Shock Rock: Terror on Stage

The First in a 5 Part Look at the Career of Modern Cult Horror Icon Rob Zombie.

Commercialized music is often as much about the cultivation of a persona and an image as it is about the music itself. It takes more than a catchy sound or clever lyrics to catch the public’s attention, especially in an age with so many other sources of distraction and entertainment. To really hook an audience, a performer needs to stand-out, which often results in them behaving as ridiculous and over-the-top as humanly possible. The more ostentatious, the better. And, as with all things, controversy sells. It’s why so many of our modern-day musical stars are seemingly out of their minds: It works. Every time Kanye West says something asinine on Twitter, or Lady Gaga wears another meat dress, its more eyes in their direction, which in turn means more money in their wallets.
But some artists have taken this a step further, and have made shocking their audiences an art form in and of itself. These artists don’t just invite controversy: they thrive on it. To them, subversion is the name of the game. They put on shows designed to scare and disgust, often involving violence, gore, and of course, pyrotechnics. They’re hated by critics, loathed by parents, and, naturally, worshiped by angsty teenagers everywhere. They become societal scapegoats for everything older generations are afraid of, invoking fears of everything from devil worship to communism. Which, of course, only makes them cooler to kids. Initially operating within a fairly niche position in the larger music community, “Shock Rock,” as its since been dubbed by fans, has since risen to much greater prominence simply by virtue of its nature as an attention-grabbing and often controversial subgenre of rock and roll.
Shock rock owes its origins to a complex and varied catalog of entertainment institutions, ranging from carnival freak shows to high-class operatic theatre, but didn’t really solidify itself as a genre of music until the mid 20th century. It’s rise to the forefront of popular culture is largely said to have originated with the unorthodox and thematically exotic performances of “Screamin Jay” Hawkins, a singer/songwriter/boxer combo who gained popularity in the mid ‘50s. In particular, his performances of “I Put a Spell on You,” in which he would exit onto the stage from a coffin, dressed as a tribal witch-doctor, often accompanied by a flaming skull affectionately referred to as Henry, captured both the fascination and fear of audiences. Hawkins would be emulated by a number of smaller acts throughout the 1960s, but it wasn’t until a decade later, when heavy metal and punk rock began to take center stage, that the style’s true icons would emerge.

The 1970s brought with it a change in commercial approach. Thanks to the ever-increasing roll of both television and portable music technology, music was reaching mass audiences by magnitudes more than ever before. In an effort to adapt, artists began trying harder and harder to market themselves as visually-identifiable (and therefore trademarkable) cultural symbols. The obvious example of this is KISS, who’s now-iconic makeup and costumes were deliberately designed to make them more of a brand than a band. But despite their appearance, shock-rockers they were not. No, it takes more than some eyeliner and black leather to shock a crowd: It takes someone like Alice Cooper.

Cooper is perhaps the quintessential shock rock performer. In fact, he basically wrote the playbook, pioneering many of the tactics and methods still used by performers today. After a particularly bloody incident involving a chicken accidentally occurred at one of his shows, rumors began to spread that that Cooper himself dismembered the bird with his own teeth. Upon seeing a spike in attention nationwide, he basically decided to run with it, and the rest is history. His shows often featured incredibly dark, macabre iconography, and were essentially highly-choreographed snuff films set to music. Medieval and Gothic torture instruments were frequently used, with some shows culminating in Cooper’s “death” by electric chair. He was known for his flagrant mix of “deplorable” sex and violence, which created a strange, paradoxical cultural disconnect considering the fact that his music was actually fairly mainstream, all things considered. His snarky, aggressively witty lyrics, which were often completely overshadowed by the sheer spectacle of his physical performances, only furthered his popularity. And while there were other acts operating at the time using similar antics, namely more underground groups like The Plasmatics and The Mentors, it was Cooper who was the style’s real breakout star. His success ultimately paved the way for later acts to follow in his footsteps, with groups like Gwar and later Marilyn Manson adopting their own versions of Cooper’s violent theatrics.

