Like many people, I first saw Robert Z’Dar in cult classic Maniac Cop where he plays, of course, the titular maniac cop. I was struck first by his signature jawline — elongated and unusually large due to his cherubism, it made him immediately distinctive and recognizable — and second by the conviction and energy he brought to what, in other hands, might’ve been a hacky, silly role. It was still a bit hacky and a bit silly — it’s Maniac Cop, after all — but in b-movies passion goes a long way. In every film I’ve seen him in since, from the major release Tango & Cash to schlocky masterpieces like Samurai Cop, he brought his distinctive presence and added immeasurably to even the worst dreck. The man was in two different films featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 for crying out loud, and he’s the shining glory of both.
Robert Z’Dar is a curious and wonderful kind of celebrity, one who is virtually unknown to the public at large but feverishly loved by a select group. Anyone who watched direct to video genre pics in the 80’s and 90’s will be familiar with his villainous charm, but the number of people today who seek out or remember films like Guns of El Chupacabra are few and far between (and not without reason). When Stuart Wellington of The Flop House podcast jokingly called Robert Z’Dar’s face “the ultimate special effect”, it’s the kind of reference that sends the few in the know into fits of laughter and flies right over everyone else’s head. I don’t say this with any sort of superiority or condescension, just to say it makes sense that I didn’t even know the man died until two days after it happened, and only then did I learn from The Dissolve, a website essentially built for movie nerds of the geekiest variety.
In many ways, this relative lack of acknowledgement fits the kinds of films Z’Dar is known for. Z’Dar was a b-movie lifer, a man who made at least one movie a year for virtually his entire 39 year career, more often piling on appearances in multiple films and television shows. He seemed incapable of turning down any paying role offered to him, which is wonderful, and worth celebrating. The true artistic actor, we’re told, chooses his roles carefully; a man like Daniel Day Lewis couldn’t be bothered with something so simple as “making a living”, let alone debase himself by appearing in a film called Enter the Blood Ring. But Z’Dar was a working man who simply loved his job, and if doing his job meant showing up for the sequel to Hell Comes to Frogtown, well then goddammit he was going to be there. He wasn’t “too good” for work, and even in films where he’s clearly the biggest name there (and having Robert Z’Dar being your biggest name star is definitely low budget) he gave it his all, never phoning it in. Lots of people put work into every movie, no matter how terrible it is, and Robert Z’Dar wasn’t going to be the one to disrespect all that work. This is beautiful.
Movies are art, yeah, but they’re also a job, and the man who never punches out before his work is done shows more respect to the art form than a million method actors who take z-grade work to pay the bills and show up just going through the motions. There’s a song by the Mountain Goats called “Michael Myers Resplendent” that focuses on an actor preparing for the climactic scene of a horror movie, and one of the reasons it’s always been a favorite of mine is because it gives dignity and respect to these people who know that every movie means something to someone. No role deserves less than their best. Kane Hodder didn’t need to add anything to the role of Jason Voorhees, but he did anyways. Angus Scrimm could’ve phoned it in as the tall man, but he didn’t. Robert Z’Dar didn’t need to give any personality to Matthew Cordell, but he so memorably did. It’s fitting that Z’Dar died on his way to a convention appearance, and surely he would’ve been greeted like a god by a throng of dorks like me; like so many actors that will at best end up as footnotes in movie encyclopedias, he knew that people out there cared about the trash he made. He was never going to win an Oscar, but he showed up for work just the same, giving himself over to the garbage that touches the hearts of b-movie fans.