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The Big Picture

Horror Flick Scares Off Universal


When Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider was in college, a potential boyfriend took her on a date to see the blood-soaked slasher classic "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." "Needless to say," she recalls with a laugh, "the guy didn't get a second date."

Now Rob Zombie knows how he felt.

Up until now, Zombie, a theatrical heavy-metal rocker, has been something of a poster boy for corporate synergy at Vivendi-Universal. As the leader of White Zombie and later as a solo artist, Zombie has sold millions of records for Universal's Geffen Records label. In 1999, Zombie designed the Halloween Horror Night maze for Universal Studios Hollywood that featured creepy creatures and a 30-foot replica of Zombie's head. And the dreadlocked rocker's most ambitious project, a gory $7-million horror film called "House of 1000 Corpses," was due for release this summer by Universal Pictures.

Well, so much for synergy. After weeks of negotiations and soul-searching, Universal Pictures has told Zombie that it won't release the movie and instead has allowed Zombie, who wrote and directed the picture, to retain the rights and look for a new distributor. The studio plans to officially announce the decision today.

"We have the utmost respect for Rob, who made a really intense and compelling movie, but it turned out far more intense than we could have possibly imagined," Snider says. "When I looked at the cumulative effect of the entire film, it was clear that the best version of the movie would end up getting an NC-17 rating, and we felt that would make the marketing and distribution of the movie impossible for us."

Zombie says he's not entirely surprised by the studio's abrupt case of cold feet. "I have to admit that it would've been great if they'd released the film, but it felt weird from the get-go. Here we were, making this crazy [expletive] horror film, with this big corporate entity behind us. If you look at the history of horror films, the really scary ones, like 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' were made by little independent companies, not big corporations."

Snider and Zombie both say the decision was the result of differences in artistic taste, not worries over the film's playability or any chilling effect from the browbeating the entertainment industry received last fall from the Senate Commerce Committee and the Federal Trade Commission over marketing violent movies, music and video games to children.

Still, since this is the first time a studio has publicly disassociated itself from a violent movie since the hearings, Universal's decision is bound to be interpreted as a sign that movie studios are taking a more cautious approach to youth-oriented films with violent subject matter.

There is already evidence to support that view. Zombie's manager, Andy Gould, says he was involved as a music supervisor in several recent teen-oriented horror films, including "Valentine" and "Dracula 2000," whose content was toned down in the wake of the FTC report on the marketing of violent films to children. And Snider acknowledged that "going to Washington did raise my consciousness in certain subtle ways, especially in terms of marketing films to young audiences."

However she argues that dropping "1000 Corpses" was a "content issue, not a witch-hunt response. I would've responded the same way to the movie without ever having listened to [Sen.] John McCain at the hearings. This wasn't about sending the movie out with an R rating and lots of warnings. This was overwhelmingly a matter of personal responsibility."


At first, everything seemed to be going smoothly on the project. Universal loved Zombie's script, viewing it as a potential "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise, with the built-in marketing extra of a director who could promote the film at his own rock concerts.

The movie went into production last summer, filming on the Universal lot and around Los Angeles. The story involves two young couples whose car, in classic horror-movie fashion, breaks down in the middle of nowhere, leaving them in the hands of a family of creepy small-town crazies.

The family is headed by Mother Firefly, an aging glamour queen (played by Karen Black) who puts on shows with puppets made out of stuffed cats and squirrels. She has a daughter named Baby, who puts out cigarettes in the palm of her hand, and a 300-pound son named Tiny, who wears a leather mask to obscure hideous burns. Needless to say, they torture and kill the young couples in an especially graphic and lurid fashion.

It is surely no coincidence that White Zombie was Beavis and Butt-head's favorite band. Snider says she knew what she was getting into; she listened to Zombie's albums, watched his videos and went to see his horror maze.

"I certainly knew more about his work as a first-time director than I knew about the Weitz brothers before they made 'American Pie,' " she says.

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