Horror fan, blogger and commentator Iloz Zoc is the founder of Zombos Closet of Horror Blog and League of Tana Tea Drinkers. He's also a regular contributor to Blogcritics. In this insightful, fascinating interview, Zoc talks about his blogs, the best and worse horror movies ever made, what makes a scary movie really terrifying, and the ever-lasting appeal of vampires, among other things.
Thank you for this interview, Iloz. Why don't you begin by telling us a bit about yourself and your blogs, Zombos Closet of Horror Blog and League of Tana Tea Drinkers?
I started blogging Zombos Closet of Horror a few years ago when the monsterkid in me took note of the expiring writer in me. Being a monsterkid going back to the 1960’s, I had watched lots of movies, read lots of books, but hadn’t thought about combining the two until blogging became the next big thing since sliced bread and email. I wanted to share my love for the horror genre with other fans, as well as my annoyances with it, so blogging afforded me the greatest opportunity to do so.
The first thing I did, however, was to research who else was blogging out there. What I came across, back then, were mostly thumbnail reviews as deep as a chip in dip, or snarky commentary not conducive to a serious, critical discussion on the artistry, dramatic qualities, or thematic importance of the horror genre. I didn’t want to be another fan writing superficially about his likes or dislikes, and screw what anyone else thinks. When the writing side of me exerted its influence, I decided to write about my likes and dislikes within the framework of a fictional set of characters through whom I could express my opinions, arguments, and all around zany observations on the genre and horror culture. The fictional side also helped me limber up the old gray cells for when I’ll actually start writing horror fiction (yes, I’ve got lots of notes lying around just rearing to go), and it especially made it more fun for me, and lots more fun for my readers–Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice (thanks guys!), who tired of capsule reviews with no bite, and news, news, news promotions. Of course, since then, many informative and witty horror bloggers have come on the scene forcing me to up my standards in order to keep up.
After I settled into my blog, I started searching for ways to increase readership and visibility. Here’s where Blogcritics comes in. When I found BC I realized it would be a great way to spread the Zombos Closet insanity around, and they didn’t have many horror reviewers at the time to compete against my charm and wit, which was a plus. Of course—it seems to me, anyway—after I was accepted into their sinister cabal of superior bloggers, more and more horror reviewers started popping up. But here’s the wonderful thing about it: I learned a lot from being a Blogcritics reviewer, things I would not have picked up without this experience. Given the Hunter S. Thomson Meets the Three Stooges in the Old Dark House sensibility of my blog, I didn’t expect Blogcritics to bring me onboard in the first place. I was shocked when they did. For a minute I thought, hell, if they’d have me as a reviewer, than maybe I shouldn’t join; but it all worked out quite well.
Right off the bat, the BC editors provided me with that essential relationship of writing something to be reviewed by an editor before it hits the page. Many bloggers tend to write in a vacuum. I mean they post to their own blogs and don’t have a second pair of experienced eyes to edit or give them constructive feedback. Now, don’t get me wrong: many bloggers are either writing professionals or write at that level; but some blogs I’ve suffered through can really benefit from the editor/writer relationship BC offers. One editor wrote about the overuse of the word “that” in writing, and—hey, wait a minute, I’ve been using “that” so often that it became quite obvious that I didn’t understand that simple writing mistake. Looking over my earlier posts before BC, I realized how valuable the information was. Other Eloise-styled hints and proofing from the editors, the guidelines for posting and formatting, and just the positive feedback from various BC bloggers, really added up to a great experience, helping prep me for better, more natural writing. I also took advantage of posting to BC first, then looking at the changes an editor made, and correcting my copy on Zombos Closet before posting it there. Mwahaha! I know it’s evil of me, but hey, my stuff looks a whole lot better since I joined BC.
Now the League of Tana Tea Drinkers started on a whim, actually. I received, out of the blue, an E for Excellence from fellow horror blogger Brian at The Vault of Horror. You’ve probably seen the emblem here and there on various blog sites. Originally, I think, it was created by a mom who wanted to acknowledge good family-oriented blogsites. So Brian sends me this thing and tells me how much he enjoys my blog. I’m honored and flabbergasted at the same time. Coming from a talented horror blogger it meant a lot. Well, it started me thinking, and I realized we horror bloggers needed our very own badge of excellence. The horror genre itself tends to get enough bad press, and fans of horror are often considered to be barely holding onto the evolutionary scale between Australopithecus and Stupidiculous; so we need to show how erudite and charming we can be when discussing scream queen’s bodacious tatas, gore-soaked bodacious tatas, and how the next torture device the Jigsaw Killer uses is a metaphor for the roiling stock market, as often as possible.
