Rob Zombie’s Most Insane Movie Yet: The Aristocratic Sadists and Killer Nazi Clowns of ‘31’

The hard rocker turned horror auteur opens up about his upcoming gorefest, horror influences, the state of metal, and much more.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

Rob Zombie’s horror movies don’t just get under your skin—they get in your face, challenging your tolerance for murder and mayhem while simultaneously making you question why such fiendishness is so appealing. The rocker-auteur’s latest, 31, is no different, detailing the gruesome ordeal suffered by a traveling carnival troupe after they’re abducted by psychos and forced to play a game in which they must survive for 12 hours against a horde or murderous clowns (including a Spanish Nazi little-person named “Sick-Head”)—all while sadists in powdered wigs and aristocratic English outfits (led by Malcolm McDowell) wager on their fates.

What transpires is an all-out assault of grindhouse gruesomeness, and while the film won’t receive its proper release until Oct. 21, it arrived in select theaters for one-night-only advance screenings—accompanied by music videos and a Q&A with Zombie—this past week. During a moment of downtime on his nationwide tour alongside Korn in support of his latest album The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser (say that five times fast), Zombie spoke to us about his love of ’70s horror cinema, 31’s relationship to 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects, the current state of heavy metal, and his fondness for his movie monsters.

You’re the rare modern filmmaker who seems to understand that memorably nightmarish visuals are more terrifying (and lasting) than jump scares. When you’re conceiving a project, what comes first: the basic story idea or the images?

Sometimes, I’ll have an image of something and I’ll be like, “I don’t even know what this is for.” You just see something in your head. But for the most part, [the films] just start as a vague idea, and that’s it. Like a one-sentence idea where you go, “OK, how do I flesh this out into something. Who’s a part of this? What are the characters? Where is this going? What does it look like? What does it feel like?” That’s usually the journey of it. For the movies I make, I was never really into jump scares. I was always more into just developing a world that you sink into when you’re watching the movie—because I think people sometimes think, “Well, if I jumped, it was scary.” And to me, sometimes you jump because you were startled. I like movies that, after the fact, you go, “Oh, I can’t stop thinking about this movie. It’s really freaking me out. Did it scare me? I don’t know, but I can’t stop thinking about it, there was something disturbing about it.”

2012’s The Lords of Salem boasted a dreamy, unreal supernatural atmosphere, whereas your latest, 31, takes a grittier grindhouse-y approach to horror. Why that tonal shift?

I arrive at the tone based on what the story is. With The Lords of Salem, I toyed with it for a long time, because I could have made it more tonally like this [31] by the way the cameras moved, the way I lit it, the way I did things. Then I thought its story seemed like it wanted to be like an Italian art movie: slow, the camera’s not moving a lot, the takes are drawn out, it’s more about the mood it’s creating, not the story it’s telling, where the whole movie feels like a dream. That’s what I always feel like when watching a [Dario] Argento film: “I don’t even know if this makes sense, it seems like a weird dream I had.” Like Suspiria or something. With 31, it seemed like time to go back to something more grounded in a gritty sort of in-your-face reality. So tonally and style-wise, they’re totally different.

How did you come up with the premise for 31?

The idea came out in a funny way. I’d been working on this movie Broad Street Bullies for like two years—a true-life hockey film about the Philadelphia Flyers—and it just wasn’t going anywhere. Movies get caught up in this development phase, and you’re like, “God, this could go on for like 10 years.” I was on the phone talking about it, and my frustration, and I go, “I bet I could make up a movie right now on the phone, in one second, that we could sell and get made before I ever get this made.” And I just blurted out, “Five people get kidnapped on Halloween night and get taken to this place and they have to fight to survive against clowns.” I almost said it as a joke. Then, on the other line, there’s a pause, and then he’s like, ‘I think we could sell that.’ [laughs] So it’s weird how things go sometimes.

Broad Street Bullies has been in development for years, and you’re now trying to make Raised Eyebrows (about the final years of Groucho Marx’s life). Is it difficult getting such projects off the ground when you’re so closely associated with horror?

Not really. At this point, it’s kind of all the same. The Groucho Marx film is good to go. That has been for a while. The only thing that’s making that not happen yet was—I’m not writing the script on that one. This other guy, Oren Moverman, who wrote Love and Mercy, the Brian Wilson movie, and a bunch of other film, he’s writing it. So he’ll write it, I’ll get the script, I’ll give him my notes, I’ll give them back to him. It’s just a much slower process. But as far as the money to make the film and all that type of stuff, it’s all in place and ready to go.

Broad Street Bullies was all good as far as me making the movie. It was just one of those things—it was just a lot of cooks in the kitchen, because you’re dealing with real-life people, you’re dealing with an NHL franchise, you’re dealing with so many things. There were just so many hurdles to get over. Whereas, when you just come up with an original idea, you don’t have to answer to anybody. You just do it.

Like a number of your prior films, 31 has a distinctly ’70s look and feel to it (and, in fact, it’s set in 1976). What is it about that era—and that era’s horror—that you find so appealing?

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’70s horror is almost like ’70s punk rock, in a way: It existed, it happened, most people were not there for it, but for the people who were, it was just special. Now these films are so famous, but at the time, when you’d go see these movies, you were seeing them in these shit theaters in the middle of nowhere. I never like to use the term “grindhouse,” but I was lucky enough to live in New York City in the early ’80s and go to 42nd Street to see movies like Cannibal Holocaust or Make Them Die Slowly. And it was a crazy thing. I mean, you felt like you were going to get killed just being in the theater. They were filled with junkies and prostitutes—it wasn’t really like going to the movies, because it was 42nd Street. It was dangerous and weird and you always saw people get into fights and get stabbed. It was crazy!

