On Set with Rob Zombie

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Marsha Blackburn LaMarca / Dimension Films

A still from the movie Halloween.

One of the most persuasive condemnations of our veterans' healthcare system may be that a Southern California VA hospital is a suitable location for filming a Rob Zombie movie. The much tattooed 42-year-old director's last effort, the mordantly witty 2005 horror pic The Devil's Rejects, revealed the metal singer/director's knack for coaxing a certain grisly charm out of his homicidal antiheroes and evoking an unexpected creepiness out of the sun-bleached California desert. Now the horror auteur is taking a stab at Michael Myers, the masked psychopath from John Carpenter's 1978 Halloween, which Zombie is retooling for an August release.

The VA hospital is standing in for Myers' fictional Midwestern sanitarium, with the help of some barbed wire and fake autumn leaves. Members of the laid-back cast wear bathrobes and play pretty convincing nut cases. But occasionally, an impeccably groomed and attractive person in a lab coat strolls by. It is only when McSteamy, a.k.a. actor Eric Dane, passes through that it becomes clear Halloween is sharing turf with the cast of Grey's Anatomy, also filming at the VA hospital that day. This is a classic L.A. moment, in which fictional doctors from two different media and vastly different genres might give an autograph to a real doctor in the parking lot. But the juxtaposition of the two casts also highlights the differences between Zombie's Hollywood and almost everyone else's.

"Rob doesn't like perfect," says Malcolm McDowell, the English character actor best known for A Clockwork Orange, who plays the role of Myers' opportunistic physician, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance in the original). "He likes it when I trip, or answer my phone in the middle of a scene." McDowell is right about his director's yen for hyper-realism. Look at the cast of any Zombie film and you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone as telegenic as Grey's actors. Zombie's first movie, House of 1000 Corpses, revived the career of balding, acne-scarred bad guy Sid Haig, and the cast of The Devil's Rejects had an average age in the 50s, including blasts from the past like Three's Company's Priscilla Barnes, now 51.

Over lunch in the VA hospital's spinal cord injury unit, the director explains that the toughest part to cast in Halloween was the teenage babysitter. You'd think there would be hordes of girls lining up to make the career transition from tween starlet to the role that brought Jamie Lee Curtis fame in the original. And indeed there were. "We kept getting sent these typical Hollywood hottie girls who grate on your nerves, with perfectly plucked eyebrows," says Zombie. Ultimately, he went with a normal-looking teenager named Scout Taylor-Compton, 18, who has solid indie creds, including the upcoming film An American Crime.

But the meatier roles in this film belong to the two actors playing Mike Myers, newcomer Daeg Faerch as 10-year-old Michael and pro wrestler Taylor Mane as the adult. Zombie, who also wrote the script, says he wants his Halloween to explore whether Myers was born evil or became evil. In one scene, the 6'10" Mane plays the role as a downcast, sweet, Frankensteiny kind of a villain, exploited by the medical professionals treating him. (Evidently the evil icon gets his murderous mojo back later in the film). This Myers is also shrouded in hair, another Zombie signature. "I wanted Michael to have long hair so you could never quite see him," explains Zombie, whose own long locks also serve as a convenient privacy shield when he's squinting into a monitor. The film's hair stylist does look dangerously over-worked. Besides Mane's mop, she's also got to groom Faerch, who wears a 70s shag, and conceal Danny Trejo's ponytail, as he acts against thuggish type as a sensitive, short-haired security guard. "I'm super nitpicky about wigs," Zombie admits.

There are other unusual Zombie-isms that set the tone on set — like a serious case of mellow. Yes, the man who made his money howling songs with names like "Pussy Liquor" on stage turns out to be one of those quietly meticulous directors rather than a raving David O. Russell type. "Yelling is stupid," Zombie says, by way of explanation. Oh, and here's another surprise: Mr. Most Cinematic Human Roadkill Scene Ever (in The Devil's Rejects) doesn't like gratuitous violence. "I didn't want to get into this trend of creative ways to kills people," he says. "I like violence when it has a purpose" (a purpose like revealing character, for instance).

In the midst of all these shocking revelations, what's the next thing Zombie's going to say? That what he'd really like to do is direct a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock? Not exactly, his manager says, after the director has finished lunch and gone back to work. Zombie would love to do a Western.