Interview: “Hairmetal Shotgun Zombie Massacre” Director Discusses Horror and Heavy Metal

Horror movies are one of the most metal forms of art, but Hairmetal Shotgun Zombie Massacre looks to raise that bar even higher. A love letter to heavy metal and gory slashers like Evil Dead and featuring Tom Araya, Randy Blythe and David Vincent, Hairmetal Shotgun Zombie Massacre is the sleazy, trashy, campy horror film you didn’t know you cared about.

Decibel spoke with writer and director Josh Vargas about making the movie, drive-in theaters, rock-themed horror films and Randy Blythe lighting a man on fire in a parking lot.

Where did you get the idea to make Hairmetal Shotgun Zombie Massacre? Did other horror or heavy metal-themed movies serve as the inspiration for this film?
A mixture of things, really. I had wanted to make a heavy metal themed horror film for quite some time. In the ’80s, there was almost like a subgenre of heavy metal-themed horror films like Black Roses, Trick or Treat, Rock N Roll Nightmare, Hard Rock Zombies and Slaughterhouse Rock to name a few, and there’s always been a desire to make a film that sits nicely with those. As far as our movie is concerned, I met the co-writer/co-producer/one of my best friends, Jvstin Whitney, at a haunted house we both worked at. Him and another friend of ours used to make little short films to play on a screen for the audience to watch while they waited. While I was doing people’s make up one day, I came across a little 10-page script for one of those short films called “Hairmetal Shotgun Zombie Massacre” and thought the title was one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard and it stuck with me. The longer it stuck with me, a story started forming in my head until I eventually called Jvstin and was like, “I really love that title and think this could actually be something.” It eventually turned into “What if we put a drug-and-sex obsessed hair metal band in an Evil Dead type situation?” I didn’t want the zombies to be our typical run-of-the-mill zombies because there is already a lot of that out there. I thought it would be cooler for our zombies to essentially be demonically-possessed corpses.

How did you secure funding for the film?
My friend Jason Poh, who produced Mike Flannnigan’s  (The Haunting of Hill House, Doctor Sleep) first couple of films wound up producing it. We were initially trying to get a biopic about the making of Texas Chainsaw Massacre made from the perspective of Marilyn Burns, who was a good friend before her death, but that became very complicated and fell through once she passed. Once that fell through, I pitched him this movie and he loved the idea. Then I introduced him to Jvstin and, due to a mutual obsession with the occult, they hit it off pretty well. The rest was history. We sat down and wrote the last draft of the script. Between Jvstin and I, there was enough ideas for a 36 hour movie…..then we immediately went into pre-production. Between green light and the first shoot date we had less than six months.

HMSZM features appearances by Tom Araya and Randy Blythe (plus a ton of other recognizable metal names), arguably two of the most recognizable people in heavy metal. Was it weird or intimidating to work with two people whose names are synonymous with the genre?
I will admit that I didn’t really know what to expect with Randy Blythe at first. I had seen Lamb of God a few times prior to meeting him, and onstage the dude is an absolute madman! We shot his and David Vincent’s scene during the Housecore Horror Fest’s second year (I ran the video department at the fest for the first two years) and I was introduced to him in the lobby of the hotel by my friend, Tammy Moore. I was blown away by how nice, polite, and extremely well-spoken the guy was.

I remember saying something to the measure of “Thanks for agreeing to do the film” and he immediately went on talking about how much he respects the craft of filmmaking and about how he had fallen into photography. He was in the photo/video pit a lot that weekend and I don’t think there was a moment that whole weekend that guy wasn’t smiling or just geeking out over the bands and films like the rest of us. It immediately made me want to listen to his band more.

Fun story: Randy Blythe inadvertently introduced us to one of our stuntmen. We came across Randy lighting this guy on fire in the festival parking lot. Oddly enough, we needed some stunt guys to dress like zombies and let us light them on fire, so once they put out the guy Randy lit on fire, we approached him and were like, “Hey, man! You wanna make some money doing that?”

