Rob Zombie impressed many (ourselves included) with his grisly and demented sophomore effort, “The Devil’s Rejects,” only to betray many admirers of that film with his tepid stab at the “Halloween” franchise. After helming the 2009 sequel to that reboot, new film “The Lords of Salem” (which world premiered in Toronto earlier this week in the Midnight Madness section) finds Zombie back in non-remake mode with a gonzo tale that proves the musician turned filmmaker has lost none of his mojo.
A melding of Zombie’s heavy metal background and horror sensibilities, “Lords” centers on a radio station DJ (Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie) tormented by nightmares and hallucinations involving a coven of Salem witches (and one sadistic-looking baby), after listening to a sinister sounding vinyl record sent to her office.
Indiewire sat down with Zombie the day following “Salem”‘s world premiere to talk about his latest and find out if he’ll ever return to the “Halloween” franchise.
What’s with you and your fascination with witchcraft? “Lords of Salem” marks your first film to feature a posse of witches, but the witch trials have fueled your songwriting before.
I don’t know that I have a fascination with witches per se — well, maybe I just have a fascination with everything that’s weird. Without really analyzing it, I grew up in Massachusetts, so the Salem witch trials were always something that I was around. The average kindergartner probably doesn’t know about it, except that in Massachusetts, you do, because they’ll take you on field trips to see reenactments and stuff. I always found it fascinating, even though I really didn’t know much about it until I revisited it later, for the film. It’s a fascinating subject.
Why got at it from a modern bent?
Because I feel like that story’s been told. That was one thing also with researching it, you realize how many — besides movies like “The Crucible” — PBS TV movies there’ve been on the subject. I figured we didn’t need another one. Mine, unfortunately, has nothing to do with the reality of the witch trials.
Did you write this after helming “Halloween 2”?
No, I started this a long time ago, six or seven years, maybe? But it wasn’t really like I was working on it. I was like, “Oh, this would kind of be a cool idea. Like, Salem radio station, blah blah blah, music,” and then forgot I even wrote that down.
Then about a year ago, Jason Blum, who’s one of the producers [along with Oren Peli, the team behind “Paranormal Activity”], came to me and was like, “Oh, we’re making these low-budget films” — like they did with “Insidious” and “Paranormal” and stuff — “and if you have an idea, we want to do one with you.” Their only stipulation was, “You have total control, but we would like it to be supernatural in nature.” That’s their model, or it was then.
It was actually Wayne Toth — who does all my special effects — who went, “What about that ‘Lords of Salem’ thing you were talking about years ago?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah.” I had totally forgotten all about it, but somehow he remembered. And that’s what brought it up.
What do you make of the “Paranormal” movies?
I saw the first one and thought it was great. The second one, too, also, but I haven’t seen the other. What I really liked about working with them was that I had freedom. You’ll sign a deal with anyone if they give you final cut.
Have you ever wanted to go down the found footage route?
No, I think those movies are cool, and that “Blair Witch” and “Paranormal” were effective, and there are probably still ones that are very effective, but I feel like it just starts becoming… to me those are quick burn movies. I don’t know if you could really re-watch them. You watch them once and go, “Oh, they’re scary,” and you’re done with it. I like movies where you can come back and re-watch them and admire the cinematography 25 years later. You go, “Wow, how’d they get that shot?” That’s really what I am about.
The reason I asked earlier if you wrote this following “Halloween 2,” is because “Salem” marks such a departure from your “Halloween” films, both in its outlandish style and operatic scope. I got a sense that you made it in an effort to break free from whatever contraints you felt while making those films.
Pretty much, yeah. Making the “Halloween” movies was kind of a nightmare, for two reasons. There’s the expectations of what it’s supposed to be — because any person that’s a fan of “Halloween” thinks, “Okay, this is my idea exactly of how these movies are supposed to go.” So no matter what you do, it feels like this is some weird thing. And the studio looks at it as a franchise that they want to protect.
