An Interview with Rob Zombie
Rob Zombie’s thirty-plus-year artistic career has arguably been a chaotic mess. Born Robert Bartleh Cummings in 1965, Rob moved from Massachusetts to New York City in the early ’80s to study at Parsons School of Design, where he soon met and began dating fellow student Sean Yseult. The two formed White Zombie in 1985, and while most people know the band as a grungy, oddball horror-metal outfit, they (strangely enough) started out playing art-school noise rock in the same scene as Swans and Sonic Youth at venues like CBGB in New York. As the group leaned toward tawdry B-movie aesthetics, they became one of the largest acts of the early-to-mid ’90s, playing stadium world tours and going platinum twice. Critics, meanwhile, hated them.
In 1998, amid heavy MTV rotation, and two years after Robert legally changed his name to Rob Zombie, the band called it quits. Acrimony between all four bandmates—Rob and Sean had broken up a few years earlier—made it a slog to continue working together. In the nearly twenty years since, the story has solidified into the cliché of a frontman ditching his band to go solo, which is in some ways certainly true, as Zombie went on to make six solo records. He has no desire to reunite the old band—none of the others do either—but he still plays many of their hits during the solo shows he puts on when he’s not doggedly pursuing a directorial career.
The production hell surrounding House of 1000 Corpses, Zombie’s debut feature, is legendary in cult-film history. Almost universally panned, the movie was dropped by two different studios. Eventually, it arrived in theaters via Lionsgate as an earnest train wreck, a sleazy guilty pleasure. In many ways the film’s trajectory is representative of Zombie’s entire career—including seven more films and six solo albums, all released to varying degrees of critical reproach.
I spoke twice with the now fifty-two-year-old Zombie, once before he played a sold-out theater show in New Orleans. With tangled shoulder-length hair, tattoos, a graying beard, and multiple layers of frayed denim, Zombie sat at a table littered with Perrier bottles, organic carrots, and a juicer. He was open and hospitable. After years of critical censure, he remains gleefully unapologetic when discussing his reputation.
This is a man who, due to the surprise success of a ’90s freak-show band, was gifted the financial freedom to explore any creative pursuit. And what he wants to do now is make modern versions of drive-in movies, to live with his long-time wife on a quiet farm in the Northeast, and to play songs with titles like “Teenage Nosferatu Pussy” to his dedicated fans—men and women alike—many of whom now bring their own children to concerts.
Zombie’s film oeuvre isn’t a meditation on violence or on the nature of humanity’s cruelty. It’s the distilled essence of schlock—riveting to watch, often hovering on the brink of utter disaster. He’s the only modern filmmaker who has successfully worked Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” into a final act without a trace of irony. And yet his next film is a biopic drama about the later years and failing health of Groucho Marx, one of his childhood idols. If there is a single theme that threads through all his work, it’s a certain sense of mythic Americana, filtered through a fun-house mirror.
In light of this, it’s somewhat surprising that one of the few mainstream critics to voice any support for Zombie’s work was Roger Ebert, who said of The Devil’s Rejects: “A kind of heedless zeal transforms its horrors. The movie is not merely disgusting, but has an attitude and a subversive sense of humor. Its actors venture into camp satire, but never seem to know it’s funny; their sincerity gives the jokes a kind of solemn gallows cackle.”
“Heedless zeal.” Rob Zombie is the underbelly of the American dream—someone who made it, but who doesn’t have to sneer as he asks you to enjoy his work. Come to think of it, he doesn’t ask you to enjoy it at all. He enjoys it enough himself. —Andrew Paul
I. MIDWAY ON FIRE
THE BELIEVER: Can you point to any particular moment in time or pop culture that set you toward horror and music?
ROB ZOMBIE: When I was a little kid, there was just so much [horror] on television. It was the late ’60s, so there was sort of a horror boom: magazines like Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella, and then on TV it was The Munsters, The Addams Family, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits. Even the sitcoms—Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Everything had some sort of [musical tie-in]. I think [that’s] what got me hooked on music. It’s funny, because I notice it now: I’ll look at my niece and nephew—they’re eight and ten—and they don’t care about music at all.
RZ: It means nothing to them. It’s just not present in their lives. By the time I was in kindergarten I was already obsessed with bands. I think it was because, back at that time, all the kid shows had music. You grew up watching The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, and the Banana Splits were a band. The Groovie Goolies had a band. The Archies—every cartoon had a band! Even when we watched, like, Gilligan’s Island, there was one episode where the Mosquitoes landed on the island—I would always wait for them. I think the Monkees was the most significant one. I knew about the Monkees before I knew about the Beatles or anything else. That’s what really started it all. It was all through television, for sure. Long story short: television.
BLVR: You said in one interview that your parents were real American, hardworking, blue-collar types.
RZ: Yeah, totally regular. They weren’t weird hippie parents.
BLVR: : I read once that your family worked at state fairs, and there was once some violent incident at a carnival involving a hammer?
