We’ve Got A File On You: Rob Zombie
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Rob Zombie is quite possibly the only living musician who’s been both the subject of a Numero Group compilation and has appeared on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The 56-year-old heavy metal legend’s career is a practical funhouse that basically began in a literal funhouse — specifically, working as a production assistant for Pee-wee’s Playhouse in the late ‘80s. Since then, he’s navigated two musical careers — one with White Zombie during the ‘90s, and another with still-going-strong solo run — alongside establishing himself as a filmmaker dabbling in the type of ultra-gory horror that’s cultishly beloved and extremely divisive.
During our hour-long conversation, Zombie was matter-of-factly gregarious about the many accomplishments that make up his career in the entertainment business, including his forthcoming seventh studio album, The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy. But when talk turned to his new LP, he found himself slightly reticent while revealing the methodical approach that’s made his career a multi-decade success.
“I always find it hard to talk about music,” he good-naturedly sighs. “A lot of people get sick of making records. I hear a lot of bands saying that. But I don’t really care. I like making new songs and I like playing them live — not tons of them, because you have to slowly incorporate new material since you have an obligation to play the songs that people love, because that’s what they come for.” At this point, I offer some good-natured optimism about when concerts return, saying that it will “Hopefully be sooner rather than later,” and Zombie chuckles with his trademark morbid sense of humor: “I think it will be later. Who the fuck are we kidding?”
Production Assistant On Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1985)
ROB ZOMBIE: I was working at a place called Broadcast Arts, which my friend had gotten me a job at. I was a messenger, delivering stuff and doing crap around the office — nothing important. They made TV commercials, but they were known for being hip and new wave. They made wacky Twizzler commercials. They got the job to do the first season of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and they didn’t even do TV shows. That was a pretty low-budget show, but it was awesome. I didn’t ever get to do anything interesting, and I only saw Paul Reubens around the office a few times because they shot it in a loft around Broadway and Houston.
Was that your first time on a film set?
ZOMBIE: Definitely. It was the first time I’d ever been anywhere that was a production of anything, which was pretty cool. I was actually shocked at how they built the set in the loft. It was 100 degrees the whole time because it wasn’t ventilated, it had a low ceiling. But it was very exciting. I loved Pee-wee Herman at that point because I’d seen his HBO special. I always thought he was hilarious, so it was cool to see him.
What kind of children’s entertainment did you consume when you were a kid?
ZOMBIE: Almost all the shows I watched as a kid had a musical component, and that’s how I understood music. I was obsessed with stuff like the Monkees, or the Partridge Family. All those cartoons — the Archies, the Groovy Ghoulies, the Sid and Marty Kroft stuff — everything had a musical element. It was like, yes, of course, you have a band! It doesn’t matter if you’re monsters, or just some dudes — that’s what you do in life. So I was really into music at a really early age because all of those shows.
Beavis And Butt-Head Watching The Video For “Thunderkiss ‘65” (1993)
ZOMBIE: White Zombie were on tour after being signed to Geffen. Our record had come out, but no one at Geffen really believed in us or cared. It was a typical signing, where our A&R guy got fired early on in the process. We probably sold 100,000 copies, which to us was cool, but no big hit for anybody. I remember hearing about Beavis And Butt-Head, but I didn’t have a TV or MTV or anything, so I didn’t even know what it was. No one realized the impact it could have, and it didn’t have an impact for everybody, but for us it really did.
I always felt that the video could connect if it just got some exposure. To that point, we’d been on Headbanger’s Ball and 120 Minutes — our one play at two in the morning. I was like, “If we could just get played at a normal hour, we could get something going!” And Beavis And Butt-Head was the first time the video ever got played at a time where people could see it. The reaction was immediate. The record sales just jumped the following day. It was kind of amazing, how [immediate] the reaction was back then.
In terms of ways to get exposure for what you’re doing, what’s changed now versus back then?