With my second one I got pretty wacky, but it was a battle. They look at it as a franchise. With this, it was just nice to be told, “You can do whatever the fuck you want as long as you stay on budget.” And that’s essentially what I did. I wanted to just make a crazy movie. Last night when I was watching it, I was sitting in the theater going, “I can’t believe somebody gave me money to do this.” The ending’s so nutty, but those are the type of movies I like. I like movies where sometimes when they end you go, “What the fuck? Huh? What did I just watch. I gotta watch that again. That barely made sense to me.”
It left me saying that, but it also creeped the hell out of me.
The movie’s not violent, it’s not bloody, and it’s not typical horror things — but I like the fact that people kept telling me, “It really bothered me. It gave me a weird vibe that I couldn’t get rid of all night.” That’s how I’ll feel sometimes when I’ll watch, say, a David Lynch movie or a Cronenberg movie. There was nothing in the movie that was that disturbing, but the total vibe of the whole thing — that’s what I wanted to try to achieve with it.
I’m curious — why did you make “Halloween 2”?
Truthfully, a couple things. When the first “Halloween” came out, it was a huge hit, number one movie, and blah blah blah blah. So of course they thought, “He’s gonna wanna do ‘Halloween 2.'” The first words out of my mouth were, “I’m absolutely not doing ‘Halloween 2.'”
And I didn’t. I didn’t wanna do it because I was like, “I just did this, I don’t wanna do it again.” So they hired another director and other writers. And a couple years went by and I ran into their head of production at some awards thing, and I asked him, “How’s ‘Halloween 2’ going?” Because I thought they were done with it. I thought they’d already made the movie.
He goes, “It’s a disaster. We fired the director. We’re on our tenth set of writers. We can’t get the movie made.” And by that point, I had a different feeling, because I sort of felt possessive of the movie I made and I was pissed that another person was gonna come in and take what I thought of as my actors and my story and fuck with it. So I basically said, “Well, I’m free now. So if you want me to do it, I’ll do it.” And I swear to God within 24 hours we were working on it. It was a fast turnaround.
Again they’re having the same problem. They’ve announced a third one over and over.
So you might do one more?
No. That would just be masochistic on my part.
“Salem” is your first film in which music plays a pivotal part — it’s a song that essentially sets the whole plot in motion. Had you long wanted to make a film that fused the two worlds of yours together so clearly?
I never really thought about it that way, but I did feel like I hadn’t done that yet. I never made movies that had any of my music. I haven’t crossed them over that much. Setting “Salem” at a radio station really put it in a world that I know. I’ve gone to like a million radio stations and the DJs all remind me of people I’ve met a million times.
The music is always super important to me in the movies. I like to have at least one song that becomes a song that, when you hear it on the radio, will make you think of that movie.
You give Sheri Moon her biggest part with this film. Is this your love letter to her?
I wrote it for her, for sure. Sheri would go, “A love letter? Jesus Christ, you tortured me through the whole movie.” But, yeah, I always knew she could do something great, but hadn’t really been given the chance. Not even the movies I worked with her in. Even in “Devil’s Rejects,” it was always split between characters, so yeah, I always wanted to do something like that.
“Salem” is her picture.
Yeah, because she takes it very seriously, and would really invest herself. I knew that she would understand that character and would get it.
Her nightmare sequences are so gorgeously executed. How did you dream those up?
I don’t know. They just pop up. I’ll just see something and file it in the back of my mind.
Yeah, that baby thing was weird. That was based on this picture of a real baby that looked like that.
A real baby that looked like that?
A real baby, yeah. And I don’t know what the technical term for that disease is, but its eyes basically were on the outside of its head. I mean, the real baby looks fake. It looks exactly like that thing, which is kind of sad. I feel bad for that child. I don’t know if the baby ever lived, but I saw this little clip of it alive, and I was like, “That is the most fucked up thing I’ve ever seen.” I gave it to the effects guy and when they were sculpting that thing, he was like, “I literally want to vomit working on this thing, it’s so disgusting.”
How did Sheri deal with it?
Oh, she hates it. She wouldn’t even look at it. She wouldn’t even look at it until the moment we had to shoot. She hates everything like that. She is not into any of that stuff.
Well, you sure put her throught the wringer.
I did. She is all happiness and flowers. [laughs]