American Nightmares: An Interview with Rob Zombie
In a perfect film world, Rob Zombie's long-delayed, controversial House of 1000 Corpses would premiere at a Van Nuys drive-in with a crowded lot and the smell of electric popcorn and other exotic aromas in the air. Nobody would be on their cell phone and it wouldn't matter at a drive-in anyway. There would be a half-dozen cool trailers for exploitation movies you actually wanted to see. Even though most canny horror film producers of 50's, 60', and 70's "B-Movies" had dubious esthetic intentions, they often delivered the goods, and for every Doctor Gore , Bloodthirsty Butchers , or Night of the Lepus, there was a groundbreaking Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
Arguably the most intense American horror film of all time (and unarguably the greatest title in exploitation movie history), Tobe Hooper's TTCM still packs a wallop today, an almost literal celluloid nightmare with less blood and gore than Jaws. The notoriety over TTCM was immediate upon release, and as a child, I recall watching Violence in America, a 3 hour NBC documentary featuring my first view of TTCM - which I never forgot. Now part of the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection, Tobe Hooper's seminal work is recognized as a genuine classic by global cineastes. Danny Peary points out in his great book series "Cult Movies" that he believes TTCM is "too real for its own good." Of course, that's the secret of its success.
Which brings us full circle to Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses.
Although Zombie is primarily associated with his hard-edge music, he has coveted horror film iconography to his persona as successfully as Alice Cooper did in the 1970's. Zombie's song titles and album art reflect a passion for a more innocent and sexy horror era, amalgamating "Famous Monsters of Film Land" to Tura Satana to Ghoulardi to Bride of Frankenstein. Since his influences are so cinematic, it makes perfect sense he would get around to making his own horror movie.
Yet the harsh reality of that process can be enlightening and frustrating. Rob Zombie found himself in a minor cultural and political maelstrom over his low-budget film intended as an obvious hommage to the 42nd street and drive-in horror fare of the 1970's, but with a sincere, contemporary style and approach. After Universal screened a cut of the film they balked that the film's tone was "too nihilistic." The irony is Universal released Hannibal at the same time, a big-budget exploitation movie with steaming intestines , cannibalism and pigs eating a man's face - a menu not far from Dawn of the Dead. Actually, Zombie's fun, witty and disturbing screenplay stays true to its roots, which means the climax is merciless. It's a scary film leavened with oddball humor and a few brilliant moments. Like its bastard father TTCM, the gore in HO1C is implied more than seen, but impacts because of Zombie's faithfullness to the genre.
In the days after Columbine and 9/11, America paused and briefly examined its unique and confused culture. Few agreeable answers were found, yet leaders who own stock in munitions still lecture on the pop-cultural causes of violence. This places governmental pressure on the studios, who in turn dump potentially controversial projects. This is not conspiracy theory - it's the reason Universal declined to release House of 1000 Corpses. Ultimately, this form of economic censorship further dilutes and homogenizes the celluloid gene pool. Even Michael Bay's unneeded remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre looks to feature more dispensable belly-shirted Gap teens.
Nonetheless, Rob Zombie is enthusiastic and has no regrets. During our talk, he was sincere about the difficulty of making and releasing a film. But he was also genuinely thrilled that he had the chance, and that Lion's Gate anxiously picked up the film for wide release. More importantly, he is a true film buff and he gets the genre. This spirit infects House of 1000 Corpses, and as Zombie notes, the script is aimed to experience, not contemplate, just like the thrill ride that preceded its creation. And like the vanished "bronze" age of horror exploitation films, from the late 60's to the early 80's, where you could take in Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things and Eaten Alive on the same bill, House of 1000 Corpses has one goal: to take the eager, nervous viewer on a fun and scary movie trip. The film admirably succeeds.
CD: What was your first exposure to horror films?
RZ: I was so interested in horror movies when I was young I really don't remember. I remember that late 60's horror boom, and I was about four, the perfect age. Horror was everywhere. There was The Munsters, Addams Family, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Creature Features, magazines like Creepy, Eerie, Famous Monsters...
CD: And you collected all of the magazines, models, toys, etc.?
RZ: Oh yeah. Everything. Totally into it.
CD: Did your parents ever give you any grief or fear that it was "bad" for you?
RZ: Nah, my parents never took that approach that it would be bad for me.
CD: Was there a stigma to being into the genre as a child?
RZ: Maybe some kids might have got grief for it, or thought it was rebellous, but I was just totally into it.
CD: Did you always want to eventually make a horror film then?
