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Let's say you're a music-biz Dr. Frankenstein. You want to build the perfect beast for the MTV era, an artist equally adept at visual and musical communication, someone for whom a video and song are all part of an inextricable package.
Rob Zombie just might be that beast. Sure, it's conventional wisdom to say that Madonna is the prototypical MTV star, the artist who's most shrewdly exploited the video age, and there's some truth to that notion. Unlike her '80s superstar peers Michael Jackson, Prince and Bruce Springsteen, Madonna did not have to adjust to the world of MTV. She was ready for it from the beginning, and based her entire career around it.
But Madonna, like most MTV staples, has only been the subject of her videos, she hasn't been the creator of them. As with her musical production choices, her video M.O. has been to find the hottest new directors, and let their imaginations run wild, knowing that she'll get most of the praise for it.
Zombie, though, is completely in charge of every musical and visual detail of his career. At 36, he has long directed his own videos, bringing the same campy freak-show mindset to them that he injected into his dense slabs of '90s hard rock like "Thunder Kiss '65" and "More Human Than Human" (both with his old band, White Zombie). In 1995, when Zombie won an MTV video award for "More Human," it was one of the few times in the show's history that the winning pop star didn't get credit for a clip that someone else had devised. Zombie also designs his own CD art, concert sets and tee shirts.
With his unruly mop of graying hair and Rasputin beard, Zombie will never be confused with Madonna, but they're similar in that their music is only a part of the sensory package, and, in both cases, it often feels incomplete without its visual accompaniment.
For Zombie, a horror-movie freak and comic-book collector from his earliest days in Haverhill, Massachusetts, it was inevitable that he'd one day take his ghoulish visions to the big screen. In 1996, he did just that, creating a hallucinogenic nightmare sequence for Mike Judge's Beavis and Butt-head movie. But Zombie was also carrying around an idea for a film of his own.
Two years ago, Universal Pictures proudly announced that Zombie would direct a gothic horror film for them, with the family-friendly title House of 1000 Corpses.Within months, however, the deal went sour. When Universal execs screened the film in the fall of 2000, they were so shocked by its suggestions of necrophilia and cannibalism that they branded it "an über-celebration of depravity" and swiftly dropped plans to distribute it.
In a way, the decision was a puzzler. After all, this was Rob Zombie they were dealing with, the same guy who titled his band's first major-label release La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1. Did Universal expect him to make a lighthearted children's movie? Didn't they know that über-celebrations of depravity have been Zombie's bread and butter from Day One? And didn't their own August 2000 trailer for the movie proclaim: "Nothing you have ever witnessed can prepare you for the shocking horror of House of 1000 Corpses"?
Though Zombie's never received any answers from the suits at Universal, he's convinced that their flip-flop was little more than an election-year flinch.
"Truthfully, I think a lot of it had to do with timing," Zombie says. "They had seen the finished product right around the time the presidential election was happening, and I know there was a lot of pressure from Washington on Hollywood, especially on Universal and all the major studios. And I think the film itself presented a lot of problems they just did not want to deal with. No one's ever gonna admit that, but that's really what I think it was.
"Because it wasn't like they didn't know what we were doing and hadn't seen the film. 'Cause we had finished the film, and then they came back and actually gave me more money to shoot a more elaborate ending. I mean, they totally knew. I shot it at the back lot at Universal! It wasn't like I was off hiding somewhere. They just didn't need the aggravation, because it's a small film, compared to Universal-style blockbusters, and I think they didn't need the crap that it was gonna bring."
Housewas the culmination of Zombie's lifelong fascination with freaks and monsters, a fascination he's at a loss to explain. Instinctively drawn to horror movies and comic books as a child, he remembers seeing King Kongfor the first time and finding himself relating to the giant gorilla, because he figured King Kong, like himself, was an outsider.
"There'd be a baseball game on TV and a Godzilla movie, and I'd want to watch the Godzilla movie," Zombie recalls. "I was in kindergarten, so it wasn't like I was trying to be cool or weird; that's just the way your brain's wired. I didn't have any older brothers and sisters, so nobody introduced me to these things. It finds you."