In his manifesto Theatre and Cruelty, dramatic surrealist Antonin Artaud wrote, “If theatre wants to find itself needed once more, it must present everything in love, crime, war, and madness…This is why we will try to center our show around famous personalities, horrible crimes, and superhuman self-sacrifices, demonstrating that it can draw out the powers struggling within them, without resorting to the dead imagery of ancient Myths.”
This is why I will always love Rob Zombie.
Everything about Rob Zombie’s music makes me want to throw my fists in the air—the jock-jam riffs, the schizo garblings about fried chicken and Frankenstein, the strip club-ready rhythms and choruses. But that’s not all—there's his live show, with its blaring circus of go-go dancers and giant puppets; his films, yanked straight from the subconscious of a horny teenage horror fan; his art, which takes “Big Daddy” Ed Roth’s Kustom Kreep style and makes sweet, furious love to it in the alley behind Jumbo’s Clown Room. I love it all, every second of it.
Part of me wants to explain to my younger readers who Rob Zombie is, but the beauty of Rob Zombie is that I don’t really need to, because Rob Zombie has never deviated from his prime directive of putting on the great Lon Chaney freakout. He’s the heavy metal horror master, king of the carnies, a grindhouse killer who changed his mind in the final scene and married the blonde who sort of sounds like Bart Simpson instead of butchering her. Isn’t that enough?
At some point in my development as a metalhead, it wasn’t. Zombie’s 1998 solo debut Hellbilly Deluxe might have gotten me into metal, but once I broke into extreme sub-genres like black metal, death metal, and grindcore, I considered myself too good for it. The underground was older and wiser, full of glyphs, psychology, and the dead imagery of ancient Myths. From then on, anything sillier than Celtic Frost was unwelcome in the Krovatin household.
The result: I got bored. I realized that plenty of the breakdowns and esoteric subject matters used in underground metal were actually overused, and that one cult death metal track about the anticosmic ether was very similar to all of the others. All the while, I waited for an opening riff even half as exciting as that of “Scum of the Earth,” a spooky atmosphere that came anywhere near that of “Return of the Phantom Stranger,” or a bass line sleazy enough to rival that of “Pussy Liquor.”
Then I recently received a promo announcing Zombie’s new box set (which is out now), complete with oodles of vinyl, art prints, and a Phantom Creep mask. My first thought was, "Ah, Rob Zombie, gotta make that merch money, right?" Then I thought, "Man, this looks pretty cool, I do dig on this kind of stuff." And then I thought, "Holy fucking shit, I love Rob Zombie and always have." For the first time in years, I gave in to my complete fanboy adoration of the dude’s work. And it felt great. So I wrote a thousand-plus words singing his praises.
Is all of Zombie’s material perfect? Of course not. I don’t watch The Lords of Salem every night, and not every track from Hellbilly Deluxe II is on my Halloween playlist. But if you’re sitting around judging musicians by the B+ moments in their careers, then you’re a joyless shmuck. And anyway, the beauty of a prolific artist is that their work often grows into something bigger than one album or the other.
It’s funny that extreme metal fans don’t rep Zombie, because when underground bands take their cues from him, everyone busts in their pants over it. The Black Dahlia Murder write rollicking anthems about vampires and werewolves; Tribulation and Ghost make digestible theater-metal straight out of a Hammer horror movie; and Acid Witch even use that same metallicized 70s double feature aesthetic that Zombie helped cement in the rock 'n' roll psyche. So why does it feel like Rob Zombie gets little love from the extreme metal underground?
There's an argument that Zombie's portrayals of women are kind of sexist, because much of his art involves big-boobed monster women in pornographic poses, and because he has songs with titles like “The Hideous Exhibitions of a Dedicated Gore Whore.” There is truth in that—the latter is all about poking tender sensibilities, and the former is the crass goofery of a horndog. But on the other hand, the more I consume Zombie’s art, it seems like the women he portrays are, first and foremost, powerful.
In Zombie’s films, women are either formidable villains, such as House of 1,000 Corpses’ Baby Firefly and The Lords of Salem’s vicious witches, or hardcore survivors, like 31’s Charlie. Even his female slasher victims have more substance than their bumbling boyfriends (if the male protagonists of House had listened to their girlfriends, they’d be alive right now). While plenty of other horror films portray women as useless bimbos, Zombie portrays them as mistresses of everyone’s destiny. He’s in awe of women, even if he also likes drawing them naked.
That seems to be the artistic consensus on Zombie: his art isn’t mature. The people who tout this line love to pontificate about noise-era White Zombie, claiming Rob was a much better musician when he made music that they’ve never actually listened to and that they wouldn’t particularly enjoy if they did. The thesis boils down to that art is only mature if there’s something to “get,” while a cartoon of the Mummy in a hot rod is childish because it is what it is.
Maturity, at least in how it’s pushed by the mainstream, always felt like a scam to me. The giving up of childish things that we’re taught is necessary to adulthood seems to center around not doing what you love because someone might laugh at you for it. Meanwhile, the typical “adults” I’ve met are usually way more mentally and emotionally immature than the childish weirdoes. That’s because outcasts are used to being told they can’t have what they want, and subsequently develop resilience, discipline, and patience. But when I see someone red with rage at a hotel check-in desk or getting competitive with their waiter, they are almost always some normal-ass “grown-up.”
For me, the real sign of emotional maturity is a strong work ethic, especially among creatives. While I have some respect for those artists who wait years for the right muse to strike them, it’s the dudes who wake up every morning and get to work that truly inspire me.
Zombie isn’t a rock star because a record executive discovered him singing “Waterloo” at a bar one night; he worked his ass off to get where he is. He’s also never a diva. He’s never drunkenly crashed his car, or abused the venue staff, or showed up to a show hours late (these days, he’s actually a sober vegan).
At the end of the day, Rob Zombie goes for the gut, just like all of history’s great artists. Everything highbrow is really gross and mortal at its core. Shakespeare is full of dick jokes. Madame Bovary is about getting laid in a carriage. Martin Scorcese’s films are gorier than Exhumed albums. Great art isn’t enjoyable because you have to think it to death, it hits you hard and makes you feel something despite yourself. When Antonin Artaud talks about theater drawing out the powers struggling within the human soul, he’s talking about hearing the opening chords to Zombie's “Dragula” at the Sovereign Center in Reading, Pennsylvania.
So here’s to you, Rob Zombie, you brilliant bastard. I sleep better knowing that while the snobs sneer and the critics roll their eyes, you’re out there singing a gigantic-riffed song about Leatherface and cramming eager earholes full of that voodoo that only you do so well. Stay the course, my dude—I’m here for it.
Chris Krovatin is a living dead man on Twitter.