RZ: I loved movies and knew I wanted to be a part of them. It wasn't just horror movies, that was the main thing, but I just loved movies. It's different now, but growing up there was just TV, no cable, no satellite, no VCRS, nothing. I would get the TV guide, 13 channels, and circle every movie I wanted to see and watch them all during the week.
CD: Me too. I'd wait all week until Friday at midnight to watch Godzilla vs the Smog Monster because you knew that was the only time it would be on.
RZ: Yeah, you'd literally go, "I'll watch Planet of the Apes at eight, at ten, The Great Escape, then at one, A Night at the Opera." If you missed Planet of the Apes you might not see it for two more years, so you would have to see it now .
CD: Did you make the archetypal Super-8 backyard films?
RZ: Not really, until high school. At the time it seemed so expensive, who could afford a camera and film? Drawing comics was like the lo-fi way of making movies. Comics are like storyboards anyway. Now you can buy a camcorder and you're off.
CD: Did you envision a career in filmmaking?
RZ: That's what I always wanted to do, I just took a weird path. I always try to keep everything brewing, so while I was doing music, I directed all the videos, dating back to the first White Zombie video. That's what I was always working towards. Things takes time. Several projects, like doing the Crow sequel, just didn't work out. Just like getting my band signed to a major label the first time didn't work out.
CD: Were you writing this time, or working on stories?
RZ: I had a lot of outlines for several different things.
CD: Do you have a set schedule to write?
RZ: Not so much anymore. I never have any real free time. I have to prioritize: this project is happening now. Like, once House of 1000 Corpses is out and done, then I can start writing the next one.
CD: When did you first conceive the idea of HO1C?
RZ: I always loved horror movies that involved fucked-up families. Texas Chainsaw was famous for that, but there was Spider Baby, anything that was a messed-up family unit. I think that's why I was fascinated by Manson, because it had that vibe. I was working at Universal in 1999 for their "Halloween Horror Nights" and I designed a maze based on the Hellbilly Deluxe album of the time and it was a success, and I started meeting with people in the Universal system. They were talking about this computer-animated Frankenstein film they were working on, and I was trying to get involved with that. The project never took off even though they did tons of work.
CD: Wow. That sounds great.
RZ: Amazing. The designs all looked like they were done by Bernie Wrightson. It was one of those things where I saw it and thought, "This is so cool they will never make it." (laughs) At the time I did the Halloween maze, Universal was talking about next year's, so I thought we'd do a scary house, House of 1000 Corpses! Once I had the title in my head, I started coming up with a story for a haunted house, and then I ended up in a meeting and I pitched it as a movie and they loved it. By the time the next Halloween rolled around, we had already shot the film and built the attraction now based on the film! Unfortunately, at that moment, Stacey Snider (Chairman of Universal) had gotten pulled into Congress to testify and Lieberman was up everyone's asses, yadda yadda, so Universal changed the name of the attraction to the "American Nightmare."
CD: How ironic.
RZ: Even though when you go in, it's the giant Captain Spaulding sign, all the sets, the murder ride, when you're in line waiting to get in it shows the trailer, interviews with the actors, it's unmistakably nothing else! They basically said "We don't a picture of some underage kid going into an attraction based on an R-rated movie right now. We don't need that hassle." I knew this was the shape of troubles to come.
CD: Had they seen the film by now?
RZ: They'd seen it a billion times. Their vibe on the movie was we finished the movie and I essentially ran out of money cos the budget was pretty low. The budget gets inflated in every article, so it was around 3-4 (million). I saved shooting the end of the movie for the last day because I knew we didn't have any money and I knew if we'd gone that far, they would kick me the money. I hedged my bets to do that and they did. I knew the ending sucked, so I let it suck and they said, "The movie's great but the ending sucks" and I know. So they gave me more money and we shot a more elaborate ending, bigger sets, the whole razzamatazz. All through, Universal was loving it. Movie people are fairly vague when you talk to them, like record people. But my agent said if they're still writing checks, that's how they tell you they like it: with their wallets. Everything was good; they saw every frame, I wasn't trying to get away with anything. In hindsight, it looks like I was up to some crazy thing at Universal and they caught on.
CD: The film is not that gory. Raiders of the Lost Ark is far bloodier.
RZ: Yeah, it's funny because the movie isn't that gory but once it got that red flag, the MPAA was so hard on this movie. I'd watch The Sopranos and think we could not have get away with that. They were so up our ass. I remember the first cut of the film which I thought was an easy "R", not a problem, and it was rated NC-17. I was like, "Oh Christ" and I then knew it was going to be a nightmare.