ZOMBIE: Everything has changed. Back then, the week before you were on Beavis And Butt-Head, maybe you sold a thousand records. The week after, 10,000 records. The week after, 100,000 records. Things would just move in a way that you couldn’t believe. The first time we appeared on Letterman, everybody saw it. “Oh my God, you’re on TV!” Now, it doesn’t matter what you do. Not that people don’t watch things, but there’s so much stuff that people watch in their own time frame. Maybe somebody DVR’d it and they’ll watch it a month from now, but there isn’t an immediate reaction. It still happens, but in a vacuum.
Videos are more important than ever now, even though MTV is nonexistent. The video goes on YouTube and you get no sense of anything except, “Five million people viewed it.” But you don’t get any feeling until you play a show later and the whole crowd is singing along, and you’re like, “Oh, it’s connecting.” You used to be able to do an in-store appearance at a record store and you’d be like, “Oh, shit, four thousand kids showed up, this is nuts.” There’s no feeling of that anymore until you get on tour.
“More Human Than Human” Video (1995)
This was your first experience directing.
ZOMBIE: Sort of. I was heavily involved in the other videos, including “Thunderkiss.” But at that point, a guy in the band saying he’s gonna direct a video? The label doesn’t believe you. They don’t think you can do it, they don’t want it. You could hire a completely inexperienced person and they’d have more faith than that. So I always had to hire a person and I’d control everything — the concept, how it’d look — but I’d let them take the credit. With this video, I was like, “I’m done playing this game. No more pretending what I’m doing — that’s getting real old.” At the time, when we were on Geffen, so many other major artists were complete screw-ups that going in there saying you were gonna do it was never gonna happen. They couldn’t fathom that anyone could actually handle it. But after “More Human Than Human,” it was fine because it won an MTV award and all that. They were happy.
How often in your career have you been met with doubt from the person holding the purse strings?
ZOMBIE: Always. It doesn’t bother me. I feel like I’m always a bit of an underdog, and that’s fine, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter to me. I know what I’m doing, and I know how it’s gonna work out. But if you think getting someone to trust you with a video is hard, trying to do a feature film is even more insane — then people really think it’s not possible. I guess crossing over is more common now. Now, you can’t even do one thing. Everybody’s like, “actor-slash-singer-slash-model.” Everybody’s got a slash. But back then, the rock guy trying to make a movie? That’s absurd.
White Zombie Playing “More Human Than Human” On Letterman (1995)
ZOMBIE: It was great to be there. I was always a huge Letterman fan, even when he had his morning show. I’d always watch it. He was still doing a lot of wacky gags, so they brought out a giant bowl of chocolate pudding, and Paul Shaffer and another guy who worked there jumped in. Our whole band jumped in it too to end the show, which was fun. Obviously, trying to walk covered in pudding was hard enough, never mind showering it off. That was the first time we played — the second time, we brought so much pyro that we set off all the fire alarms in the studio. At the end, when Dave’s saying “Goodnight everybody!,” you can hear all the alarms going off because of us. I didn’t have much interaction with Letterman, other then when he comes out and shakes your hand. The other guys on the shows do a little more.
Walmart Censoring The Cover Of Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds (1996)
ZOMBIE: That was a drag. Walmart was and still is their own animal, and they had a million different problems with everything — musical content, album cover art. You could make the decision not to have your album at Walmart and be like, “Go fuck yourself.” But having traveled around, I knew that for large portions of the audience, Walmart would be the only place they could go. They didn’t have the hip, cool record store down the street where they could get the uncensored album cover. So as much as I hated doing it, I always did Walmart versions of albums. It was ridiculous — you can’t have a nude woman where you can’t even see anything anyway, but you can walk in there and buy a gun. But it’s always that American, puritanical weirdness that goes on here. It was a drag, but I didn’t want to tell half our audience, “Tough luck.”
All that culture war bullshit still happens, but it’s been blunted by the internet’s reach. How have you seen attitudes towards transgressive art change over time?
