Rob Zombie love, and The Lords Of Salem

With his latest film out now, Matt looks back at Rob Zombie's directing career to date, leading up to the nightmarish Lords Of Salem...

I love Rob Zombie. Here at Den Of Geek, we prefer to match the film to the writer most likely to enjoy it. You know, we actually like enjoying films. I’m Den Of Geek’s go to guy for all things Rob Zombie, and not just because I look weird and have a cool beard. What I’m getting at here is that if you’re looking to have a moan about the divisive director, this isn’t the article you’re after. Try Google, you’ll definitely find it. But we’re celebrating Rob Zombie over here, and we’re simply having too much fun to have time for anyone trying to bring us down.

Zombie’s new film is just coming out. It’s called The Lords Of Salem and it’s about radio DJ Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), who finds that a record sent to her by a mysterious band called The Lords has a strange effect on her. Is it the record itself, which also seems to be affecting other women around Salem, or are a coven of witches from Salem’s past rising again? Strange things start happening and Heidi finds herself mentally unraveling, with an old drug addiction threatening to come into play.

A cursory glance over writer/director Zombie’s film CV might suggest that, having made a sequel, a remake and a sequel to a remake, The Lords Of Salem finds the filmmaker moving away from more commercial films. It’d be a nice narrative to guide this piece; tightly coiled by the mainstream, Zombie springs as far away from the commercial norm as possible when finally granted his independence. It’d be a little disingenuous, though, as even his mainstream releases are some way from the popular norm.

Moving on from directing his own music videos, and after his movie career hit a false start after a deal to make the third Crow movie fell apart after the script was written, Zombie wrote and directed House Of 1000 Corpses. The film was made for Universal and shot at their LA lot (the house is actually the same one used in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and, at least when I visited in 2009, can be seen as part of the back lot tour at Universal Studios, although the tour guide bizarrely made no mention of Zombie’s film. In fact, according to Zombie, the tour caused interruption to the shoot, as Universal refused to cancel or divert the tours). However, Universal felt the film was too violent, and after several recuts to tone the film down, eventually decided they would sooner piss on their own money than release it. 

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The film eventually found a home with Lionsgate, who released both Corpses and later its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, bringing in more than $35m between them from a combined $14m budget, making the pile of cash Universal had urinated on more of a money mountain. A big, soggy, pissy mountain of money.

The films themselves built Zombie a dedicated fan base. While there are no doubt some who were already fans of his music career, as a horror fan I was introduced to Zombie’s work through House Of 1000 Corpses. I’m a massive fan of Corpses and, to a greater degree, its sequel. They sit together strangely, with a difference in tone that makes them comparable to the first two Texas Chainsaw Massacre films. In fact, the story for The Devil’s Rejects is close to that of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (murderous family on the run, chased down by a rogue Sherriff culminating in a showdown at their rural base), while its serious tone and brutal violence align it more closely with the original Chainsaw Massacre.

House Of 1000 Corpses is about a group of young people on a road trip who pick up a disturbing hitchhiker, end up in the house of a family of murderous maniacs and meet with suitably gruesome ends. A similar story to that of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, then. The tone is fairly offbeat, though, with zany black humour and a lighter feel, as was the case with Texas Chainsaw 2. In the case of the Texas Chainsaw films, the changing tone feels like a move towards parody, going from serious to silly. In the case of Zombie’s films, it shouldn’t really work – how can you ask an audience to take something you’ve established as a bit silly seriously? In practice, it serves to heighten the impact of the violence. After the almost cartoonish first film, in The Devil’s Rejects, Elmer Fudd actually shoots Bugs Bunny in the face (figuratively, of course. I can’t stress enough that neither Elmer Fudd nor Bugs Bunny appear in The Devil’s Rejects). Harrowing stuff.

Zombie then moved on to remake horror classic Halloween, a move that turned normally dignified internet horror fans into weepy, Dawson’s Creek style emotional wrecks. I actually quite like the film, with its hyper-violence and a grand performance from Malcolm McDowell, and although it was mauled critically, it was Zombie’s third financial success.

A couple of years later, he was drafted in at short notice to make Halloween 2, as the studio had trouble getting the sequel off the ground without him. It seemed a strange move as Zombie had at first insisted that he had no interest in reteaming with Dimension/Weinstein Company for a second go around. In the end, the second film was released to not much fanfare, with McDowell suggesting that the production had been a nightmare for the director due to studio interference.

Zombie’s Halloween 2 isn’t a particularly well seen horror film, which is a shame because it’s actually kind of brilliant. Zombie’s Halloween remake (certainly the second half) feels restrained by the original, while this sequel finds him very much doing his own thing. We get the longest dream sequence I’ve seen outside of Inception, a legitimate story continuation for the characters, a top turn from genre favourite Brad Douriff and nightmarish pumpkin demons. While it didn’t make anywhere near the money the first film did, it still returned more than double its budget.

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Halloween 3 is currently propping up a bar somewhere in development hell, although Zombie insists that he isn’t going back and that this time he totally means it. Call us suckers, but we believe him. In amongst all of this, he also found time to write and direct the animated film The Haunted World Of El-Superbeasto. It’s a cartoon for childish horror fans and I’d gladly recommend it to you if you fit that description (I certainly do). That said, I consider it to be more a side project than one of his actual films.

That brings us up to now. The Lords Of Salem does find Zombie responding to his two Halloween films. He made the film for a small budget (reported to be just $1.5m) so he could have complete creative control, free of meddling from caviar-bloated studio executives. He’s certainly made the most of it, producing a film that’s so tripped out that it’s difficult to imagine a major studio knowing what to do with it.

For me, The Lords Of Salem is a real triumph. Less defined by its plotting, it uses suspense, unpredictability and striking imagery to create a genuinely unsettling atmosphere that hung over me long after the end credits had rolled.

Visually, Zombie has previously used jittery camera movements to accompany the mania occurring on screen. Here, the camera slowly creeps around, panning across grey skies or bringing that door at the end of the corridor agonisingly closer. Then there’s the use of colour, with neon light splashing through darkness and fiery witches gatherings in the night. The end of the film in particular is kind of mind blowing. I’m not sure that I could work out how to explain the spoilers to you, so I’ll take advantage and err on the side of spoiler free. All-in-all, though, the whole thing just looks terrific.

Zombie uses the previously mentioned creepy imagery and slow camera movements (along with the films scored music, courtesy of Rob Zombie band guitarist John 5) to build tension and suspense. A common criticism of his Halloween films was that they lacked suspense, so it’s nice to see Zombie showing that he’s actually quite adept at using it when he wants to.

In interviews, the director has cited The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and The Devils as influences on The Lords Of Salem. I’d be quick to point out that it’s not just a mish-mash of ideas taken from those films. Rather, the flashbacks (and some other elements) are evocative of The Devils, the look of the film is part The Shining and the tone, as well as the theme of isolation, brings Rosemary’s Baby to mind.

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The cast of The Lords Of Salem sent me scuttling to IMDb repeatedly, as Zombie again turns to his troupe of horror genre actors. It’s always a delight to see Ken Foree (particularly in any role that finds him in more clothing than in Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond), here in a supporting role as a rascally radio DJ. Meg Foster (known for her role in They Live and for being Evil Lynn in Masters Of The Universe) seems to be having a ball as head witch Margaret Morgan.

Rob Zombie has previously taken some stick for casting his wife in all of his films. I’m sure there are some who legitimately dislike her as an actress, but for the most part it feels like one of those cheap shots the internet gets so excited about making. In The Lords Of Salem, Zombie has responded to the criticism by giving his wife the lead role, a move we attribute to his faith in her as a performer and to his giant balls. Sheri Moon Zombie pays off his faith by turning in her best performance to date. She’s just as convincing whether responding to warped demons, joking around on the radio or struggling with drug addiction.

Much is made of director Quentin Tarantino’s on-screen foot fetish. Well, Rob Zombie is a married man, and he can’t very well go splashing his sexual interests all over his films. However, Zombie is a man with his own tastes, and if you’ve seen The Devil’s Rejects, you’ll be aware that he likes his wife’s arse quite a bit. It makes numerous appearances in this film, which I found disturbingly heartwarming. It’s nice to see that, even after several years of marriage, a husband can still be so profoundly affected by his wife’s bottom.

If we’re looking for flaws in the film, and while I’m still tentatively maintaining the veneer of professionalism I suppose I ought to, some of the physical effects really show the film’s budget. There’s one particular character we meet near the end of the film who you’d struggle to make work with 20 times the budget, and here it looks a little silly.

In the modern horror landscape, The Lords Of Salem is something very different. It’s not going to be for everyone. I’m not here to spin you bullshit and trick you into seeing a film you’re going to hate. I’ve really liked every Rob Zombie film to date and I really liked this one too. Some of you who have liked his previous films aren’t going to be into this one at all – it gets pretty weird. Some of you who haven’t liked his previous films will get a big kick out of The Lords Of Salem. If it piques your interest, it’s probably worth giving it a try.

Some early reviews have pointed to the ending as the biggest problem with the film, while I found the last 15 minutes the most rewarding. Lacking a clear A-to-B narrative, the ending is the least clear section. It’s a film that’s about creating an atmosphere, though, and I really dug it. It’s uncomfortable, tense viewing.

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I hope the film proves to be a big success (with its budget so low, it certainly has a decent chance). Given Zombie’s track record of producing outstanding sequels, it’d be ideal for it to storm the box office in a way that simply demands a second movie (in spite of an ending that… well… see the film). And if not, Zombie’s next film is currently set to be about a 1970s ice hockey team. I can’t understand how that’s happening, but I also can’t wait.

The Lords Of Salem hits UK cinemas on limited release on 26 April, with a DVD (featuring a front cover that shuns the US poster in favour of a dull skull image that’s ill-fitting of the film – boo!) and digital download release on 29 April. The novelisation of the film is out now. If you’ve read it, let us know what you thought in the comments section.

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