CD: The Hollywood nightmare.
RZ: Part of it is not having recognizable stars, because I definitely know the big stars schmooze the MPAA.
CD: Obviously if Hannibal, a classy exploitation film, can get an "R" -
RZ: But if you have Anthony Hopkins and Juliane Moore, you get away with a lot fucking more. We were under the microscope.
CD: Was that process discouraging for you since it was your first film?
RZ: It is what it is. I don't get discouraged by anything. I'm not living in Fantasy Land. I've been in the music business long enough...like some bands are scared of major labels and I'm like, that's what it is. You're either part of it or not part of it. Keep your eyes open and deal with it. It's all good.
CD: What was your response to Universal dumping the film?
RZ: I knew that was it. There was no talking them out of it. At the same time I knew there was probably only two choices: they was no way they were releasing the film, or it was going to be re-cut into something I would want to take my name off of, if that was even an option. The film was not finished, and trying to find someone to pick up the movie, pick up the costs, it was difficult because Universal was still involved. It was a movie caught in a lot of fucking red tape.
CD: So Lion's Gate were the first people to step up to the plate?
RZ: They were pretty much the last people. We talked to a lot of people and there were so many strings attached it made cutting a deal difficult because Universal still owned a bunch of the back end. Then the stigma. It was bad timing for a movie at that moment.
CD: All that Columbine furor.
RZ: Yeah, but after 9/11, everyone re-adjusted to what they were worried about in the world. Before that it was the evil of video games, "Oh, how can we live in a world where you can play Quake II?"
CD: Your movie is such a great tribute to those 1970's films, with that raw, intensity that horror films today rarely have.
RZ: It's funny, I saw the trailers for Final Destination 2 and Darkness Falls and they look so slick - and so identical. Which movie is this one? I don't know if they're good or bad, but they don't have that vibe. I remember as a kid if there was a commercial for Dawn of the Dead , it played at midnight, and it was like, "What was that?"
CD: Those ads were great because the film was unrated and they only showed about five seconds of footage.
RZ: Yeah, they showed the elevator doors opening. But today... Blair Witch, whether you liked it or not, at least it was something different.
CD: I think Blair Witch Project is an instant classic. How is Lion's Gate going to market this?
RZ: I don't want to market it in a retro way, because I don't want it to feel dated. I wanted the poster to be raw-looking. Posters now...it would be the four normal kids, standing in descending order with the three-quarter view of their faces, heavily airbrushed, a shot of some house or something. Who gives a fuck about that?
CD: Have you showed the film to any horror directors?
RZ: No, I did show it to Anchor Bay, because they were maybe going to buy it. They loved it and said it looks like a lost movie that's been locked in the vault for 20 years. Which I thought was great. People either love this film, or they hate it.
CD: I really liked the lead characters, they weren't typical Scream teens.
RZ: I wanted to make them older, they're all in their early 30's. When you watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre, they're adults. Kids don't get in those situations, they can't even barely drive, what are they doing out there? This is like Deliverance. It's horrible. You know it's like, I'm going to sit for the next 90 minutes and watch these guys get fucked with no hope. That's what I love about those older films, you walk out feeling bad about yourself, saying, "Why did I enjoy that? What does that say about me as a person?"
CD: You have a great cast too: Karen Black, Michael Pollard, and Sid Haig. He's just awesome in the film. You gave him the best dialogue; it's quite funny.
RZ: I loved Sid and wrote the part for him before I knew the guy. If I could go back in time I would write extra scenes for him. Pretty much all the actors I wanted I got.
CD: The world becomes so extreme in the end.
RZ: I wanted you to think it's a black comedy, then it gets depressing, then surreal. When Otis gets shot, it's in broad daylight, everything's clean...
CD: That is truly one of the best execution scenes of all time.
RZ: That was the one scene that Universal absolutely hated. They were like, don't shoot it. I wanted to shoot it 94 frames to a Slim Whitman song. And they said, once you do that, there's no options. I didn't want any options. It was a weird way of making a movie, limiting my own options to keep them from fucking with it.
CD: Now that you have distance on making House of 1000 Corpses, how was the whole experience?
RZ: It was 100 percent fucking awesome. With music, I was like, wow, I'm on stage playing an arena with Alice Cooper...surreal. But movies were always the bigger passion and to be on the Universal lot, eating my dinner on the front steps of the Munsters house, ready to go back to work...I didn't want the days to end. Sure, problems ensued, but that's life. There's a million scripts and projects that go nowhere, so the fact this movie even exists...