So, long way around, the League, or LOTT D for short, was started to unite unique, insightful, and exemplary horror bloggers. I invited bloggers I knew and enjoyed reading to join, then we worked out some of the criteria we use for selecting new members. We have close to thirty members now, including professionals and amateurs, who express their passion for horror’s many categories and styles, whether it is the classics, or slashers, or trash-art. I’m very proud to have started it, but it’s the members who keep making it better and better.
One unique thing we do is write unity blogs, which are lengthy articles on a particular theme like torture horror or the allure of evil. Members contribute their thoughts to the topic and I compile it into one post. I don’t think anyone else is doing it or willing to do it. Many bloggers are so focused on me, me, me, they don’t unite for the common good easily. By getting all those perspectives and writing styles into one article, instead of blog-hopping to read it, you can get a broad range of commentary in one spot. I’m happy to say BC was not concerned with the length of our unity postings, which can become rather long, but focused on the quality of them and their importance to the horror and non-horror oriented reader in discussing the genre with thought-provoking candor and criticism.
When did your love for the dark side begin? What were your favorite books as a teenager?
I find it hard to pinpoint when the horror bug hit exactly, but ever since I can remember, I loved watching Shock Theater movies on television and The Twilight Zone, and my mom, a big horror fan herself, took me to the best and worst movies, like Night of the Living Dead, Dr. Phibes, and Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster. I was lucky to have two theaters in walking distance, so there was always something to catch on the big screen. So she either fed my genetic appetite for horror, or infected me with it. Either way, I get an emotional pull from the genre, and that’s what keeps me energized. You’ve got to be wired a certain way to appreciate horror movies.
My mom was also an aspiring writer; she ordered the Famous Writers Course Rod Serling was hawking, which got me started on the royal road to procrastination—oops, I mean writing.
As a teenager, I read lots and lots of comic books, Creepy and Eerie magazines, the various classics of literature, and my favorite author was Ray Bradbury. I also loved Lovecraft, Oliver Onions, August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and dozens of others. So books, short stories, anything these people wrote I read voraciously. I had a copy of Dark Carnival by Ray Bradbury—his horror stories—I cherished, alongside William Hope Hodgeson’s The House on the Borderland. I read so much my dad complained I looked like a mushroom because I preferred to stay inside and read rather than play sports, or do the usual boyish things. And, of course, I read Stoker’s Dracula, Shelley’s Frankenstein, and many other classic horror novels and stories.
What would you say are some of the best horror movies ever made? The worst?
Let’s start with the worst: there are so many out there. I take umbrage with those who cram the shelves with DVD excrement just for a quick buck. It drags the genre down and loads the verbal shotguns of critics who take aim at the genre as a whole. So you can say I’m not one for the purely commercial side of exploitation. On the other hand, mainstream horror films also squander the classic heritage of monsterdom, like the poorly conceived and executed Van Helsing, to Uwe Boll’s never-ending curiosities—the man’s unstoppable—which really irks me.
So the worst? How about Cannibal Holocaust? It’s degrading. Yes, it achieves its goal of making you think it’s all real, but it panders to our basest tastes for grue. So horror films pretending to be art house, but only devote their time to sickening scenes of torture and depravity to make a quick buck, do not help the genre. Where’s the art in watching death?
In 2007 PBS’s Masterpiece Theater ran a reimagining of Dracula amounting to the absolute worst in storyline and characterizations. It took a classic work and destroyed it completely. Dracula himself was nothing more than a mercurial, long-haired rock star impersonator, showing no cunning, no evil wisdom garnered from living for centuries. And he had no accent! It was abysmal in conception and execution. Murder Set Pieces is another WTF! wonder. And Hannibal Rising is a series of ludicrous static images strung together to simulate a motion picture. The idea of providing a backstory to Hannibal Lecter was not a good one to begin with. Who wants to understand evil? By its very nature it defies understanding, which makes it frightening. Giving reasons for Lecter’s cannibalism and insanity removed the mystery. Giving the laughable reasons in this film did more to undermine the character than broaden it. Feardotcom was another exercise in incomprehensible storytelling. Interesting visuals, but incoherent story. The script writer appears to have written it while water-skiing. Roger Ebert said it best when he wrote it’s “a jumble of half-baked ideas.”
