Performs during Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival alongside Five Finger Death Punch, Amon Amarth, Mastodon, Children of Bodom and more. $35.50-$89.20, 12:45 p.m., July 21. Comcast Theatre, 61 Savitt Way, Hartford, livenation.com.
As a kid in the late 1990s obsessed with video games, I couldn't get enough of Twisted Metal. The series, whose game play consists of several heavily armed vehicles shooting shit at one another in Death Race 2000-style warfare, introduced a range of macabre sorts: a clown/ice cream truck driver whose hair was literally fire, an eternally tortured chap whose vehicle consisted of two humungous tires strapped to his arms and legs, and a slighted wheel-loader operator who shared a striking resemblance with Michael Douglas in Falling Down. The original two Twisted Metal games were fantastic, but internal drama soon split developer SingleTrac from publisher Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc. apart, leading Twisted Metal III and 4 to be handled by 989 Studios instead. The 989 entries really, really sucked, but those two games had one upside: Rob Zombie.
Zombie and, through licensing, his old band White Zombie contributed three tunes to TMIII's soundtrack. For game no. 4, 989 turned the vocalist into an actual character, crowning him the first nonfictional person to join the game's universe. His TM4 avatar — a ghoul with bluish-gray skin and a fetching, red and black robe/top hat combo — exaggerated how Zombie looked on-stage and in promotional photos. He steered the Dragula, a drag strip racer that was the subject of Zombie's most famous track from his 1998 solo debut Hellbilly Deluxe and a machine whose concept was swiped from a similar car on "The Munsters." "I don't remember [being involved in the game] that well," says Zombie, a non-video-gamer who never actually played 1999's TM4. "Back then as always, there's a million things going on. It never seemed that significant, but over the years, it has been something that gets mentioned a lot. I just remember getting some early designs from the company that was making the game and they looked pretty cool, and I was like, 'Oh yeah, great.' That was about the end of it."
It sure left a dent on me. From that point on, I mentally positioned Zombie as a larger-than-life bad-ass who oozed the charisma of a horror movie villain you cheer for. Still, my knowledge of Zombie's musical career would remain limited for years: He did a top-notch song (i.e., "Dragula") for the scene in The Matrix when Neo meets Trinity, and the similarly thrilling "Living Dead Girl." Also, he was in White Zombie — a well-regarded band I had never listened to. That was it.
I was totally blown away, then, when I saw Zombie play the penultimate set at a generally lousy hard rock fest in Columbus, Ohio, in 2010. He absolutely crushed everyone else. Backed by a band, Zombie commandeered the crowd with a dictator's decisiveness, and everything about his performance — the plumes of fire, the detailed costumes, the caked-on makeup, the banter, the trippy and synchronized video packages, the lighting, the loud and industrial-tinted music — delivered in unison in a way I had never experienced from an indulgent rock show. There was a particularly amazing moment when Zombie spit to the side of the stage and some flecks of saliva got caught in his beard. This image was then blown up on huge screens for the whole arena to see. Zombie didn't realize what had happened, so he didn't clean his face up. I'm glad he didn't. It was an unintentionally gross visual, and he still looked pretty cool, like he was someone who didn't care that there was saliva on his chin because he was preoccupied with rocking the fuck out. At that point, he was cemented as that bad-ass I had been thinking of him as for years.
During a phone conversation tied to his headlining role on this year's run of the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival, Zombie comes across as someone entirely different than the brusque dude from summer 2010. Even after reading and watching interviews with him ahead of time, he's much more docile and average-joe-ish than I figured. It's easier to buy this guy as Robert Cummings, a Haverhill, Mass. native who likes to write and direct horror movies like House of 1000 Corpses and pen comics like The Haunted World of El Superbeasto while just doing the whole rock-god alter-ego thing to scratch a teenage itch.
But the singer has grown to see little distinction between his real self and the persona ostentatious and loud enough to join an over-the-top video game universe with ease. In a 2009 Noisecreep interview, he said, "I wish I could remember the quote exactly, but I read something from Lux Interior of the Cramps. He was like, 'There's a moment where whatever character you've created ceases to be a character and is you. Whatever you once were is so long gone that it doesn't matter anymore.'" As Zombie discusses that concept now, he tinkers with the terms of that premise. "I never really was trying to create a stage character. Whatever I did was just me, and the things I like and the things I say on stage and whatever I do [are] basically my personality," he says. "Sometimes, the person you have to be in normal life if you have a normal job, that's almost a character that you play. This allows you to be who you actually are."