simply because it was more attainable in a time before Final Cut Pro and YouTube.

“As a kid, I had a Super 8 camera and would make movies, but making movies in the backyard seemed like a far cry from going to Hollywood and making movies.” He adds, “Obviously, music is an easier thing to do because you can always gather a group of people, your friends and start a band.” 

Admittedly, starting a band was a pretty solid choice for Zombie, and his musical success has led to him being able to work with heroes such as Ozzy Osbourne, KISS and Alice Cooper. 

Though a longtime friend of Cooper’s who first worked with the ’70s shock rocker in 1996 on Songs in the Key of X, a CD connected to The X-Files TV show, this is the first time Zombie is going on tour with “the coolest guy ever” from his childhood record covers.

“You get numb to it because people are your friends and you just deal with them on that level,” says Zombie. “You get used to ‘It’s Alice, he’s 60 years-old, he’s your friend,’ but then you watch the footage from when was younger and you go, ‘holy shit, that’s all him too.’ You’re kind of mindblown.”

Those “mindblown” moments fills him with a sense of contentment about his entire career, and contributes to him remaining passionate about his work and staying excited about each new tour.

“You get that feeling like the circle is complete. You’re a little kid listening to this music you love, and now jump ahead 30 years later and there you are, on tour, with that same guy doing the same thing. It’s such the concrete version of your dreamworld come to life.”

At this point in his career, Zombie might be justified being numb to the opportunities that come his way, but says he still finds it amazing to be able to play within the worlds he grew up in.

“Most of the time I don’t stop and think about it because it actually fucks with your mind,” he laughs. “I grew up with John Carpenter’s Halloween just like everyone else. I loved it as a kid. To be able to basically be given the reigns to the Halloween franchise and be able to do whatever you want, it’s pretty wild.”

The results of Zombie’s romp in Halloween town were debatable. Both were critically panned but commercial successes, even thought the first installment far outperformed its sequel. But while his time with Michael Myers showed off some of Zombie’s cinematic aspirations, it’s in 1000 Corpses and Rejects where Zombie-as-auteur can be discovered. Gory, sadistic and worthy of the grindhouse flicks he loves, the final five minutes in The Devil’s Rejects – the Firefly Family vs. police showdown set against Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” – is an amazing scene, regardless of genre. 

His unique vision continues to land Zombie work as a director, whether for CSI: Miami, a gig he took mainly for his mom, a big fan of the show – or as the helmer of the remake of 1958’s The Blob. While attached to another remake, he says he doesn’t know what he’ll be filming next. 

“It could be The Blob or it could be a couple other things I’m working on,” he says. “It could be something I haven’t even thought of yet … every movie I’ve done, I didn’t think that was actually the next thing I was doing.”

He adds, “When I did Halloween, I wasn’t thinking about Halloween on any level.”

“I was kind of working on something else. Then I had this meeting and they were like, ‘We’re ready to go now, we’ve got the money, let’s do it.’ So who knows?”

When it comes to the conversation about remakes and sacrosanct movies, Zombie admits he used to be a purist before coming to the conclusion all movies are fair game. 

“If no one ever remade Nosferatu, we wouldn’t have Dracula, and if Hammer [Film Productions] hadn’t remade the Universal films, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing wouldn’t have ever been in those movies … When Scorsese remade Cape Fear, I liked that movie, but love the original.”

Zombie even allows for a remake of his favorite, A Clockwork Orange. But he adds that, “no matter how great the remake is, it can’t take the place of the original. The original has history in your life with you; that’s why people get so upset.”

As for other media, Zombie is excited to be involved in another comic book. Following his “over-the-top monster-fest” El Superbeasto - an Image Comics title before it was a movie - he wanted to write a “slice-of-life” story about a protagonist “trying to regain his messed up life.” The result is Image’s May 26 release, Whatever Happened to Baron Von Shock. Perhaps not surprisingly, considering Zombie’s typical subject matter, the main character is a washed-up host of old late-night horror movie fright fests.

Yet with all the connections between Rob Zombie, a man whose career, visual style and public persona are so influenced by creepshows and the paranormal - and who adopted the name of the walking dead – it’s interesting to learn he’s resigned himself to being a nonbeliever about the supernatural. But he sounds somewhat disappointed about it.

 “When I was a kid in the ’70s watching In Search Of …  with Leonard Nimoy, I sure wanted to believe that there was a Loch Ness monster, a bigfoot, yeti, and everything else.” He adds, with an almost disheartened tone, that “my logical mind tells me, ‘No, I don’t believe in any of that stuff.’”

Zombie’s conclusion that he doesn’t believe in ghosts or monsters – which he calls unfortunate - and his desire to not look like a jerk, prevents him from accepting offers to appear on paranormal shows.

“I would just be walking around going, ‘Why are we walking around in the dark with infrared cameras? This is stupid.’ I don’t want to go on there and be like the grudge. I get offered those types of things all the time but don’t do them for that reason - because I don’t want to go on and be laughing about it all.”

Still, he says he’s always up for a cool paranormal flick and “would like to see a good, serious alien invasion movie,” which are often too goofy.

Superbeasts, werewolves and living dead girls aside, Zombie is a pragmatic professional easily inching into middle age. 

“I like to always feel like – even though at some point in your life it’s not going to be true – that the best is yet to come and to approach it that way. I feel at this point it’s still happening.”

What’s more, Rob Zombie’s aware of his heretofore accomplishments and plans on creating as long as he has forward momentum.

“Once you feel you’re going backwards, and it’s not as good as it once was - you may not get out at that point because sometimes that dimension returns - because people get old and that’s just life. But for the most part, it’s nice to feel you can go out there and probably do better than you’ve ever done before. That’s what inspires me.”