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Heavy Metal and Horror

Rob Zombie on stage

Photo: Rob Zombie, courtesy the Everett Collection

How the rock genre and slashers go hand in hand.

Heavy metal and horror movies go together like blood and gore. Both genres revel in shocking and violent imagery. Alice Cooper, who has been doing hard rock for decades, pre-dating metal, always incorporated elements of horror – guillotines, snakes – into his act. Metallica’s lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, a longtime horror fanatic, hosted Kirk’s Crypt at Metallica’s recent Orion festival.  Rob Zombie, through his successful, sanguinary films, has become something of an Ingmar Bergman of the rocksploitation genre; he is an auteur du splatter-cinema, if you will. Zombie is a writer, director and producer of gore – and he knows his audience very well. The self-proclaimed “Hellbilly,” according to The-Numbers, has average grosses of $29 million for films under his directorship. Over the 2007 Labor Day weekend, Zombie’s update of the moribund Halloween franchise drew record crowds – earning $30.6 million – for the Weinstein Company and MGM. Zombie’s fan base was made for horror, and, being a smart businessman, he leveraged his niche market of young men into a nice nest egg.

The term “heavy metal” itself came from counterculture writer William Burroughs’ novel The Soft Machine, published in 1962. Six years later, in 1968, Steppenwolf sang the magic, incendiary lyrics, “I like smoke and lightning/ heavy metal thunder.” The rest was history. Hair bands notwithstanding, the hyper-masculinity of heavy metal – in lyrics and in imagery — lends itself perfectly to the horror genre, where life is reduced to Darwinian survival and we are all just animated meattrying to avoid the occasional ice pick.

If metal and horror go back a long way, it wasn’t really until the Presidency of Ronald Reagan that the genre achieved full-blooded – pun intended — maturity. The obligatory cameo appearances by Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne, with their 80s hair, were a staple of that decade of greed. In the 1980s, the Golden Age of Metal (as well as of horror), it was almost mandatory for a slasher flic to have a heavy metal soundtrack as well as a music video drenched in blood. Excess, in everything, was the 80s. “In the taxonomy of popular music, heavy metal is a major subspecies of hard-rock – the breed with less syncopation, less blues, more showmanship and more brute force,” John Pareles of the New York Times famously described heavy metal in 1988. One could almost say the same thing with minor alterations in language about horror films — a subspecies of the thriller, perhaps, with less attention to narrative and character, more jump cuts, more brute force.

The 80s were, in short, an age of leather, gunpowder and – how could it be otherwise? — extended guitar solos. Punk, thrash and even glam metal scores were all the rage. The legendary Return of the Living Dead, released in 1985 with a solid punk rock score, did $14 million at the box office on a measly $4 million budget. In 1986, the aforementioned Alice Cooper – arguably more “hard rock” than hard core metal – scored much of Friday the 13th VI: Jason Lives. One year later, in 1987, hair metal band Dokken, not to be left out, did the memorable theme for Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (the only thing, incidentally, memorable about that movie). And in The Gate  (also 1987; also unmemorable), the cursed LP of the band SACRIFIX played backwards opens the gates to the underworld. Under the influence of Republican Presidents some of the best horror films of all time were created.

“Heavy metal and horror have a share a storied history,” writes Lauren Wise in the Phoenix New Sun’s Metal Mondays column. “Both are extreme, the kind of platforms that appeal to the misfits and the adventurous. The dual art forms have indirectly and directly influenced each other drastically over the decades.” Both also have cathartic value, as any young man could tell you. Listening to death metal, to the darker elements of hard rock, acts as a purge to negative emotions. So much the better for our civilization that we have such release valves in place.

Finally, as the staff of Slate stated in an interesting piece titled The Greatest Horror Films of the Aughts, “That the halcyon days of horror are directly proportional to the index of actual human suffering.” One cannot fail to note, in closing, that most of the films mentioned in that post were done under the Presidency of George W. Bush, not unlike the Golden Age of Horror, which occurred under Reagan’s watch. Coincidence? Just saying.


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