The lover: Rob Zombie, former frontman of the 1990s art-metal band White Zombie, who’s become a respected director of hard-edged, personal horror films like The Devil’s Rejects and the recent Halloween remakes. Zombie’s latest film is The Lords Of Salem, an allusive story of ancient evils and contemporary addictions. It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray today, from Anchor Bay. Also, anyone living or traveling near Pomona, California this October can visit Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare, a combination rock festival/county fair/haunted maze based on Zombie’s music and films. The Nightmare will be happening at the L.A. County “Fearplex” every Thursday through Sunday from October 10 through November 2.
The madness: The 1978 period drama Paradise Alley. After the phenomenal success of Rocky, Sylvester Stallone convinced Universal to let him direct one of his older scripts, about three poor New York brothers who get involved with the wrestling business after World War II. The film flopped, as critics and audiences didn’t know what to make of another Rocky-style sports movie that wavered between broad comedy and slow-building slice-of-life.
Rob Zombie: Actually, I don’t know if everyone hates this movie. [Laughs.] I remember the reviews were terrible, and most people I know haven’t seen it and don’t talk about it. So I don’t know if people hate it. What the hell do I know about what people like? It was Stallone’s second film after Rocky. I think it’s a great movie. I loved it. I went to see it when it came out. After Rocky came out, I was big fan, like the rest of the world. And he followed up Rocky with F.I.S.T., which was a pretty good film, too, but it didn’t really deliver on the Rocky promise. And then Paradise Alley. I think that it just got nailed by everybody and it was a disaster. But it’s a great film. It’s a really cool film. And it’s actually gotten better, I think, over the years. It’s got a great cast. It’s got a great vibe. There’s a lot of good character actors in it.
I think maybe I loved it because it was kind of Rocky-ish, in a way. His character was a little bit like Rocky Balboa, even though he didn’t do any of the fighting. It was his brother, Kid Salami [played by Lee Canalito], who does the wrestling in the movie. But going back and watching it again, there are so many great people in it, like Terry Funk and Tom Waits and Armand Assante and Kevin Conway and Joe Spinell. There are so many great character actors in the movie. It still holds up. And it has that look of movies that died after the ’70s. Nothing looked like that again. And even for Stallone, his career changed so much after that that he never really did stuff like that again.
The Dissolve: Can do you define that look? Because your own films have tried to have that sort of 1970s look about them. What is that look, exactly?
Zombie: It’s several things. It’s the quality of the film, for one. The film stock had a certain look. The lenses, the cameras—they just give it a certain look that I really like. But it’s also the music, the fashion, and just the general style that I just love. I don’t know if I love it because that’s my time period for enjoying things and really discovering movies as a kid and teenager. Whatever I saw back then just seemed phenomenal to me. I don’t look back at the ’60s quite the same way, and I certainly don’t look at the ’80s that way. In fact, I look at the ’80s, like, basically if anything was made in the ’80s it looks fucking horrible. [Laughs.] You know? The fashion, the hair, the music. Listen to the score of a ’70s movie and listen to the score of an ’80s movie… Yikes.
The Dissolve: You have the synchronized drum and the saxophone. That’s the ’80s soundtrack.
Zombie: Horrible. I mean, it’s funny just to look at the difference between just Rocky and Rocky III. [Laughs.] What the hell?
The Dissolve: You would’ve been 13 years old when Paradise Alley came out?
Zombie: Yeah, 13.
The Dissolve: About how often were you going to the movies back then?
Zombie: We would pretty much see everything. But it didn’t seem like there were that many movies to see. I don’t remember every week there being five new, wide-release films. Back then it seemed like movies sat in theaters forever. So whenever there was something new, we would just go see it. Unless it was something for kids, like Herbie Rides Again or some bullshit like that. Then we wouldn’t bother. But yeah, we pretty much would literally go see everything, no matter what it was.
The Dissolve: When you say “we,” is this you and your parents? You and your brother?
Zombie: Probably me and my brother, me and my friends, whoever, at that point. That was the time period when Raiders Of The Lost Ark or Close Encounters Of The Third Kind would sit in the theater for six months. And then you would finally go, “Oh my God! It’s a new movie! Let’s go see it. I don’t even give a shit what it is.” But also, too, for me, as a movie fan at that point, it just seemed like every film we’d go see was blowing our minds. You’d go see Jaws and then you’d go see Star Wars and Close Encounters and whatever—everything was like, “Fuck me.” That was such a heyday of film. It felt like it, too. I think we just got spoiled.
The Dissolve: At what point did you begin sort of studying film? You mentioned that you were a regular filmgoer when you were a kid, but your movies have a lot of different cinematic influences worked into them, from the Marx Brothers references in The Devil’s Rejects to the gigantic Méliès moon on the wall in The Lords Of Salem. When did you really become a serious movie buff?
Zombie: Pretty early on. When I was little I remember I had film books. Because I would watch everything on television, so even when I was a little kid I was really into the Marx Brothers, or—I was just into everything, because back then what was so cool was, there were only 13 channels. So every week I would get the TV Guide and I’d go through and circle every movie. Everybody I know that’s roughly my age did the same thing. I’d go through and circle every movie that was going to be on TV in an attempt to try to watch every single one. Because usually there were only two channels that really played movies. I have some of those TV Guides and I was looking at them the other day and it was just amazing. You’d be like, “Okay, from 10 to 2 I’m going to watch The Great Escape, and then from 2 to 4 I’m going to watch Planet Of The Apes, and then from 4 to 6 I’m going to watch A Night At The Opera. Then I’m going to take a break, and then from 8 to 10, I’m going to watch whatever…” I would just watch everything. So I was just a huge movie fan. It wasn’t one specific—I mean, probably horror, if you told me to pick one. But I was just as big a fan of Groucho Marx as I was of Boris Karloff.