RZ: Oh yeah. [Laughs] Forgot about that. Yeah, well, my whole family on my mom’s side was always in the carnival business. I didn’t even realize until I got older that it really dated back. I saw pictures of my grandfather in full circus getup. It was just like that movie Carny with Gary Busey, you know? That’s what my parents would do, and our cousins and uncles. That’s what everybody did for a living… The carnivals would be in shitty areas, and there was once this big riot, and it was really violent.
BLVR: Do you know how that started?
RZ: I mean, all the tents were rigged. Everything’s rigged. I think someone had lost a lot of money in one of the gambling tents, and they came back and lit one of the tents on fire, and just—whoosh—the whole midway was on fire. And then all the carnies… everyone started pulling out their guns, and you heard shots. I was talking to this one guy—I don’t remember his name anymore—and he was like, “You gotta get out of here!” And then someone ran up and hit him in the face with a hammer. Smashed his head open, and there was just blood everywhere. [Shrugs] You know? It was a riot. That’s the last time [my parents] did it after that.
II. ONE BIG SHELL GAME
BLVR: So let’s just get this out of the way because I know it’s asked all the time: White Zombie. I know Sean Yseult, the band’s bassist, lives here in New Orleans, but I assume you haven’t spoken to anyone else in the band recently?
RZ: I haven’t really spoken to anyone in that band since about [pause] 1996, I guess? When the band ended. I’ll run into John Tempesta—he was our drummer at the time—because he’s in the Cult, so sometimes in Europe I’ll see him. But he’s the only person I really see.
BLVR: I’m sure you know that this past year is the band’s thirtieth anniversary. Has time changed anything, or are you just done with it?
RZ: I’m so done with it.
BLVR: Except when people like me ask. [Laughs]
RZ: I mean, it is what it is. Um, how can I put this nicely? It was great what the band accomplished, but it was never really fun to do. It was always kind of a nightmare. That’s why it ended. It didn’t really end for any other reason. A lot of people try to rewrite the history about how it all ended, but the truth was, there’s nothing weirder than when your band finally gets big and you’re playing sold-out arenas and you’re selling millions of records, and you dread being a part of it all. It wasn’t some master plan to go solo. I was just like, I would rather do my own thing, be happy, and have it be ten times less popular. That was really it. It just wasn’t fun, the stress. I like the fact that the band ended at its biggest point.
BLVR: Does the more niche market of your films, compared to White Zombie, bother you at all?
RZ: I don’t do anything for the money. I don’t need to. I could have retired after White Zombie and been just fine. Money doesn’t matter. But there is still a good living to be made, even in the niche. The funny thing is, as time goes on, the niche stuff gets bigger and bigger. Even now, with big movies. When I was a kid, I was one of two kids in the entire school that liked Star Trek or read Lord of the Rings. Now that’s the hip, cool thing. We all love Star Trek! Doctor Who—I couldn’t find one kid on the planet Earth who knew who Doctor Who was when I was in high school. Now it’s the hip thing.
BLVR: What about Groucho Marx? His work shows up in your films a bunch. The main characters in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects are named after Marx Brothers characters. What made you want to make, of all things, a film about the later years of his life?
RZ: In the early ’70s there was just a big Marx Brothers resurgence. I remember I got Marx Brothers T-shirts at the department store. The movies were always on TV. The big thing was Groucho Marx’s quiz show, You Bet Your Life. It was always on late-night TV on our local station, and I loved that. Plus, Groucho was still alive, so he was always on The Dick Cavett Show, so I was very much aware of him.
BLVR: There’s always been fairly negative mainstream criticism of your films. Does that bother you at any level?
RZ: Reviews are all bullshit, because they always change. When House of 1000 Corpses came out, all the reviews were awful. It was impossible to find a review better than “The worst movie ever made.” And now I’ll see more-modern magazines, and sometimes they’ll re-review things, and I’ll read this great review for it. It’s the same thing with White Zombie! People talk about “Oh, White Zombie, these classic records. Why don’t you do them now?” Everyone hated those records when they came out! The reviews were terrible. I remember in Alternative Press, the review [for La Sexorcisto] literally said, “This is the worst band ever.” And then it got worse from there. So it always changes. There were people like Siskel and Ebert, back in the day. They were real.
BLVR: What do you think of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and Eli Roth and others who take the “lowbrow” and make it an Oscar winner?
RZ: I don’t have a problem with anyone doing anything. I think it’s great. I know all those guys, and everyone’s kinda coming from the same weirdo background… Especially with those guys, who sort of reinvented movies—especially starting with Reservoir Dogs. They changed how Hollywood is. Grindhouse was a fantastic thing to be a part of.
BLVR: What do you think about current mainstream horror? Things like the Saw franchise. I guess the closest thing you did were the Halloween movies.
RZ: That’s usually the stuff I’m least drawn to go see, because I know what goes on with those movies, for the most part. In the sense that I know the people producing them and making them are looking to make a quick buck. It’s hard to go see a movie when sometimes you literally know the people who produced it, and you know they don’t give a shit. So why should I give a shit? I know you don’t give a shit. You know you’ll rape and pillage the opening weekend, and then just throw it in the trash. If something’s good, it’s good, obviously. There’s always good stuff, but it’s always the last stuff I get around to watching.