Tom did the movie because his wife beat him into doing it. Sandra actually talked him into doing it. He was very kind to everyone on the cast and crew. None of that “don’t look me in the eyes” rock star bullshit. My favorite thing was that he came there with his wife and daughter, who were both zombies in the movie, and he had his little Go Pro filming them getting in zombie make-up and was being a total soccer-dad about it. Doing the film and all of that stuff was secondary to the fact that he was hanging out with his family. I thought that was awesome.

The two people I was a bit intimidated about meeting at first were David Vincent and Philip Anselmo (who wrote and recorded Tom Araya’s theme song for the movie). Which is really funny in retrospect because both of those guys are extremely nice and approachable. I’ve worked with D.V on some music videos since then and he’s always a freaking blast to work with. He’s definitely a no-nonsense kind of guy, but he’s a freaking hoot. Has some great freaking stories!

Did you have a favorite character in the movie or actor to work with?
That’s really hard to say. All of the actors in that movie brought it. I think Bob Bastard, the perma-fried bass player, is probably my favorite overall. He was played by Parrish Randall, who is an indie film legend at this point, and was really fun to play with because you can barely understand anything he says.

Bobby Haworth, who plays Izzy Hung, the singer, was absolutely hilarious. We had the running joke on set that “Everyone was straight until Bobby Haworth put his make-up on.” Garret West, who plays the right-wing/gun-nut guitar player (Dixie Normous) was really fun to work with, being that his character is so over the top, offensive and borderline psychotic. In real life, Garret is a very nice, smart and talented guy. Along with acting, he sings for a really trippy, proggy rock/metal band called Anova Skyway and they’re making some waves. Him and I had quite a conversation about whether or not his character should have the confederate flag on his biker vest, and both came to the conclusion that anyone insane enough to have such a borderline masturbatory view of firearms wasn’t gonna have a Bernie patch.

Andrew Bourgeois got the role based on his guitar audition alone. Tracers LaVille, who plays the drummer, is probably the best improve actor that I’v ever been in the room with. Some of our favorite lines were shit that he just belched out on the fly. Most of the band members went completely method a few times, stashing coolers full of booze (not beer, booze) both on set and at the hotel we rented for production. At one point, the whole production had to move our living quarters to a completely different hotel because those little bastards in the band got us kicked out. The other producers and I were staying off site that night and apparently the band went full-on and caused a bunch of ruckus while plastered out of their minds, including freaking out a Christian photography group that was staying on another floor.

What can you tell us about the music in the movie?
We got power metal legends Helstar to throw down some tracks for the band in the movie. Some of the cats from Oceans of Slumber recorded us some cheesy, Mercyful Fate-esque songs under the moniker of The Hail Satans. Philip Anselmo did Tom Araya’s theme song and fucking killed it! There’s an amazing band called Black Tora who lent us some of their music and those guys are amazing.

We wrote the script with their music on repeat. That’s the band who’s music we use in the trailer.

You’ve been working on this movie since the mid-2010s. What are some of the challenges and obstacles you didn’t expect to run into?
Wow. Obstacles. I don’t even know where to start. This was our first movie with an actual budget, which is always an interesting thing to just nose-dive into. I think we shot a total of 21 days, which in itself with all of the stunts, pyro, and FX gags we had was fucking nuts. The weather went from 90-degree Texas weather to arctic blast out of nowhere, which caused us a lot of issues from these actors who have to run around in freezing temperatures wearing fishnets, to having to de-frost headstones in between takes.

Probably the biggest offender was Hurricane Harvey in 2017. We had basically completed post-production and had a few tests showings of the workprint at a few conventions in 2016 to see how people responded. Then the worst flood in American history happened and we lost many, many of our drives, including almost all of our post-production work, project files, back ups, you name it. We ended up having to completely redo post-production, which was pretty miserable at first, but then we just took it as a second go and made the best of it.