The amount of bad horror films, sadly, far outweigh the good ones, but let’s list some of the best. Halloween is one. Carpenter’s ground-breaking film is a perfect blend of scares, mood, and sustained tension. Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein are stunningly effective, even today–vibrant characterizations by actors who treated horror with respect and craft. Dwight Frye as Fritz practically created the mad scientist’s lab assistant role, although it did typecast him. Dracula, with Bela Lugosi; sure, it’s slow and static, but Lugosi’s performance set the bar for the undead count. His performance is still mesmerizing. Ditto on the typecasting curse. Donnie Darko: an eerie film combining mystery, a subtle, growing chill, and pathos. Night of the Living Dead: the grandfather of zombie horror. Surrounded by the hungry undead–it still scares you. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator: Jeffrey Combs is perfectly over the top in an over the top masterpiece of gory delight. Shaun of the Dead: hilarious send up of zombie cliché’s. Uzumaki: an underrated film based on the Lovecraftianesque manga, bringing it to creepy life. Dead Birds: a successful exercise in the less is better school of horror with some solid scares. Psycho: another visual and story-wise masterpiece of real terror. The Last Broadcast: a few months before The Blair Witch Project, this film brought a documentary realism to chilling, totally unexpected climax. Again, it’s what you don’t see that scares you the most. The Descent: a claustrophobic nightmare of unrelenting horror with truly frightening predators.
Now there are, luckily, lots more. I recommend reading The Rough Guide to Horror Movies by Jones, and Horror 101 by Christensen for more good titles to order on Netflix.
Do you think traditional, atmospheric horrors like The Others, The Sixth Sense, Rosemary's Baby, etc., have more artistic value than slasher films such as Halloween and Scream? Which type is more popular?
No. First, artistic value, by its nature, is part objective and part subjective. The objective elements that make good horror movies are the same as those that make good dramatic movies: the “secret” many independents keep forgetting, as well as Hollywood. No matter which sub-genre of horror these elements appear in, the fact they do appear is important to the artistic integrity of the movie. Now the subjective part, the preference for the sub-genre style itself, may require some modifications to those basic objective elements to align them to most effect with the sub-genre, but as long as care is taken to put them there in the first place, it doesn’t matter if the story is about a slasher, or ghost, or zombie, or psycho chainsaw-wielding lunatic in a leather.
One of those elements, by the way, is to make sure you create an emotional attachment to the characters onscreen, otherwise they are just victims. I remember the ending to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. After putting up a hell of a good fight, the heroine, which by now has all of us cheering for her to survive, is summarily killed by Leatherface. Well, of course! She has to die. This is the beginning, right? If she survives, the whole setup is blown to hell. But the emotional attachment created had us all give a collective sigh of disappointment when she did die. That’s how effective this essential element was used. It set us up for a big letdown, but it worked as it was supposed to.
As for which is more popular, it depends on your target audience. Older horror fans tend toward slashers and more traditional horror storylines involving demons, the supernatural, and ghosts. Younger audiences tend toward the more sensational, mainly because they go to the theater with their friends, so it becomes a right of passage; who can survive without blinking and that sort of thing. Take the successful SAW series. Every Halloween, it brings in the crowds because of the group effect. It’s rare you would see a teenager watching it alone in a theater. Without his friends to cushion the visually stomach-churning sadism, it’s, quite simply, not much fun to watch.
Why have films like Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen become such classics? What sets them apart from other horror films?
What sets them apart is serious attention to the craft of making a film first, horror second. From the actors to the director and production people, everyone took the storyline seriously. To them it was just another dramatic movie with touches of horror, not a horror movie with touches of drama. The second thing is they all had strong characterizations connecting with you emotionally, especially one central person whom you wanted desperately to win. The third thing is the classic battle between good and evil. Now unless the audience is one in a Gahan Wilson cartoon, no one in a typical audience wants evil to win. This healthy bias can be exploited by the storyline to fortify the emotional connection to the drama.
In order of popularity, how would you place witches, vampires, ghosts, zombies, and werewolves?
I’ll assume you mean judging by today’s standards and what contemporary horror fans like. Zombies are the darling of the moment, so they definitely are the most popular right now. They lend themselves to an awesome range of social, political, satirical, gross-out, religious, and philosophical depictions in books and movies, or just simple schlock, too. It’s also cool to dress up as a zombie and stagger around on a Saturday. Next would be vampires, as they never go out of fashion thanks to the Gothic mystique surrounding them.
Now the tougher part comes when choosing which comes next, ghosts or werewolves? There’s been a bit of a resurgence with werewolves popping up in fiction and soon the—lord help us all—reimagining of The Wolf Man. They also make perfect antagonists for vampires, so you often see them prowling around in the background of vampire-centered movies. But I would have to put ghosts ahead of them, thanks mainly to the Japanese Horror wave that’s influenced many horror films in the last few years, what with their revenge seeking ghosts or evil spirits in need of a good shampoo and rinse. Ghosts, too, lend themselves to real artistic scares. Just watch Robert Wise’s The Haunting, or Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited alone, late at night, and I promise you’ll get keep looking over your shoulder.
The vampire seems to be the most die-hard, popular supernatural fiend of all time. Why do you think this is? What is it about vampires that fascinate people so much?
