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."
House was 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 Kong for 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."
With House (which stars the reliably creepy Karen Black and Michael J. Pollard), Zombie made his version of the macabre George Romero and Tobe Hooper films that had so excited him when he was young.
"There's always been a certain type of horror movie I've really liked," he says. "And it was films that seemed to have sort of fucked-up families. Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Spider Baby, or even just real-life events like the Manson family."
Despite the very public rejection from Universal, Zombie's convinced that he has a future as a movie director. He's planning to write his next screenplay during his current tour, and says he's already received offers for other projects. Meanwhile, he's waiting to see what rating the American motion-picture board gives House before settling on a distributor.
"It was an insane amount of work, and every day was a crazy new learning experience," Zombie says of directing House. "But at the same time, I felt like it was the thing I should be doing. It never felt like, 'Oh, my God, what did I get myself into?' It felt like, 'I'm learning, but this is where I'm supposed to be.' I never felt wrong while I was doing it."
After the grueling work schedule and corporate headaches of his first filmmaking experience, getting back to music was a comparative relief for Zombie. Although his music has always been a dense sonic barrage of heavy guitars, spoken-word sound bites and otherworldly electronic samples, for his latest release, The Sinister Urge, Zombie wanted to create drama with more traditional techniques.
For the first time, Zombie incorporated a horn section and 30-piece orchestra, turning tracks like "Bring Her Down" and "Demon Speeding" into cinematic romps, the musical equivalents of breakneck action films. He says his inspiration came not from his recent directing experience, but from a clutch of his favorite childhood 45s.
"In some ways I kept using Paul McCartney and Wings' 'Live and Let Die' as the model for what we were trying to do," he says. "'Cause I always loved that song as a kid, and records of that sort, so that's why I started bringing in all those other elements. People don't really do that very much anymore, but everybody used to do it, and it sounded so incredible on those records back in the '70s."
Like his most obvious early inspiration, Alice Cooper, Zombie has built a persona so loaded with menace, he disarms you simply by being a reasonable, articulate guy who doesn't decapitate babies in his spare time. In fact, in conversation, he reminds you much more of George Clooney than the anguished hell-raiser of songs like "Dead Girl Superstar" or "Scum of the Earth."
But if Zombie is calm, he's not laid-back by a long shot. An admittedly relentless control freak, he gives you the feeling that he just doesn't have confidence in anyone else's ability to do a job that he knows he can do himself. That might explain why he took control -- along with Johnny Ramone -- of a forthcoming Ramones tribute record on DV8/Columbia. The project, which also includes Marilyn Manson, Billy Corgan, Green Day, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, finds Zombie interpreting the Ramones' signature track, "Blitzkrieg Bop."
"The way the Ramones affected me, aside from just being a fan of the music, they really made it seem like you could have a band," he says. "Bands before that, all the supergroups like the Led Zeppelins of the world, they always had this holier-than-thou vibe, like they're rock gods and you can't touch them and they're special. But the Ramones made it seem like any four dudes could pick up instruments and be a band."
Zombie is quick to concede that what ultimately splintered his own band, White Zombie, was his frustration over having to compromise his ideas by going through the committee of a group. For that reason, Zombie doesn't bemoan the constant workload that also brings him complete control. His only complaint is that he doesn't have time to do more.
"It is pretty overwhelming," he says. "I mean, I'm always working. There's always a million things going on. I set the alarm every day and pull myself out of bed, and start working. It's kind of a Catch-22, 'cause there's no one else to do the work if I don't do it. But I love it, too.
"The hard thing is that I'll have to say no to projects. I remember a couple of albums ago, I had a call to do an Alice Cooper video and I was on tour and couldn't do it. It's a bummer."
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