Were there any scenes that you wanted to include in the movie but couldn’t due to budget restraints or other issues?
Oddly enough, a lack of money wasn’t really the contributor to anything we couldn’t do on this one. We got most of what we wanted. There was an incident with a tanker truck full of blood getting stuck in the mud and having a specialty tow truck having to come in from Dallas to get it unstuck, that put a kink in some of our plans. There’s a scene towards the end of the movie where blood starts coming out of the cellar walls and it was supposed to break through and be like a giant geyser of blood and we didn’t get to do it. Another thing was that we really wanted to get the guy that played Bud Bundy (David Faustino) to play the sleazy record producer. We sent the script to his agent, who then turned it down on the count of him “not wanting to get puked on” which I thought was hilarious. I’m a HUGE Married, With Children fan and can recite almost any episode.

Why hair metal? There are quite a few more brutal extreme metal subgenres, so what led you in that direction?
Jvstin (co-writer) and I are both huge cock-rock fans. WASP, Motley Crue, SEDUCE, Lizzy Borden, shit like that. The heavier glam stuff. That aesthetic also just really fits well with that horror influences we were bringing to the table. There’s an Italian horror film that I love, that also was a huge influence on the movie, called Demons that had like this rockin’ fucking ’80s metal soundtrack, and at one point in time the “hero” guy of the movie is driving a motorcycle up and down the isle of a movie theater chopping demon heads off while it’s blasting “Fast As A Shark” by Accept. That seemed like a good starting point. The band in the film is definitely what you would consider a hair band, but we kinda wanted to poke fun at every aspect/subgenre of metal while still being a love letter to metal and horror. That’s why the rival band in the movie is a “trver-than-thov’ blackest metal band who think that any sort of skill or musicianship is for “posers.” (In actuality, we’re both huge black metal fans. Tom Araya actually wears a shirt from Jvstin’s avant-garde black metal band Church Ov Melkarth in the movie.)

Obviously, in normal times, movies are released in the theater for audiences to see them. Because of COVID-19, that’s not doable. Is Hairmetal Shotgun Zombie Massacre a digital-only release or can it be seen in person anywhere?
We’re basically hitting drive-ins at the moment, which is ideal for what’s going on with COVID-19 and whatnot. If there was something cool that came out of the pandemic, it’s the fact that it’s kind of igniting this new golden age of the drive-in theater, which is fucking awesome and I hope that it doesn’t go away after the pandemic passes. HMSZM is definitely a drive-in movie! I hope more movies like this start playing drive-ins! I wasn’t alive during the glory days of the drive-ins in the ’70s, so I’m hoping this brings it back!

We’re gonna screen at drive-ins from city-to-city until the end of fall. Anyone wanting to catch us, just follow us on social media for dates, showtimes and things of the sort. For the people who don’t have a drive-in near them, we’re doing a virtual cinema release from August 1st through August 8th. Virtual cinema has become pretty popular during the pandemic, with most theater chains offering a virtual cinema experience through their website, so we figured we’d do the same thing, but make it an actual experience, kind of like watching the movie in a dingy theater in your living room. If you have/know of a drive-in you want to see us at, hit us on our social media.

What does the future look like for you as a filmmaker? Are you working on other films?
Not too sure at the moment. Even without a global pandemic, stuff changes a lot with the film business. You think you’ll be doing “this” next year, but you really wind up doing “that” instead and four months sooner or later than you thought. As the pandemic hit, I was wrapping up a documentary about am unsolved murder in Oklahoma that is a completely different vibe than this movie. There’s a crazy acid western we wanna make. We’d REALLY like to make the sequel to this movie (Hairmetal Crossbow Vampire Massacre). We’ve got the story ready to go and already have some interesting people wanting to be in it, so hopefully this goes good enough to make that happen. Part two would be 75 times more insane than this one. I know I probably won’t be doing any music videos any time soon, due to touring and stuff coming to a halt, so it’s all about film right now.