A self-made icon in the American heavy-metal scene, Rob Zombie constructed an enduring persona based on creature-feature hosts, EC Comics, pro wrestling, gore movies, and other pop-culture influences. As lead singer of the metal juggernaut White Zombie and later as a solo artist, Zombie had much more in mind than just music—he created a multimedia extravaganza that included scrupulously detailed liner notes, disturbing music videos, and other conceptual ephemera. Operating under the influence of '70s drive-in cinema, Zombie also wrote and directed House Of 1000 Corpses, which tells the graphic, disquieting story of a Manson-family-like group of serial killers that terrorizes four lost travelers in backwoods Alabama. Due to the cultural climate post-Columbine, Universal decided against distributing the film, and it remained on the shelf for two years before finally finding a home at Lions Gate, which released it to a modest profit. Cult horror fans have given Corpses a healthy afterlife on DVD, and the demand has led to an unlikely semi-sequel in Zombie's latest, The Devil's Rejects, a remarkably confident and potent grindhouse throwback that owes as much to Sam Peckinpah and Don Siegel as it does to genre classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. On the eve of this summer's Ozzfest, his first musical appearance in three years, Zombie spoke to The A.V. Club about the state of studio horror, his struggles with the ratings board, and making movies where everything's not going to be okay.
The A.V. Club: When did the idea for the continuation of this story come to mind? Was it always planned that you would do two films?
Rob Zombie: No, it wasn't. I always had a vague idea for a story in mind, because I knew that if the first film was successful, they would want to do another one. So I wanted to make sure they had a logical follow-up, and I didn't want to scramble to create an idea. So when I wrote the first film, I always had this little trailing idea of the brother of that sheriff [who was killed by the Firefly clan in Corpses] coming back to avenge his brother. And basically, you know, that was all I had for an idea. And then the whole thing sorta started formulating into a real idea the day after House of 1000 Corpses came out, because Lions Gate made back all their money the first day. They were all thrilled and wanted to make another movie.
AVC: Were you trying to go anywhere with the sequel that you didn't get to in your first film?
RZ: The first film turned out a little wackier and campier than I originally intended. But as we were shooting, that's the tone that it was turning out to be. Movies sometimes dictate their own course, so I just sort of went with it. And on Devil's Rejects, I really wanted to scale it back and try to make something a lot grittier and nastier when those moments dictated. I wanted the violence to be a lot more horrific and the characters to just seem more like real people, and not cartoon characters.
AVC: You had more money and more time to shoot this time around, not to mention the experience of having shot a feature. What kind of difference did that make?
RZ: Well, unfortunately, I had less time and less money.
AVC: It certainly looks like you had more time and more money.
RZ: That's what everybody thinks. But the thing that I did have was the experience of the first film, which made having less time and less money not a problem, or not always a problem. Because on the first feature, everything's new. No matter what you're doing, it's a new experience, and you don't really have control over the budget, in a way, because you just don't know how things work. But on this film, I knew I had less time and less money, so I could be tighter with the budget and know how to break it down and make it work better. So with half as much money, I could make a movie that would look twice as big. And I had a lot less time, but it was okay. I knew how to work with actors now, and I knew I could get better performances in less time than I could before. So experience is what really made this one work.
AVC: You're obviously influenced by '70s horror films. What sets that era apart, in your mind, from other periods in American horror?
RZ: Actually, I would say that this film is at least as influenced by '70s crime movies and action movies, anything from Dirty Harry to Bonnie And Clyde. And I think what sets that decade apart for me is that those movies were made in a time where the director was key. The director was the god on set with the vision. And I think as the '80s crept in, it became more about actors and gimmicks and studios, you know. I still think the '70s was the last great time where films were being made for the sake of the film and not for the sake of the money. Even though, of course, people were always trying to make money, it seemed like art was still important. And I think now that's what sets those films apart, no matter what type of film you're talking about.
AVC: If you were to compile a list of essential horror films of that period, what would be on it? And why?
RZ: At that time, even the big studio pictures like The Shining were still great and still off the wall. But then you have the nastier stuff—like, say, The Hills Have Eyes was a great picture. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is obviously a great picture. Dawn Of The Dead was a great movie. The Exorcist, of course, was a great movie. I mean, there's just a lot of great stuff from the '70s.
AVC: These movies like The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House On The Left, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre have a realism that's lacking in every other period in American movies. And that's something you recreate in both of these features.
