Rigor Mortis Refuses to Die: Inside the Tragedy-Plagued Thrash Metal Band's Fight Against a Grim Cancer Prognosis


Bruce Corbitt is a gambler. He started betting on football games in junior high school, and spent a third his adult life doing it for a living, through bookies and fshore betting. "The rush it — it became an addiction," he says.

The 55-year-old thrash metal singer has been playing the odds for most his life, and beaten them even when the cards were stacked against him. He's survived a stabbing and a heart attack, and got not one but two chances at fronting his dream band, Rigor Mortis. But now Corbitt faces the longest shot them all: beating cancer.

"I've got a 2.8 percent chance living five years. So what am I going to do, sit around and cry about it or be that 2.8 percent?" Corbitt asks. He’s sitting in a room he calls the Batcave inside his Irving, Texas, home, surrounded by memorabilia including show posters and his chainlink, blood-red microphone stand. "There's got to be a lottery winner for every fucking lottery they do, so why can't I be one?"

Death is nothing new for the members thrash metal band Rigor Mortis, whose fixation with horror movie schlock lent an almost cartoonish level violence to the lightning-fast riffing songs like "Bodily Dismemberment," "Die in Pain," and "Wizards Gore." Each frenetic, out–control note cut like bone through a buzzsaw, a mad scientist’s laboratory where Corbitt was the growling ringmaster the music’s mainlining fury. The band itself, first active from 1983 to 1992, returned from the dead in 2005. In the years since, life has increasingly imitated art for this Lone Star State quartet, a onetime crosstown rival '90s stars Pantera and one '80s metal's great what-might-have-been stories.

"All their material is about death, all it is about mortality. They walked that tightrope the entire time, looked it right in the fucking eyes," says Jeff Liles, the band's former manager and the man who got them signed to a major-label contract with Capitol Records in 1987. "The name the band is Rigor Mortis, for fuck's sake."

Corbitt got his sentence — terminal, stage-four esophageal cancer — in December 2017, but set his sights on more than simply fighting for his life. He wanted to return to the stage in April to renew his wedding vows with his wife six years, Jeanna, and sing with the remaining members Rigor Mortis at the Rail Club in Fort Worth, the same bar where in 2012 he watched his band mate and guitarist, Mike Scaccia, die before his very eyes, struck down by a heart attack at age 47.

Now 35 years on from when Scaccia first formed the band with bassist Casey Orr and drummer Harden Harrison in the early '80s, Corbitt's raging desire to keep playing with them remains palpable. He recalls how impressed he was with the band in their early days before joining, when as a metal fan already won over by Iron Maiden and Metallica, he was convinced Rigor Mortis raised the stakes even higher. "I'm like, 'Oh my god, I've never seen or heard anything like this,'" he says their original, three-piece configuration, with Orr handling vocals. "I wanted to be in that band more than anything I ever wanted in my life, I swear. That was my goal for six months. I tried everything I could."

Even in his weakened state, with his long, wispy hair and bandana tied around his head, it's not hard to imagine a young, scrappy Corbitt wanting nothing more than to sing for the world's fastest, fiercest metal band. When he finally got his chance to perform a song as a guest singer during a set at a Dallas club in 1986, that ambition boiled over after the show. "In the parking lot in front everybody, I screamed, 'I should be the singer for fucking Rigor Mortis, goddamn it!'" he recalls, his hands gripped like talons.

Corbitt, helped by the fact that his older brother Jeff had access to a PA system, got the gig. His leering, theatrical presence was the perfect fit for a band that got its start playing illegal suburban warehouse shows. "Man, we were barbarians, just crazy, stupid dudes who felt invincible because our age and shit," says Orr, a striking contrast to Corbitt with his stocky build and bulging, tattooed forearms. "We'd be partying at each other's places with holes in the walls, little fires built, broken shit, beating the shit out each other. It wasn't just a front we put on for other people. We were like bikers without motorcycles."

They may have been loose cannons, but Rigor Mortis was extremely disciplined about its craft. None them had jobs, instead spending six to eight hours a day rehearsing and watching horror movies together. Much that drive came from the other members' desire to keep up with Scaccia, whose ventriloquist-like six-string harmonic abilities were channeled into a revolutionary tremolo picking style. "You could name a song he'd never played on guitar, he could hum it in his head, and he could instantly translate it to his hands and play it. It was insane," Orr marvels.

Scaccia wasn’t the only big-draw guitarist in the area, though. “Diamond” Darrell Abbott, later to be known as “Dimebag,” was the star attraction Pantera, then a glam metal act who entered and won several local battle the bands competitions. “Our fans hated Pantera because they were playing covers, wearing spandex and makeup and shit, so we became the opposite,” says Orr. “They were light years ahead us; their father musician and producer Jerry Abbott] had a studio. It was more a friendly rivalry between the two bands, but the fans were sometimes hardcore about it.”