ZOMBIE: Whenever I make a movie, you have to get a rating — and the hoops you have to jump through to get an “R” is ridiculous. There’s more extreme stuff in HBO stuff than an R-rated movie! The ratings always drove me crazy, because you’re censoring content for adults. R-rated movies aren’t for children. Fine! Call it “R,” don’t let kids in. But these adults are telling other adults that if they see someone with their pants off, they’re gonna freak out. That’s what I felt was so hypocritical and stupid. I get it with kids — of course you don’t want first-graders watching R-rated movies. But one 50-year-old telling another 50-year-old what he can and can’t watch? That’s just mental.
Contributing Animation To Beavis And Butt-Head Do America (1996)
ZOMBIE: Once Beavis And Butt-Head hit, I got to know Mike Judge and went down to Austin and hang out with him. I kind of became friends with him. He was working on Beavis And Butt-Head Do America, and he wanted me to design the sequence where Beavis eats the cactus and starts tripping. In the script, it said something like, “Beavis eats the peyote, starts tripping, and sees the greatest rock video ever made.” It was very vague. I was on tour at the time, so I’d do drawings in my hotel room and mail them to Mike, and my stuff made it into that segment.
When did you meet Mike for the first time?
ZOMBIE: 1993 or something? Probably White Zombie was playing Austin and Mike had his studio there. We went by to say hi, I think we went out to lunch. I haven’t seen him in a while, but I saw him a few years ago — longer, actually, because when I saw him Silicon Valley wasn’t even a show yet.
Do you feel like your artistic sensibilities align in any way?
ZOMBIE: Probably. He’s such a unique character, and so funny. All the stuff he does — Beavis And Butt-Head, King Of The Hill — it’s not typical stuff, but it always works. That’s what I like about it. He’s a real original, and that’s always rare. You get those guys every once in a while, like Seth MacFarlane. Everything he does is so great too.
House Of 1000 Corpses (2003)
ZOMBIE: I’d just put out Hellbilly Deluxe, and Universal Studios brought back Halloween Horror Night, which they hadn’t done for a long time. They were gonna do a maze based on my album, with every room a different theme of the record. Because of that, I started meeting people, and I ended up in someone’s office pitching a movie. I had the idea of House Of 1000 Corpses, but it was very vague and undeveloped because I wasn’t thinking it was actually gonna happen.
But it did happen. It was a weird thing, because it was a very un-Universal Studios movie at a time where horror movies were off the radar. I made it in 2000, and horror was really out of fashion. After making it, it was all a disaster. Universal hated the movie because they thought it was very morally questionable, but they also weren’t really paying attention to what I was doing, so when the head of Universal saw the movie, she was just horrified. She was like, “We can’t release this.” They were doing the Flintstones movie. What I was doing certainly didn’t figure into that.
The Osbournes Christmas Special (2003)
ZOMBIE: I don’t remember the first time we toured together, but the first time I met Ozzy, Sharon, and the kids was 1999 at Ozzfest. The kids were all pretty young at that point. In 2001, me and Ozzy did the Merry Mayhem tour, and Sharon had a sizzle reel she cut together where she was like, [does fake British accent] “We’re pitching this show called The Osbournes, we don’t know if it’s going to work!”
Obviously, it did — because they were hilarious. The first season of The Osbournes? That’s them. They’re just funny to be around. They’re characters. I gotta be honest, when me and my wife went to their house for the Christmas special, we thought they were having an actual Christmas party. We had no idea they were filming it. We should’ve realized that nothing is an actual anything in Hollywood.
You appeared on Gene Simmons’ reality TV show too.
ZOMBIE: I was on Gene Simmons’ show?
Apparently. Were you ever approached to be on a reality TV show?
ZOMBIE: Yeah, it came up a couple of times, and I was like, “No. Way. No way, Jose.” [Laughs]
Voiceover Work For Spider-Man And Justice League Cartoons (2003)
ZOMBIE: The way those things go down is that someone calls me and says “Do you want to do it?” And then I just show up and do it. I don’t do it very often because no one ever asks me. The last time I did voice acting it was for some Adult Swim thing.