The Dissolve: Did Stallone’s personal story as an underdog from New York resonate with you at all, from where you were in Massachusetts?
Zombie: I didn’t really think about it that way. I never really thought about it. It never crossed my mind, truthfully. At that age, we’d just go, and even though we knew movies were fake, it’s like they were so magical that you couldn’t get your head around them. It was funny. You would become so wrapped up with Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, to see him play another role you’re like, “How can this be possible? He’s Rocky!” I think the first movie I ever saw in the theater was Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. I probably thought it was real. I didn’t know that was Gene Wilder. I thought, “Oh, there’s this guy named Willy Wonka. That’s cool.” And then I saw Young Frankenstein and I was like, “Wait a minute? That’s the same guy?”
It was funny, the other day I got to talk to Mel Brooks for a while and I was telling him how I realized that all the first movies I ever saw were basically his. First time I ever went to the drive-in, the first R-rated movie I ever saw. It was just kind of funny how influential he was.
The Dissolve: And if you saw a Mel Brooks movie back then, you were basically seeing cinema history. You were seeing the Westerns and the horror movies and all the things he was making fun of.
Zombie: Yeah, and going back to what I was talking about about TV, I think that younger kids had a better—well, me, anyway, at a younger age, I had a better idea of the scope of film. Now it seems like if you go up to the average 10-year-old and go, “Big Marx brothers fan?” they’ll be like, “What are you talking about?” But that was TV for us back then. I would watch Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon the same way I would watch The Love Boat. It was on TV, so I watched it. I knew just about as much about You Bet Your Life and The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis as I did Mork & Mindy and Happy Days. So I was pretty well-rounded in things. That was just that time period. I loved The Tonight Show, because I was like, “Holy fuck, Bob Hope’s gonna be on! And Burt Reynolds! And Charo!” I was just an entertainment maniac. I just worshipped everything about entertainment people.
The Dissolve: Does an event like the Great American Nightmare festival try to give people the connective experience to your films that you had with movies when you were watching them on TV over and over again as a kid?
Zombie: Yeah, in a way it does. I did a maze based on House Of 1000 Corpses about 10 years ago, and when I walked through I was like, “This really feels like I’m walking through the movie. What a cool experience.” That’s really what it is. You want people to go through it and feel it. Because when I was a kid, what I was obsessed with in movies—be it Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Rocky Horror Picture Show—is that feeling like you want to get inside the movie. It almost frustrates you that you can’t. And these mazes that are based the films, they’re so detailed, it’s like… You want people to come out and go, “I feel like I just was licking El Superbeasto. That’s fucking weird.”
The Dissolve: When was the last time you saw Paradise Alley?
Zombie: I probably watched the whole thing maybe a year or so ago, I think. I was watching some of it this morning just to refresh my memory. But I’ve seen it a bunch of times over the years. It looks great. It’s a good movie. Actually, just flipping through some of the scenes this morning made me want to go back and watch the whole thing again.
The Dissolve: After you became a filmmaker, did you find yourself watching movies that you loved when you were younger differently?
Zombie: Yeah, for sure. Paradise Alley, for instance. The end sequence where Frankie The Thumper and Kid Salami are fighting, and the rain’s coming through the ceiling, and they’re sort of fighting in slow motion and they’re falling in the water. As a kid, you’re just watching it. But now I can look and go, “That’s a really well-directed scene.” Stallone directed it, and Stallone is a great director. He made great stuff. He doesn’t get the credit for the films he’s directed. There are some very interesting choices he made in that film.
The Dissolve: You mentioned the trouble Stallone had getting people to accept him at first as anything but Rocky Balboa. Has your fan base in heavy metal and horror been willing to go along with you when you’ve made more unusual and daring films like The Devil’s Rejects and The Lords Of Salem?
“You’d go see Jaws and then you’d go see Star Wars and Close Encounters and whatever—everything was like, “Fuck me.” That was such a heyday of film.”
Zombie: I think they go along, but at a slower pace. But that’s okay. As a filmmaker, unless you sit there trying to perfectly craft exactly what you think people want, that’s going to be the case with every film, probably. You make it, and people go, “That’s not this!” Because they always just want it to be exactly like the last movie you made. Then it seems like each film, as the years go on, gets the same following. It just takes time. It seems like more and more people are slow to embrace something new. Because before we all had DVDs or YouTube or whatever, you’d just see a movie, and maybe you went back to the theater to see it twice, three times, four times, but you didn’t live with it.
It’s the same thing with record albums, too, because when people are like, “I don’t like the new record as much,” I’m like, “How could you? You’ve been listening to the last record nonstop for two years, and you’ve listened to this one for five minutes. Of course you don’t like it as much. How could you? It’s not possible.” I’m the same way. You’ve got to live with things sometimes.
There have been movies that I thought I hated and then I’ll go back and watch them and I go, “I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking. This movie is fucking brilliant.” And that’s another thing, too—I don’t mean this in a pretentious way, because I’ve done the same thing myself—sometimes you’re not in the headspace at that place in your life or that age to understand what you’re watching. Because I remember as a kid watching 2001: A Space Odyssey and I thought it was cool, but my friend was like, “It’s fucking boring and stupid.” No, it’s not. Stanley Kubrick is not boring and stupid. Perhaps you’re boring and stupid. [Laughs.] So sometimes things just don’t hit you at certain times.
Even with silly movies, sometimes. I remember going to the movies to see Meet The Parents and I thought it was the worst movie I’d ever seen. And then I saw it on HBO and thought, “This is the funniest fucking movie. What was up my butt that day?” I didn’t think anything about it was funny. And then I watched it on HBO, like, 20 times and every time I watched it I thought it was funnier. So, go figure.