With Corbitt on board, Rigor Mortis recorded a demo in September 1986, which Corbitt and Scaccia took to Liles — then booking shows in Dallas — to demand they be placed on an upcoming bill with Megadeth. One the great thrash metal acts, the Dave Mustaine-fronted California group had recently released its breakthrough LP, Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? "What they had was confidence. I admire them for that," says Liles, who was won over by Scaccia's solo on the song "Re-animator." "Walking into a guy's fice saying, ‘Hey, we're better than the band you got on this bill’ — it's the only time in 30 years doing this that anyone has ever done that to me]."

Despite the fact that Liles says they got into a fight with Megadeth after the show — "I think they thought Megadeth were posers," he muses — he eagerly became Rigor Mortis' manager, and soon had interest from executives at Geffen, Island, and Elektra, the home Metallica. Eventually, they were signed to Capitol — ironically, the same label as Megadeth — in the fall 1987. The move came as a shock to much the metal community, including Pantera, who hadn’t yet settled on the sludgy, marinated groove that took albums like Far Beyond Driven and The Great Southern Trendkill to the top 5 the Billboard 200 albums chart.     

"Truth be told, the other guys in Pantera didn't like Rigor Mortis, and vice versa. Some the beef was old stuff I wasn't there for, and musically they were different, so the Pantera cats weren't too keen on them," says Phil Anselmo, who became the singer for Pantera not long after Corbitt took on his own role with Rigor Mortis, email. "When I joined the band, I met some the Rigor boys at one the local record stores and we hit it f immediately. I had to calm things down a few times between the camps, but nothing too drastic."

Mere days after receiving their fer from Capitol in October 1987, carnage broke out at a show in Fort Worth. Corbitt was stabbed five times in the back during a brawl triggered by a deranged attendee. Harrison was wounded in the shoulder. "That's the first time I say I beat death," says Corbitt, who punctured a lung and was lucky not to be paralyzed by a blow that grazed his spine. "I kept having to fight and fight it f" — he grits his teeth as he relives the moment — "'No, I'm not going out, I'm not going out.' I was fighting like that because] it felt like I was about to just peacefully float away."

Rebounding from that near-death experience, Rigor Mortis was released in July 1988, but — after a sputtering tour spoiled by a Winnebago that repeatedly broke down — tensions with Orr soon saw Corbitt kicked out the band. "I remember them going on the road a couple times and they made him sleep in the part above the cab and pull the curtain shut. Or when they rehearsed, the band set up in a room here and would have Bruce standing in the other room singing through a piece Styroam. It was weird," says Liles.

Corbitt, who was originally told the decision came down from Capitol, sniffles at the memory. "It was really a blow to my ego if the label was saying they're not going to put the next album] out because the singer. I'm like, ‘Man, I know I ain't that good but, God, I must really suck,’" he says, the sober, steady tone his voice broken with a rare quiver. "When I found out the truth, even though it was the hardest thing in the world being fired from Rigor Mortis, it made it easier."

The firing Corbitt in February 1989 proved a turning point. While the band continued on for another three years, his exit marked beginning the end the group’s first run. Later dropped by the label, Rigor Mortis hired a new vocalist, Doyle Bright (Anselmo rehearsed with the band once, though just for fun), and released a further LP and an EP before Scaccia got an fer to join another Texas ensemble, Ministry. "I was blown away by how pressionally they fused their combination sheer volume, velocity, and speed. A total sonic pummeling," Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen says email. "I was continuously blown away by Scaccia's] versatility and soulfulness in his playing and approach. He was definitely not a one-trick pony, but that speed was quite the trick to have in your arsenal."

Orr would himself pick up a full-time gig as the bassist for the outrageous cult-metal band, Gwar. The role Beefcake the Mighty proved a perfect fit for the comic book-loving bassist, who is also an artist. Harrison played in other bands as well, including Speedealer, with whom he performed 300 or more shows a year. The only one to fizzle out from music was Corbitt, who became a pressional gambler and sold weed on the side for much the ensuing decade and a half. Though he avoided taking a loss in most years, there were some close calls, most notably when he bet big on a game between the University Texas and Texas A&M to cover a $4,000 debt. “I bet $5,000 on that game, knowing that they would probably will kill me if I lose,” he says, laughing. Not only did he win, he came out $2,500 ahead. “That was one the craziest moments my life. I don’t know how I got through that day.”

It seemed Corbitt’s music career was behind him for good, but that changed when he was invited to join a Rigor Mortis reunion in 2005. Soon the reformed group was asked to open for Anselmo's Arson Anthem for a short run shows, and later played a local stop Ozzfest, as well as the Keep It True Festival in Germany. "It was the only time Rigor Mortis went to Europe," says Harrison. "The fans were talking to people, everybody had homemade Rigor Mortis vests — it was like, ‘Man, we should've come over here before]. We wouldn't even have had to tour the States, we probably could make a living over there.’"

Having gotten a new lease on life, Corbitt was blindsided by the loss another he held dearly: his brother. Jeff, who Corbitt describes as his “hero” and who had bailed Bruce out on several occasions over the years, developed an addiction to painkillers after being injured on the job, leading to him and his wife separating. Corbitt planned to stage an intervention, but Jeff died by suicide the day after the Rigor Mortis reunion tour had ended in November 2005.

“I’ve always felt like, damn it… this is what my brother wanted more than anything for me, was to have my dream with Rigor Mortis. But if I wasn’t doing this, I probably would have been able do an intervention with my brother, maybe he would still be with us. So where is this leading me?” Corbitt wonders, breathing a heavy sigh. “From that moment on, the only way to have this make any sense is for me to dedicate every performance, every time I recorded, every fucking thing I did with this band or with Warbeast, in memory my brother.”

Warbeast, originally known as the Texas Metal Alliance, was a new thrash metal project that Corbitt started after Rigor Mortis’ initial reunion. For the first time in his life, he’d found a band that gave him the same thrill as Rigor Mortis, and which, crucially, was all his own. “After having some success with the Texas Metal Alliance and Warbeast, then the Rigor Mortis guys gained a lot more respect for me,” Corbitt says.

In 2010, Warbeast released its first album, Krush the Enemy, and two years later Rigor Mortis headed back to the studio to record what they and many their fans consider to be their masterpiece, 2014’s Slaves to the Grave. Older and wiser, the band learned to do more than simply play as fast as they possibly could, though without losing any its most gruesome characteristics. "The arrangements are like classical music," says Liles. "I think it took 25 years for them to get to that place, it really did — all them playing in other bands and going through life experiences."

Scaccia, however, wouldn't live to see Slaves to the Grave's release. A few songs into a show at the Rail Club in December 2012, on the night Corbitt's 50th birthday, Scaccia suffered a fatal heart attack on stage. "He was shaking violently. He looked up at me just a brief second or two, sort shaking his head, 'No,' and his eyes went distant… I saw the life go out them]," says Corbitt, staring down as he picks absent-mindedly at the blanket on his bed. "Just think, he went out with his boots on, with his guitar in hand. They had to pry it out his hand."

Three years later, Corbitt suffered an atrial flutter his own, at which point he was diagnosed with heart disease. That scare was but a prelude to his current battle with stage-four esophageal cancer, which first reared its head when he collapsed in his bathroom in May 2017. Taking to his personal Facebook page to keep his fans up to date, Corbitt has built an entire support network, his posts regularly receiving hundred likes and dozens shares, spawning crowdfunding campaigns as well as multiple benefit concerts.

Singing with Warbeast at one such show last year was Anselmo, who has released all three the band’s albums through his label, Housecore Records. He was even the best man at Corbitt's wedding when he and Jeanna were married in 2012. "I've seen his world crash down around him when he was young. I've always felt there is no fucking way I could let him down as a friend and business partner," writes Anselmo. "Bruce is my big brother, and that's how we roll. His family is my family, and vice versa, yet again. Bruce is going to beat this cancer. Watch."

The members Pantera had their own falling out, but never had the chance to reconcile: In an eerie twist, “Dimebag” Darrell also died on stage, murdered while playing a show in Columbus, Ohio, with his band Damageplan in December 2004. “Losing two legendary guitarists like that, that both came from the same area and died on stage? Never in a million years would anybody expect something like that would happen,” says Corbitt. Anselmo has told Corbitt he “wished they had what Rigor Mortis had,” a possibility made all the more impossible by the recent death Abbott’s brother, Vinnie Paul, in June. “He loves Dime and he always did,” Corbitt insists. “They would’ve gotten back together. No doubt about it.”

At the Rail Club show in April, Corbitt not only managed to sing with Rigor Mortis, which has performed as Wizards Gore since Scaccia's death, he made it through two full songs. With Doyle Bright flying in from Georgia to sing, Corbitt was in his element as emcee, though nearly brought to tears when his teenage daughter, Chyna, took to the stage to read a poem. “You’re making him miss his daughter’s graduation, college visits, heartbreaks, concerts, wedding, and life,” she said, delivering a withering kissf to the illness ravaging her father’s body.

Buoyed by those festivities, Corbitt soon received a glimmer hope for an improved prognosis, then joined Warbeast on stage for a three-song set at a Fort Worth awards show in July. Not that he’s out the woods, by any stretch: At the beginning August, a bout nausea and vomiting caused him to go eight days without eating, during which he lost 12 pounds. Yet Corbitt remains steadfast that he will not only play another show with Warbeast, scheduled for October, but that they’ll even record another album.

Corbitt’s fighting spirit has made a believer out Orr, who briefly served as a member Warbeast. “It’s really hard because I’ve gained so much respect for Bruce through this whole thing. I don’t know that I’d be as strong as he is at this. He’s got Jeanna, a wonderful support system, friends crawling out the woodwork. I should be so lucky to have a fraction the love and support he’s getting,” he says.

Luck may be an understatement. As Corbitt prepared for his latest round chemotherapy this week, he was greeted by a hospital staff relieved to see he’d survived his latest scare. However close he’d come to death, it still didn’t kill his will to fight.

"To be honest, I'm more proud now when I get messages from people that are like, 'Dude, I thought you were a cool guy and your bands were good or whatever, but now I admire you more for the person you are — the fight you're putting up in the hard times,'" says Corbitt, shaking his head with a proud resolve. "I feel like I'm going to be remembered now just as much for my courage and warrior attitude in trying to fight my battle that they say I have no chance to win." Until all hope is lost, only a fool would bet against him.