You did Guardians Of The Galaxy too!
ZOMBIE: Because I do a voice in every James Gunn movie. You can’t even tell that it’s me most of the time. It’s mostly a joke. I feel like he has to do it with me because he’s superstitious now.
Do you think there’s something about your voice that lends to voiceover work?
ZOMBIE: Not really. Voices are weird, because everybody hears their own voice in a funny way. Everyone thinks everyone else’s voice is great and theirs is unremarkable. I don’t feel like I have any voiceover career ahead of me.
I hear you.
ZOMBIE: Oh, so you agree with me.
No, I agree with the sentiment!
ZOMBIE: [Laughs] I’m just kidding.
Do you prefer DC or Marvel?
ZOMBIE: As a kid, we all thought DC sucked, because we thought Marvel seemed hip and cool — but I’m talking about the 1970s. You’d look at DC and go, “Green Arrow? Superman? Boring.” It seemed so conservative, while Marvel seemed like a bunch of stoners making comics. The more out there, the better.
The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
ZOMBIE: Making that movie was great. I mean, making [House Of 1000 Corpses] was amazing, but it was trial by fire. You’re learning your craft on the job. Once I had one movie under my belt, I understood the process better. So when I made The Devil’s Rejects, I knew exactly how I wanted it to look and feel. The whole trick is representing what you see in your mind, and you have to get your skillset to the point where you can do that. With House Of 1000 Corpses, I hadn’t figured it out, but by The Devil’s Rejects, I figured it out.
Fake Werewolf Women Of The SS Trailer In Grindhouse (2007)
ZOMBIE: I did this one simultaneously while I was working on Halloween, because both were from the Weinstein Company. Bob Weinstein was like, “I want to get you to do one of these trailers for Grindhouse.” I knew Edgar Wright and Eli Roth were doing the other ones. I thought it was great. I used the same crew I had for Halloween, and while I was shooting Halloween on the streets of Pasadena I was editing Werewolf Women Of The SS at the same time — which wasn’t a big deal, because it’s so short. There was a time where we were gonna turn it into a movie. They wanted to do that with all of the shorts. But because Grindhouse didn’t turn out to be as successful as they hoped, they cancelled the plans.
ZOMBIE: It was an interesting experience. When I got offered to do Halloween, it wasn’t a remake. I went into a meeting — and that’s the thing about Hollywood, you take a million meetings and 99% of them turn out to be nothing, just bullshit talk. But I went in with Bob Weinstein, and he said, [does gravelly voice] “Halloween, whaddya wanna do?” They didn’t know if they wanted to make a sequel or change the whole thing — they didn’t even know if they wanted Michael Myers in the movie. They didn’t know what they wanted. All they knew is that they owned the rights to Halloween. At first, I was completely not interested. There’s been a million sequels, each one worse than the last. I always loved the original movie. So I said “No,” I went home, rewatched John Carpenter’s film, and thought, “Well, maybe starting over is the way to go rather than doing the ninth sequel.” But I also didn’t want to do a shot-by-shot remake. So I figured I could build the movie around all the stuff that’s not in the John Carpenter movie — the early days of Michael Myers, all his time at the sanitarium. They do multiple versions of Frankenstein and A Christmas Carol where they retell the same story in a different way, too. The last thing I wanted to do is do an imitation of what John Carpenter had done.
Have you met John Carpenter? Did he see your version?
ZOMBIE: I knew John Carpenter before I made Halloween. I did a song for Escape From L.A. in 1996, so I went down to the set and got to hang out with him. He was always super cool. I always liked his movies. I talked to him off and on over the years, and I talked to him before I started Halloween. I never asked him what he thought of it, I didn’t want to put him on the spot with such a silly question.