RZ: I think people respond well, because I think you have a feeling when you're watching those movies that everything's not going to be okay. And I think that was a result of all the guys like Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper, who were products of the Vietnam era, where clearly everything was not going to be okay all the time. It can be very upsetting to watch a movie where it soon becomes obvious that there are no rules and you don't know what's going to happen and it's not going to turn out nice. It's really unsettling. And I do feel that today, movies just don't have that feeling. They're much nicer. And I think that when it comes to certain types of movies, like horror movies, you don't want to go in feeling that you're being protected by the studio or the director. You want to feel like all bets are off, if you want that experience. And that's what I tried to do with this movie, that everything isn't going to turn out okay, it's not going to be nice. It doesn't matter what actor you see. They're not safe. [Laughs.] Anything can happen.
AVC: Do you think that young horror fans that have been weaned on movies like Scream and The Ring are prepared for something like The Devil's Rejects or House of 1000 Corpses?
RZ: I definitely think that it's a type of movie, The Devil's Rejects especially, that most young horror-type fans have never experienced in a theater. I mean, now with DVD, people are pretty hip to a wide range of films. But watching a movie like that on its first run on the big screen is… you just don't get that anymore. I mean, this movie is pretty sadistic and brutal, and you just don't see that anymore.
AVC: And as you may have experienced, it's hard to get a major studio behind it, too.
RZ: Oh yeah, it's impossible. And it's even hard to get actors to be in them. A lot of people who read those scripts were like, "Oh no." They're turned off by the extreme violence and the language and whatnot. I mean, sometimes it's not a way that things function anymore. It's a very PC world, and this is a very un-PC movie.
AVC: House of 1000 Corpses took a journey similar to that of a lot of '70s horror films, like Texas Chainsaw and Last House On The Left—it was critically reviled, it found a cult audience, and now it seems to have a much longer shelf life than other more popular horror films. Why do you think it takes so long for films like these to find a home?
RZ: I think that's just the way it's always been. Now, people go, "Oh, the genius that is Last House On The Left." But when that came out, it was treated as a vile, disgusting little movie. I think that it's like that too with music. The stuff that lasts sometimes has just a raw quality that takes time to embrace, because it's not the popular flavor. It's weird, because sometimes things just aren't of their time, and they take a minute to catch on, or they find an audience later. Sometimes bizarre little films are the ones that everyone remembers later. With most big major blockbusters, people will have already forgotten about it two weeks after it came out. But they're still celebrating the 20th-anniversary DVD release of Evil Dead. [Laughs.]
AVC: It seems like there's a new studio horror film every week, and they're big for one weekend and that's it.
RZ: Right. What these great horror movies have is not that they're extreme, necessarily, but that there's a lot of heart in them, in a certain sense. The people involved, actors and filmmakers, really were trying to do something different, trying to do something special. And even when it doesn't succeed, it still succeeds on that level that you can just sense it. This may sound ridiculous, but look at something like Plan 9 From Outer Space. Yeah, okay, so it's a bad movie. Everyone likes to make fun of it. But it's a more entertaining and iconic film than Last Action Hero or S.W.A.T. I mean, those are just big-budget, forgettable nothings.
AVC: When you first set up Corpses at Universal, how did you convince them to make it? What were their expectations?
RZ: I'm not really sure. I mean, I was really blatant when I talked to them. I didn't want to get into a situation where they thought I was making something mainstream. And I told them that I wanted to make a drive-in movie, something very gritty and nasty and weird. And they were all like, "Okay, great, great, great. That sounds great." Maybe they just didn't know what I meant by that.
AVC: At what point did you lose their support?
RZ: It was really late in the process. The movie was done and sitting there, more or less, and the executives had seen the movie, and everybody knew what it was. It wasn't like it was a big shock one day. The political climate at the time was toxic. And I know Universal, like a lot of the other major studios, had been pulled in front of Congress to testify about marketing violent movies to children, because the Columbine High School shooting had just happened, and there was all this stuff floating around in the air concerning that. And I just think that our movie seemed like too big of a publicity risk for the studio, and it wasn't worth it to them, because Corpses was not going to make them $100 million. And that's why we were dropped.
AVC: But they allowed you to bring it to other places?
RZ: Yeah, they were cool with it, because I had a good relationship with them, and I still do. I don't have any hard feelings. It just didn't work out. So they allowed me to shop it around and find someone else to distribute it.
AVC: Since it was for Universal and Universal has such a history with horror, did you have that in mind when you were making the film?
RZ: Well, I was very excited about working at Universal, because I always think of Universal as the house of horror, but I really don't think the people that work there today think of it that way, considering there's virtually no mention of horror movies when you're there. [Laughs.] It's just the giant Waterworld attraction and the Spider-Man ride, you know what I mean? They did recently do the Dawn Of The Dead remake and Land Of The Dead, but when we were making [Corpses], it seemed like nobody cared about horror movies over there.
AVC: What was it like to shoot on the studio backlot?
RZ: It was a fun experience at first. But it was mostly just a pain in the ass, because the studio backlot also functions as part of their theme park. And they don't shut down the tram ride while you're shooting. So we would keep getting interrupted. The theme rides were more important than the movie.