These artists made a name for themselves not only through their aggressive or counter-cultural style of music, but also through their equally subversive stage presence and often-terrifying alter-egos. They existed to tap into the subconscious of the under-represented, becoming gods to the outcasts and freaks and losers of the world. It’s pure, cathartic escapism, allowing audiences to explore the more violent, chaotic parts of their psyche in a healthy, constructive way. For obvious reasons, this has drawn extensive parallels, from both casual fans and cultural scholars alike, to the ideological and societal forces behind horror films as well. Both mediums allow for a visceral, cerebral exploration of subject matter and themes that are otherwise unreachable or taboo in everyday life, which for many is extremely therapeutic. And, at the end of the day, both celebrate the somewhat bizarre notion of using sex, violence, and death to create art.
But despite their thematic similarities, the two entertainment mediums have had surprisingly few direct interactions with one another, at least in the lead-up to the 2000s. Artists would often use Gothic visuals and iconography in both their music and in their performances, but would rarely invoke specific franchises or characters. While they certainly shared similar aesthetics, they existed in two largely separate spheres, albeit ones that had a close genetic relationship. Artists like Alice Cooper would allude to subject matter that was certainly horror-adjacent, but rarely ventured into direct reference (“Feed My Frankenstein” notwithstanding).
Inversely, figures within the rock/metal community would often find themselves referenced in horror films, either through the inclusion of their music or by direct cameo appearances, but have still had a relatively tangential relationship with the genre as a whole. Music itself played an important role in horror throughout the 80s and 90s, with many franchise horror films often being accompanied by a promotional theme from a popular artist at the time. The aforementioned Alice Cooper, for example, released a single for Friday the 13: Part 6 (and would even later cameo as infamous horror slasher icon Freddy Krueger’s adopted father in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare). But again, outside of fun, self-referential moments like these, horror films and shock rock remained relatively disconnected.

Somewhat surprisingly, more traditional rock and punk music had more collaborative interactions with the horror movie industry than their more over-the-top counterparts ever did. One would think that the relatively tamer nature of more-mainstream performers would lend themselves less genuinely to the visual and thematic aesthetics of horror, yet that clearly was not the case. Blondie’s Debbie Harry appeared in David Cronenberg’s cult-classic Videodrome, David Bowie starred in cheesy erotic vampire flick The Hunger, and KISS’s very own Gene Simmons make a brief appearance alongside the self-appointed Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osborn (who’s own status as a shock-rocker is subject to debate), in 1986’s Trick or Treat. A possible explanation for this is simply the fact that there weren’t all that many shock rock performers around to really choose from, as the style has always been fairly niche when viewed in relation to other, more mainstream flavors of music. This, coupled with the fact that, financially, it made much more sense to court more well-known and marketable artists for promotional work, means that, ultimately, shock rock artists really weren’t all that attractive to studios.
And even when musicians would temporarily cross over into the realm of silver-screen horror, it was almost always in a superficial capacity. A cameo appearance here, a feature on a soundtrack there, and maybe occasionally a meatier starring role for some of the genre’s more talented faces. Yet for the most part, none of these artists ever took a swing at working behind the camera. It seems so bizarre, especially for shock-rockers like Alice Cooper, that none of these artists ever tried to migrate to film full-time. They clearly had the visual eye and technical skills to assemble large, extravagant stage shows, and often coordinated entire tours with multiple acts. And there certainly would have been audience overlap enough to justify the jump to another medium. But it seems like most, if not all performers in the genre were simply content to keep their dark fantasies restricted to the stage and the small screen. The shock rock image made for good publicity, but it was mostly skin deep. They took off their makeup, went home, and lived normal, compartmentalized lives, for the most part. They didn’t really make it a part of themselves, not fully. That is, until a Massachusetts-born son of two carnival workers named Robert Bartleh Cummings decided to try his hand at a music career of his own.
It all starts with a name. Realizing his own given moniker was not nearly metal enough for the image he planned to cultivate, Cummings chose to instead rebrand himself as “Rob Zombie”. That alone should tell you everything you need to know about the man and his relationship with horror: He lives and breathes it. Rob Zombie has intertwined rock music with horror iconography more than any other mainstream musician alive, and as you can probably guess, he’s not exactly subtle about it. I mean, just look at the guy:

Zombie did not start his career as the solo act he would later be most known for. Instead, he began as part of a group, appropriately named White Zombie, which he founded with his then-girlfriend while still in school. This should have served as the world’s first clue about just how obsessed this man is with horror films: White Zombie is a cult-classic pre-code supernatural-thriller about sinister voodoo rituals in Haiti which transform unsuspecting victims into mindless, undead ghouls. Beginning as a noise rock group styled after bands like The Velvet Underground, they would eventually adjust to that of a more contemporary heavy metal sound. Rob himself, being the pop-culture-obsessed guy that he is, peppered their music with frequent quotes and often direct audio samples from films. It was during his time with the group that Zombie began to cultivate his signature visual style as well.
Zombie’s stage presence borrows heavily form his predecessors within the shock rock and heavy/industrial metal genres, emphasizing stylized makeup and grungy, dirty clothing and costumes to make him and his bandmates appear as corpses or various undead entities. Pale face paint, thick black eyeshadow, and long, greasy, scraggly hair all made Zombie look more like an extra from a George Romero film than a rockstar, which is likely precisely what he wanted. This filthy, almost-diseased look, coupled with his aggressive, post-industrial sound, made him a hugely popular staple at metal festivals around the world for much of the late 90s and early 2000s.

But unlike with most of his contemporaries, Zombie’s love affair with horror went beyond the visual. Not content with simply having his music share thematic similarities with Rather, his music itself is teeming with direct references to all sorts of film mythology. Just take a listen to one song from his debut solo album, Hellbilly Deluxe:

In that one song alone, we have: Audio lifted directly from the trailer for an early 70s Italian Frankenstein spin-off called Lady Frankenstein, music sampled from Wes craven’s The Last House on the Left, dialogue from an English/Belgian erotic vampire thriller (wow, there’s a lot of those, huh?) Daughters of Darkness, and numerous lyrical references to things like Vincent Price’s Dr. Goldfoot character (from the cheesy 1960s series of the same name) and the infamously-trashy Nazi/Werewolf/Prison flick Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. And that’s just from one song. Rob Zombie is one of the biggest horror nerds on the planet, with other songs about everything from Edger Allen Poe to A Clockwork Orange and even the classic Adam’s Family rip-off sitcom The Munsters. It’s also not uncommon to hear short interludes or intros in his songs using the voices of classic horror icons like famous Hammer Dracula (and future Sarumon) Christopher Lee In short, the man seems to think about literally nothing else but horror.
However, it’s in his music videos that Zombie wears his influences the most directly on his sleeve. Directing most of them himself, many of Zombie’s videos are either direct homages to classic horror films and franchises, or are instead steeped in general occult iconography. For instance, the video for the aforementioned “Living Dead Girl” is heavily inspired by 1920s German silent thriller The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with much of the video being almost shot for shot recreations of scenes from the film. Likewise, the video for “Dragula” features Zombie driving the family car from The Munsters. In many, many others, Zombie and/or his bandmates are joined by all manner of monsters from all eras of horror cinema, as well as clowns, carnies, and freaks of all kinds. He also frequently features cameos from other shock rock pioneers like Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper as well, showing his reverence for that particular medium as well.

Zombie has interwoven and intersected the worlds of shock rock and horror cinema in a more comprehensive, complete way than anyone who’s come before him. And in a way, that’s part of his charm. It’s his gimmick, really. In a bizarre sort of way, he’s almost like a dark version of someone like Jimmy Buffet: A performing artist with a very defined, specialized subject matter that attracts a very specific crowd. Although, in this instance, instead of courting middle aged white couples drunk on margaritas, Zombie attracts horror fanatics and scream queens.
It’s no surprise then, given his adoration of the genre’s aesthetics and mythology, that Zombie would inevitably decide to try his hand at creating some horror films of his own. He clearly had a passion for the subject matter, and his experience in music production and video direction should have, hypothetically, given him all the technical know-how necessary to proceed. The only problem is that most of his video work prior to his foray into film had all been largely derivative of existing works, with little of his own creation outside of the musical arena. Simply knowing a lot about horror films doesn’t necessarily mean you can write or direct your own (believe me, I know that firsthand). So could he actually translate his previous ventures into a viable film career?
The short answer is: It’s complicated. While he’s helmed eight theatrically-released films, many of them achieving moderate financial success and cult status among horror fans, his actual merits as a filmmaker are subject to debate. For the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be taking a look at the film career of Rob Zombie, from The Devil’s Rejects to his most recent output, 3 From Hell, exploring his influences and his overall impact on the industry, as well as the actual quality of his work. I’ve only ever seen one or two before embarking on this venture (and frankly, I haven’t been impressed), so I’m very curious to see just what exactly he brings to the table, if anything. Is he really the master of horror he seems to think he is? Or should he stick to music videos and leave the feature-length flicks to the pros? Join me starting next week to find out!

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