CSI: Miami (2010)
ZOMBIE: That was a weird one. One of the producers on the show was a friend of mine who worked on The Devil’s Rejects, and he was always like, “We gotta get you over here to direct an episode!” It was kind of cool and kind of miserable at the same time. TV’s so structured, you can’t really do much outside of the formula they’ve created, which of course makes sense. They have a show and they’re not looking for you to change it. I did it more for experience and to see if television is something I’d be interested in doing, and it turns out I’m not.
What’s the difference between making film and TV, from your perspective?
ZOMBIE: I like things to end. “Here’s your story, here’s your situation, here’s your ending.” TV just goes and goes and goes. Some people love that, but it’s not what I love. I tried to make the episode as much “mine” as possible, but there’s pretty strict boundaries you have to work in.
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (2010)
ZOMBIE: There was a school for the deaf, and every year they put on a haunted house to raise money for the school. The Extreme Makeover people came in, and we were gonna make them a better haunted house, because the haunted house was in a place where everything looked like a death trap — bad wiring, bad plumbing, bad everything. So they gutted the whole thing and put in all this new stuff, and we built new stuff. It was fun. Sometimes I like to do weird stuff like that just for the hell of it.
The Lords Of Salem (2012)
ZOMBIE: After coming off of Halloween 2 and working with the Weinsteins — which was just a miserable experience, from start to finish — I was so sick of the whole process of making movies. Blumhouse was very new at the time — now, everyone knows them, they’re a massive success, but they were just starting. Their whole pitch was, “We will give you the money and leave you 100% alone. Just deliver us the movie.” Which is the exact opposite of working with the Weinsteins, who interfere constantly. That’s why Lords Of Salem is my weirdest movie. They told me to do whatever I want, and that’s exactly what I did.
You partially crowdfunded this film.
ZOMBIE: The crowdfunding was a disaster. I would never do something like that again. At the time, I understood the concept of what it was, but I wasn’t that knowledgeable about it. But at the end of the day, you can’t really raise enough money to make a proper film, so other sources had to come into play to make the budget. That was one of those things where you take advice from people and the advice is terrible.
The movie was a direct result of Lords Of Salem, and that film’s budget was really low. I struggled with that budget, but by the time I got around to 31, I knew how to do it. The idea has to be simple, and I just wanted to make a simple, crazy movie. I always liked the idea of “The Most Dangerous Game” — humans hunting humans. It was a quick shoot, the fastest I ever made a movie.
This film is about a carnival, and your parents worked at a carnival when you were younger. How much of your personal life shapes your art in general?
ZOMBIE: Everything plays into it. I only really draw on things that I know about and that I’ve seen. It’s not like I’m making a documentary, but the vibe and the people — that was my life, and that’s what I do. I don’t write movies about how my parents are college professors on the Upper East Side. Maybe I could fake that world, but I don’t come from it. People write what they know, and I write the world that I know. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it. There’s a million fuckin’ movies. Who gives a shit?
3 From Hell (2019)
This is the last film that was released during Sid Haig’s lifetime. You made several films with him.
ZOMBIE: We did five projects together. I have good memories of working with him. 3 From Hell was a strange experience because he was very ill. The movie started off very different, because he was supposed to be the lead, but he had been in the hospital — which I didn’t find out until much later — and was in no condition to make a movie. So he’s only in one scene. I knew it was important for his character to have an end and not just disappear from the world. But it was all he was capable of doing at the time. He was in really rough shape.
How do you reflect on the trilogy of films that 3 From Hell concluded?
ZOMBIE: They’re important to me. These things become a slice of your life, and they blur with reality. That’s why I liked making each film different. As the characters grow and change, so do the people in real life. Even with The Devil’s Rejects, I was like, “I don’t want to make another wacky movie about people coming to the house.” That’s what’s cool about sequels. You can take them and do something else with them, because you’ve already established who they are. You can take them to another level. That’s why The Godfather Part II is great. You know who Michael Corleone is — now what’s his journey? That’s what’s interesting about it.
The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy is out 3/12 via Nuclear Blast. Pre-order it here.