Well, who wouldn’t want to stay up and party all night? Vampires can be depicted as sexy, sophisticated, and powerful. They lend themselves to all sorts of social situations and characterizations that make television and movie people drool over the possibilities. And they live forever. Werewolves aren’t sexy: all they want to do is devour you limb from limb and soil the carpet. Zombies stink and also want to eat you, brains and all. Who wants to live forever as a zombie? That’s a bummer.
Vampires, on the other hand, are the eternally beautiful people of the horror genre. Given a choice, who do you think readers would want to see on the cover of People magazine; Brad Pit or Tom Cruz as a cool vampire (or Charlize Theron all vamped up—yeah, my personal fantasy okay?), or some hairy guy with a mucous-filled snout barking at the moon? The whole life everlasting angle is quite enticing, especially when, unlike a zombie or werewolf or Frankenstein’s Monster you don’t have to give up your good looks for it. And don’t forget vampires get all the babes, too. Hell, Dracula had three wives, right?
On the down side, this seductive image of the vampire can get in the way of the scares, the overall horror effect they have on you. So when movies or novels depict them, you have to go the extra mile to toss in much more baggage regarding the social and political intrigue that surrounds them as opposed to the direct effect they have as “monsters.” The more successful iterations of vampires in film, television, and fiction tone down the blood-sucking fiend angle and focus more on the sociological and psychological aspects of their condition.
How has the vampire evolved through the decades since Stoker's Dracula?
Actually, when you look at the fundamental image of the vampire—the sensual aspect, the Gothic overtones—not much has changed except for the situations we put them in and their intentions toward us. For instance, Forever Knight made a vampire into a detective. Buffy the Vampire Slayer made Angel regret the atrocities he committed and seek to atone for them. The current take on vampires–on television you have Blood Ties, another cop-oriented vampire series– tries to remove them from their blood-lust and put them into more likable relationships. That’s one major change from Stoker’s Dracula and Graf Orlock in Nosferatu; those guys were ugly, smelly, blood-suckers. Today’s vampires are hip, young, beautiful, and drink blood substitutes out of wine glasses.
What are you doing this Halloween? Do you dress up?
Do I dress up!? Does Peter Pan peanut butter stick to the roof of your mouth? I bought this Dracula cape back in the ‘80s from a trick and joke shop in Greenwich Village. I paid way too much for it so I make sure to wear it every Halloween. I make a great—short and dumpy—Dracula.
I have the most fun putting together the trick or treat bags we give away every year to the neighborhood kids. The first year we had maybe twenty kids show up. Word got around about the cool dude who gave great stuff away, and now, a few years later, I have seventy-plus bags ready to go. And I’ll probably run out again. My treat bags are big and have lots of cool swag, including classic monster stuff, along with the candy. Last year, one kid, I’d say around seven or eight years old and dressed up in a skeleton costume, screamed with delight when he found a glow in the dark Mummy (Kharis) figure in his bag. When I ran out of bags I had a few monster posters left to give out. I expected some eggs tossed my way because of it, but I was surprised by the enthusiastic response from the kids who got them. They loved them. Kids and monsters go together like peanut butter and guacamole. Oh, wait a minute, did I get it right?
Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?
Be demanding in your appetites for horror. Gore for the sake of gore is detrimental to the genre, as are the undying DVD quickies looking to capture our attention and dollars.
I was energized by Universal’s monster cycle kick-starting the genre in full-swing, and then got a steady charge from the ‘50s monsters and mutants. In the 1960’s, the jolt of unrelenting horror from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (gee, thanks George), followed by the unstoppable slashers and now the closer-to-reality genre fare made watching horror a lot more, let’s say, uncomfortable. Ironically, the closer to reality horror movies become the less fun they are to watch. Being scared is one thing; being disgusted enough to puke up your popcorn is another. Getting an audience to puke is easy, but scaring them is hard. Don’t get me wrong: I “enjoyed” Hostel and SAW, but you can get sick to your stomach just so much before it starts to hurt. So all I’m saying is we need to keep things in perspective and not let the grimmer aspects of our genre take precedence. I don’t want kids coming to my door on Halloween dressed as the Jigsaw Killer or Hannibal Lecter; there’s just no fun in that at all. And, more importantly, we shouldn’t see it as being fun, either.
And last, thanks for inviting me to share my thoughts on a genre that has provided me with many wonderful memories (and disturbing nightmares). Happy Halloween!
Thank you so such for this insightful and enlightning interview, Iloz. I've learned a lot from it.
Interview by Mayra Calvani
Mayra Calvani is a multi-genre author and reviewer. Her paranormal books include Embraced by the Shadows (romantic horror/vampire) and Dark Lullaby (atmospheric horror). She is also the co-author of the nonfiction work, The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing.