Rob Zombie is probably the most debated and polarizing director working in horror today. No current director in the genre draws such extreme and varying reactions as Zombie, and, as an admitted fan of his work, I find this hard to believe. It could be that Zombie, known to many fans for years as the frontman and creative drive behind seminal metal band White Zombie (and then as the lead of his own, self-titled band) had some high expectations to meet as a lifelong and high-profile fan of the genre. It could also be that, no matter how good a “Rob Zombie film” ended up, the “Rob Zombie film” that audiences created in their own mind (for good or for ill) would never live up to the realities of said film. While both of these are possibilities, I tend to be more cynical and go with the theory that, quite simply, haters gonna hate. While there are no fans quite as fiercely loyal as horror fans, there are also no fans quite as hard to please as jaded horror fans, and, as horror fandom stretches across all lines of personality types, ages, genders, orientations, and, frankly, levels of film literacy, it is harder and harder for horror directors to connect with large groups of horror fans. I think that no director knows this like Rob Zombie.
Zombie’s first film, House of 1000 Corpses, hit with mixed reviews, despite being a fairly good adaptation of Zombie’s aesthetic; basically, this film was the liner notes/artwork of his albums come to day-glo life. His second film, The Devil’s Rejects, was a gritty follow up to “Corpses,” keeping the characters from the first film, but replacing the hallucinogenic visuals with a road-revenge-grindhouse feel, and is largely considered to be his most successful film today. Not one to make fan-pleasing decisions, Zombie followed up his first two original films with a remake of John Carpenter’s classic Halloween, and a sequel to that remake. Zombie’s first outing into Haddonfield started the backlash to Zombie’s films, with many fans of the original film crying foul to Zombie’s approach – a mostly humorless and gritty “realistic” approach to the Michael Myers mythos, exploring the psychological underpinnings of one of cinema’s most iconic slashers, that, admittedly, after 1st and 2nd acts of more original storytelling, falls back on the storyline of Carpenter’s film. The backlash to this film has always baffled me, as Zombie had stated, from the beginning, that this film would humanize Meyers into a real-life serial killer, stripping away Carpenter’s boogeyman into something (slightly) more based in reality. Fans cried foul, despite Rob Zombie’s Halloween being a more satisfying remake than the remakes of both Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Zombie followed with Halloween 2, which completely ditched the Carpenter-heavy action for a psychedelic mind-fuck of a film, with Myers becoming a roving force of nature, as opposed to a boogeyman that found a crisp pair of overalls and spankin’ new mask every October 31st. While I found this film to be highly satisfying and felt that it brought a refreshing new depth to the Halloween franchise, fans who hated his first Halloween (mostly) hated this film even more. Finally, Zombie released the animated The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, a hilarious musical hodgepodge of luchadores, zombies, boobs, and blood.
So where would Zombie go next? Instead of the rumored projects (a remake of The Blob, and the original boxer-vs-Satanic-motorcycle-gang entitled Tyrannosaurus Rex), Zombie plunged into the world of Satan, Salem, and witches with The Lords of Salem, a film that owes as much to Ken Russell, Stanley Kubrick, and Roman Polanski as as it does to 70’s and 80’s Euro-horor (and more than a dash of the 80’s Satanic rock film Trick Or Treat). Based upon a Rob Zombie song of the same name, The Lords of Salem is another hallucinogenic, visual mind-fuck from Zombie, focusing on Satanic forces returning to Salem to seek revenge, and their effect on a local radio DJ, played by Zombie’s wife and regular cast-member Sheri Moon Zombie. This film is a weird and visually lush slow burn, mostly trading Zombie’s fast-and-furious editing style with an evenly-paced tale that offers no easy explanation by the time the final minutes unfurl. It is also, quite possibly, the best film of his career.
Sheri Moon Zombie (what a great name) plays Heidi LaRoc, a local DJ who’s part of “The Big H Team” – herself, Herman “Whitey” Salvador (Jeff Daniel Phillips), and Herman “Munster” Jackson (Ken Foree). Heidi (whose real name is, in fact, Heidi Hawthorne), a recovering drug-addict and dreadlock aficionado, receives an anonymous package at the radio station – a blank, heavy vinyl (possibly heavier than 180g – talk about heavy metal) in a wooden box, credited only to “The Lords.” The record contains weird, disjointed music, which, after playing it on the air, starts to have a weird effect on Heidi and all of the women in Salem. Heidi starts to have weird visions, getting the attention of her landlord (Judy Geeson) and her landlord’s two eccentric sisters (Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn). Soon, Heidi begins to see visions of burnt-faced priests, neon crosses, and Kubrickian hallways, and starts being haunted by a dirty, naked witch – Margaret Morgan (played bravely and fiercely by Meg Foster) – who was burnt at the stake hundreds of years ago. The weird music and goings-on catch the attention of Francis Matthias (Bruce Davidson), a local historian who has written one of the definitive books on the Salem Witch Trials. Are Heidi’s weird visions and behavior an indication of a heroin relapse, or is she, in fact, being haunted by a newly-loosed evil that is stalking through Salem?
To go any further into the plot would be a disservice to The Lords of Salem, which is the most visually accomplished and wholly terrifying film that has come from writer/director Rob Zombie. The slow burn of Satanic witches run amok is both familiar and original, finding its aesthetic through the work of the aforementioned Russell, Kubrick, and Polanski, while still centering on the things that fascinate Zombie – Halloween decor, films of yesteryear (Kansas City Confidential and Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune), and his wife’s ass. Make no mistake – this is, by far, Zombie at his best, and he has crafted a film that slowly gets inside your head and plays fast-and-loose with your prior conceptions of Zombie, especially if you’re in the camp that finds him to be more hack than auteur. Everything from the production design, camera work, musical choices (both in the form of a soundtrack that features Rush and The Velvet Underground, as well as a haunting score from guitarist John 5), and casting indicate a director who is firing on all cylinders.
Speaking of casting, this may very well be Zombie’s most satisfying group of actors (although, for me, it’s hard to beat the work done by Brad Dourif and Danielle Harris in his Halloween films, as well as the jobs done by both Sid Haig and Bill Moseley in “Corpses” and “Rejects“) yet, starting with what is probably Sheri Moon Zombie’s best role to date. As Heidi LaRoc (née Hawthore), Moon Zombie brings both pathos and vulnerability to a character whose past addictions bubble just under the surface. Jeff Daniel Phillips, known to most people for his role as the “Geico caveman,” brings a warm humanity to Whitey, playing the thin line of his friendship and (unrequited) love of Heidi with surprising depth – and really being the only male character that makes a deep impression. That shouldn’t be misconstrued, though, as Ken Foree creates a character with as much heart as he’s ever played as the other Herman of “The Big H Team,” but ultimately doesn’t have enough screen time to truly resonate. Bruce Davidson adds charm and weight to the proceedings, and, in a minor and mostly thankless role, Maria Conchita Alonso is delightful as his wife.
The real stars of the show, however, are Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn, and Meg Foster, who, without a doubt, prove that Hollywood is completely wrong and completely stupid in its bias toward more mature actresses. Judy Geeson, as Heidi’s landlady Lacy Doyle, walks the fine line between trusted friend and malevolent harbinger with both wit, charm, and a sinister subtext. Patricia Quinn, known best as the devilishy domestic Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is fantastic as Lacy’s sister Megan, as is Dee Wallace (The Howling, ET), playing her most fun and unhinged role to date as the other sister, Sonny. Rounding out this quartet of amazing actresses is Meg Foster (Masters of the Universe, They Live) who plays lead witch Margaret Morgan with a brutal ferocity, in a brave turn that features most of her screen time as a naked, dirty, vile villain – one of Zombie’s most frightening creations to date. It should be noted that all of the witches in The Lords of Salem are played as old, dirty, and mostly ugly crones – a refreshing take on witches that have been mostly oversexed in cinema (if you want sexy witches, go check out Dario Argento’s underrated The Third Mother).
I can’t really say enough good things about The Lords of Salem or it’s director. “Lords” is a slow-burning descent into Hell, and a visually magnificent turn for Rob Zombie, a director that I feel has been criminally underrated and under-appreciated. While it probably won’t change the minds of his detractors, The Lords of Salem is a step up for Zombie, an example of what can happen when a director doesn’t care about current cinema conventions and isn’t out to please the mainstream. It’s a throwback to a more experimental and psychedelic time in horror cinema, evoking as much Mario Bava as it does Ken Russell, and it has definitely secured a place on my top ten horror films, if not films in general, of this year. While Zombie has stated that he’s done with the horror genre for a while (his next film is the story of legendary hockey bruisers The Broad Street Bullies), here’s hoping that he doesn’t stay gone too long. Haters be damned, we need more directors like Rob Zombie. Cinema is art, and, if it pleases everyone, that doesn’t always mean that it has merit. Sometimes it is an indication of the filmmaker playing safe… and that’s one thing that Rob Zombie has definitely not done with The Lords of Salem.
Nathan Erdel is a screenwriter. He wrote Headless and some other stuff. He likes beer, metal, pizza, and horror. He has three cats and one wife.