AVC: How did you get Corpses and The Devil's Rejects past the ratings board? Were you ever asked to make cuts?
RZ: Yeah, on both of them. It's a tricky song and dance. It takes a long time to get a movie through, and you have to make a lot of concessions, a lot of cuts, with a lot of discussions. Especially with The Devil's Rejects, because it's a pretty hard R-rated movie. It took a lot of negotiating to get it through.
AVC: Did you feel like it was fairly arbitrary, the things they asked of you?
RZ: Yeah, usually. I mean, sometimes they make… It's a tricky business, because I don't think they want to be seen as censors, they never really tell you specifically what the problems are. They're very vague. You sort of have to work with their vague notes and try to work your way through their system. It's an exhausting scenario, because you're totally working in the dark.
AVC: Did you ever try to make things more extreme so that you'd have something to cut back on?
RZ: Well, I mean, that would be the ticket, that would be the key, but I really didn't have enough time or money to waste shooting things that I knew would be cut. Although when you do submit your movie, you do submit the most extreme version, because you know they're going to attack something. There are certain things you do that you know are going to get sacrificed.
AVC: The characters in your movies are ambiguous at best, and downright evil at worst. Do you feel like the audience needs to identify with any of them?
RZ: I don't think so. I think that movies can function any which way. Some people identify with one character or another, but I never wanted it to be so black and white, like good guy/bad guy. Because nothing's ever like that in real life. And I just thought that makes it more interesting. I want people arguing about who they really identify with and who they don't. That's why the lines between good and evil are a little blurry.
AVC: Your films and albums are loaded with allusions to movies, not just horror films, but classic comedies, German Expressionist movies, and, in The Devil's Rejects, even Otto Preminger movies. When did you start looking at film seriously?
RZ: When I was a little kid. I mean, I've always watched movies like crazy, but somewhere in the early '70s, I started really becoming fanatical.
AVC: How did your cinephilia develop?
RZ: Mostly through television. The early '70s was pre-VCR. It was just a couple of stations, and the local channel where I lived showed a lot of movies. Back then, it seemed like they only showed great movies. Every time you turned on the TV, it'd be like, "Okay, The Great Escape is coming on. Willy Wonka's coming on, and then we're going to show Frankenstein and then The Wizard of Oz!" Just great movies all the time, and there were also all these great movies at the theaters, too. That was like the heyday of great films. So as a kid, you just feel like you're being bombarded with amazing movies.
AVC: What are some films that people might be surprised to hear are your favorites?
RZ: As far as directors, I'm a big fan of any kind of Billy Wilder stuff. Anything he does. Big Howard Hawks fan, big John Ford fan. I love Westerns. I really love John Wayne. Frank Capra, any of his movies I love. I really love anything that's good. I don't sit around watching gore movies at all. That stuff bores me to death. If it's good, great. The original Dawn Of The Dead, I've seen a hundred times. But I only like good movies. I don't really like watching bad movies.
AVC: Do you ever see yourself departing into different genres?
RZ: Yeah. The next movie that I do will be something different.
AVC: What do you imagine?
RZ: I'm not really sure. I got a couple different things going, but not in the horror vein.
AVC: Do you feel like, given your reputation, people have certain expectations from you that you'd be betraying in some way?
RZ: Well, I don't know. You really can't worry about that. Once you feel like you're being dictated by other people's expectations, it usually backfires. You just have to do the thing that you feel is true to your vision, and then the audience will make the decision. But as soon as you feel like you're creating a product to just cater to what you think they want, it never works. It always feels phony. And the audience can tell immediately.
AVC: This upcoming show at Ozzfest, it's the first time you've played in quite a long time—
RZ: Three years, yeah.
AVC: Are you at all nervous or feeling rusty?
RZ: I never feel nervous. I actually played last night. We did a warm-up show in Albany, New York, and that was the first time in three years. It went great, but you know, it's weird, because before the show started, I was like, "God, what are we going to do when we get out there?" You feel so rusty. But there is some bizarre thing that just kicks in as soon as you get out there, and it becomes like you never took a day off. It's very strange.
AVC: Now that The Devil's Rejects has made it to theaters, do you see yourself returning more to focus on music?
RZ: No. I'll do this tour and then I'll probably finish an album that I have started, and then I'll go right back into the next movie.
AVC: In the long term, do you feel like it's going to be a balance?
RZ: Nah, I think it'll mostly be just movies.
RZ: Because that's what I want to do. I've been doing music nonstop for like 20 years. I can't do both, because there's just not enough time and because movies are very time-consuming, as are making records and touring. As soon as you commit to one, you're locked in for two years. And I don't really want to have that much time in between projects, so probably once I get into the next movie, if I can, that's where I'm going to stay.