The movies and the surroundings became one and the same, almost. And most people didn’t know about these movies. They weren’t popular at the time. There was something special about them. There was just a vibe; they were movies being made for such a select audience that most people didn’t know about. And I was fine with that. That’s what I liked about it. They were so different, so outside the mainstream. If you could even find one other person in your high school who had even heard of these movies back then, it would be a miracle. Now, with the internet, everybody knows everything, nothing’s special, everything’s on a blu-ray, you can watch it whenever.

As you said, you were going for a hypnotic, Argento-style film with The Lords of Salem. Did any particular classics inspire 31?

Not really. Whenever I’m working, I never look at other movies. You don’t want to be influenced. Early on, you might look at stuff, or do research, but once you’re in it, you don’t. If anything, strangely enough, it was my own film The Devil’s Rejects that was the most influential on it. I never want to go back and try to recreate something I’ve done, and I still didn’t with this. But I wanted to capture that vibe again without remaking that movie.

You know, you’re sort of always working against yourself once you have some success. The fans are comparing you to you all the time, and, “Why don’t you make another The Devil’s Rejects?” And it’s like, “Because I already made that movie, so why would I make another one?” [laughs] But I would say 31 seems to me like a film that would satisfy that urge, as much as possible, without saying that that’s what we were trying to do. That’s how it seemed to me, anyway.

In The Devil’s Rejects, and Halloween, and now in 31, it seems as if you’re more interested in your monsters than your nominal protagonists. Is that a fair assessment?

Definitely. That’s what draws me in, because really, what exposed me to these films at first, when I was a kid, was the classic stuff. We didn’t even call them “horror movies” (I don’t even know when I first heard that term); we used to call them “monster movies.” And what drew you into them was Frankenstein, or the Wolf Man, or the Creature From the Black Lagoon, or King Kong. You were all about the monster. You weren’t all about [King Kong’s] Fay Wray. Or all about [Frankenstein’s] Colin Clive. You were all about Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi.

Especially with Halloween, when you’re going back to something that already exists, I thought it seemed silly to just do what had already happened. How can I take this sort of legendary story and flip it on its head? And I thought, we’ll get inside Michael’s head, rather than Laurie’s head—or both their heads, but Michael more so, so the monster has some sort of other dimension to him, he’s not just a ghostly shape in the shadows. Some people loved that, some people didn’t, but it didn’t matter. I just wanted to do something different, and I always thought I played Michael Myers more like he was Frankenstein. Because you know, all those monsters always had a sympathetic edge to them. There was always some sort of misunderstanding going on, or they were thrown into a world that they didn’t understand, and what they did was horrible but they just didn’t get it.

The Devil’s Rejects’ and 31’s villains definitely get it, though.

With The Devil’s Rejects, they’re horrible and they get it, but I wanted to make them filled with personality so you’re like, “Why do I like the killers? They’re horrible.” Because they have pizzazz! People are always drawn to people with pizzazz. You know, if Charles Manson was boring we would never talk about him, but he’s interesting, so we always talk about him. And with 31, it was the same thing: I wanted all the “good people,” who are all dirty carnies, to be interesting, and then we have the killers, who are all insane people. I always get bored when [in horror movies] you’re given the most vanilla, nice people, and then there are the bad people. I’m like, “Give me a break! Where do these super-nice everyday people live?” Those are always the victims.

Even with Halloween, people were like, “The girls are too foul-mouthed, they’re too rough-edged.” But they just seemed like regular teenage girls, because I made the crazy idea of casting teenagers as teenagers [laughs]. That’s how they were. You know, teenagers are not sweet and innocent, by any degree. So rather than casting 35-year-olds to play teenagers, I figured it was better to get someone who was 17 and see how they act.

Are there any current horror filmmakers you particularly admire right now?

There’s probably something I’ve seen recently that was great, but I can’t think of what it is off the top of my head. I don’t just sit around watching horror movies by any means, and if I do, I’ll probably go back and watch old stuff again. I know a horror movie was No. 1 at the box office this weekend [Don’t Breathe], but I haven’t seen it. I thought that movie The Witch was cool. I dug that.

You’re on tour with Korn supporting your new album [The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser]. How is that going, and how do you find the current state of the music industry, especially given that hard rock—and metal, in particular—now occupy such a small place in the mainstream?

It’s two things. From my point of view, everything is great. We’ve toured with Korn many, many times since 1999, when I think we did our first joint tour. And of all the times we’ve toured together, this is the biggest tour we’ve ever done. Every night is huge. Even when we go to bed, we’re like, “What the hell, man? How can we be playing in front of 15,000 people every night?” It’s just huge. It’s crazy. So from our point of view, it’s alive and well and everything is awesome.

But the other thing I’ve also noticed is, most of the acts when we play festivals—it’s us, or older acts, that are at the top of the bill. So I can see how it’s not been a great environment for new bands to break through, because rock radio is struggling to survive, and music videos are just thrown onto YouTube. There’s nothing that’s really driving it. So I do see how hard it is for newer bands. I wouldn’t want to have to break through now, with so few outlets. Not that there were a ton back in the day, but at least you had [MTV’s] Headbanger’s Ball, so you knew that at least for one second, your video would get some kind of national exposure. And you would always feel the repercussions of that—it would actually make quite a difference. So yeah, it’s both—everything’s great, everything’s bigger than it’s ever been, but on the other hand, depending on who you are, it’s a tough scene for people.