BLVR: Do you ever consider doing director’s cuts?
RZ: I always get requests, but I never want to. I never want to go back and remix old records, either. If a record sounds shitty, that’s just the sound it has. I just take it as part of the music. Some of my favorite bands—say, the Misfits—their old records sound terrible. But that’s just part of the sound. If they were perfect, I’d probably hate them. Same thing with movies. The only times I’ve done director’s cuts were with Devil’s Rejects and Halloween, because they had been butchered by the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America]. Each one gets harder and harder to make, because more money gets involved. People are putting up millions and millions of dollars to make these crazy things. That’s where you try to sorta skillfully trick them into doing what you want. You can’t just walk in and go, “…and fuck everybody!” That’s just childish. You get really good at sort of pretending like you’re doing what they want, but doing the exact opposite at the same time. My life is like one big shell game.
BLVR: After releasing 31 on a small scale, are you looking to do wide-release films anymore?
RZ: It’s funny. Now I don’t even know if it’s worth it. Sometimes, you just have to realize, I’m not doing stuff that is really mainstream stuff, and to try and put it out in a mainstream way is almost psychotic.
BLVR:So it’s almost like you’re coming to terms with that?
RZ:After doing the first two films, I was like, Oh, I wanna have a number one movie! And when Halloween came out, it was number one; it made a fortune. But [pauses] meh. It didn’t make me any happier.
BLVR:Would it get to a point where it’d be difficult to get something done because the audience is smaller and smaller?
RZ:I’m not worried if the audience gets bigger or smaller, because I see what has mass appeal, and the things that I love [pauses] don’t. [Laughs] Let’s put it that way… There’s a good chance that, at some time, there’s that one moment where something that has mass appeal and what you do might collide. You see it with John Waters or David Cronenberg or David Lynch. It doesn’t last, because their visions are too weird. But sometimes you do have that moment where you go, Wow, what I’m doing, for some reason, makes sense to a mass audience. Now, I don’t think it’ll last, but you may get that moment. You can’t chase that moment. I certainly don’t. You’ve got Tim Burton making blockbuster after blockbuster, but then he makes Ed Wood and the audiences stay away. Even though that’s my favorite Tim Burton movie. Horror movies are always a solid dollar. But a movie about Groucho Marx is a gamble. These things just are. Doesn’t matter who you are.
III. “I WAS THAT KID”
BLVR:I’ve noticed there are two sides to your life: the rock-and-roll, horror side and the living-on-a-farm-in-Connecticut-with-your-wife-of-fifteen-years side.
RZ:Things just change as years go on. I used to live in New York City on the Lower East Side in a shitty apartment, which seemed super punk-rock. Then I lived in LA for a long time, and it seemed very Hollywood. So now, to have all this land and all these buildings—it’s nice, because we have our house, but I also have an editing studio, and I have a rehearsal space. You build your own kind of compound, and I find it’s just a great way to work. The time I actually get to spend at home on this farm is never really enough. It’s cool, too, because we’re so close to Manhattan that we’re at home on the farm, we drive an hour, and now we’re watching the new Larry David play, and we drive home.
BLVR:There’s still this American motif that runs through all your stuff, though. You do a cover of “We’re an American Band,” but at the same time you’re doing these kind of underbelly things. Why do you think these go hand in hand?
RZ:I’m just a product of my upbringing, as everyone else is, and as a kid I was very much a product of America. We thought Evel Knievel was the greatest, and he was very American. Or whatever. Farrah Fawcett, and Charlie’s Angels. It’s just that. So a typical American ’70s kid.
BLVR:Do you think American history lends itself to these crime and horror stories? Devil’s Rejects has that Manson imagery, and you basically quote that Tex Watson line “I am the devil, and I am here to do the devil’s business.”
RZ:That was just stuff that was big. I remember my mom reading Helter Skelter when it came out. I don’t remember how old I was. Maybe ten or something? And I remember looking at the pictures and just being so fascinated by it. I always wonder: the images that hit your brain when you’re young are so significant, because there’s not that much information in your brain. As you get older, things just bounce off. I can remember these minute details of stupid TV shows from the ’70s, and I can’t remember a book I read yesterday.
BLVR:Do you think all those memories lend themselves easily to horror and metal music, in general? Or is it something that just kind of happens?
RZ:It just sort of was that, you know? I was that kid. You love The Munsters and you love Evel Knievel… and then you discover punk rock and other things and you put this crazy band together and somehow it just morphs into this situation. I mean, I was never really that aware of commercial things. The stuff that was really influential to me were bands like the Misfits or the Birthday Party, or things like that. If someone said, “Do you love Judas Priest?”—I never really even had a Judas Priest record. That’s not what I grew up with. That wasn’t really my scene, you know? White Zombie, back in the day, was playing CBGB with underground bands. I didn’t know what was going on in the world of metal. I was so isolated on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. That’s why White Zombie never really fit. We fell into that scene. I liked Van Halen. I liked the Doors, but I also liked Black Flag. That’s why, musically, we never really fit. I still don’t fit.