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Q&A: Rob Zombie on the Strange, Satanic “THE LORDS OF SALEM”

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Surreal and singular, THE LORDS OF SALEM is one of the must-see horror movies of the year. Regardless of your own reaction in the end, it’s simply unlike much of anything that’s out. As we discuss with its director, the always polarizing Rob Zombie, that alone should be an exciting prospect. A descent into Satanic madness that is often hypnotic, composed and grand, the film was completed on Zombie’s quickest shoot and lowest budget. Here, the director speaks with Fango candidly about the lack of adventurous movie going, finishing THE LORDS OF SALEM and of course, it’s incredible wallpaper.  

FANGORIA: There was a dive into something surreal within HALLOWEEN 2. When did you get the bug to really explore it with THE LORDS OF SALEM?

ROB ZOMBIE: Probably during that movie, I guess. I like things like that. I’ve always been a fan of sort of surreal movies, something by Kenneth Anger or things like that, but it really was never appropriate before. In HALLOWEEN II, I started working with it and I thought those, for me, were some of the coolest moments of the film. When this movie came up, I thought, “Well this really is that type of film.” Stylistically, it’s very different, but also if you look at what I’ve done, it’s one film, then a sequel. Another film, and then a sequel. So, there really hasn’t been a lot of wiggle room to vary. This was the first time in a long time I could do something completely outside of what I had been doing.

FANG: It’s an interesting film because, especially with your background and the Lords’ record, there’s something in there about the power of art, whether it’s film or music, to drudge up emotion. With you just speaking about for a time only doing a film and then a sequel, were you expressing anything about constantly calling the past back up.

ZOMBIE: It’s hard to say. I’m not really sure. I think of the film differently sometimes. A lot of times people think about what the film is, but I think of it differently as how it is to me as I wanted to make it. So, in a way it is. The way I wanted to make it was I liked the idea that you could make a film that doesn’t have to be exactly this formula and structure that films are supposed to be. Before, people would talk about, “You’ve got to see this movie, it’s not like anything you’ve seen.” That was the selling point. Now people go, “What’s it like? Name another movie it’s just like.” It used to be the exact opposite way. You wanted to see it because it was totally different than other things. So, that was my thought working on it. I know that people will either love or hate certain parts of it, but I guarantee those are my favorite parts. That sort of thought process I had in making it definitely would then filter into how the audience would interpret it.

FANG: It’s strange, when you look at horror, that people want that kind of comfort when it could and should be predicated on being an adventurous genre.

ZOMBIE: Really. I can only explain how I felt watching movies when I was younger and was first discovering movies. I didn’t think of it as, “Oh, I just saw this, I want to see another movie just like it.” It was like, I saw DAWN OF THE DEAD  and then next week I’d see PINK FLAMINGOS and then I saw ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and then I’d see ERASERHEAD and then CLOCKWORK ORANGE. None of them had anything to do with each other. You expected each movie to be unique unto itself. That’s what was so exciting each time a movie would start. That was sort of one of the depressing aspects of HALLOWEEN—making those movies. I thought, of course we don’t want to do the same thing that already existed. What would be the fucking point?

But then it seemed like people’s response… Not everybody, it was split 50/50, but the other 50 were like, why didn’t you just give us the exact same thing that we wanted. Or they were doing? Why would you want that? It’s the Top 40 mentality that’s now really prevalent in everything. When I signed on to deal with the Blumhouse people, I think they were hoping I was just going to do my version of INSIDIOUS. When they saw the crazy stuff that I was veering off into, I could tell that they were like, “what’s happening here?” That’s the formula, but that doesn’t interest me.

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FANG: Well turning to the film itself and its production design, the house Heidi lives in has fantastic wallpaper.

ZOMBIE: Yea, we spent a long time on that. It’s really funny. We made a making-of documentary and I remember filming going through the wallpaper and losing my mind. Just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pieces of wallpaper and finally I was like, “This is it. This is the one that is somehow regal, yet seems scary.”

And I just want to make clear because sometimes when things are written out they sound… I wasn’t saying anything bad about INSIDIOUS. They did a great job.

FANG: Well just like James Wan and Leigh Whannell, your work has a very strong sense of authorship. To ask that you fit in with something that’s “working” seems silly.

ZOMBIE: That’s what they do though. That’s what they do with everybody. I’ve seen it happen so often, especially with foreign directors. Some young director will make a really out there, interesting film and then they’ll get hired by whatever company to do a generic horror movie. What is the point?  I remember there were two guys that were supposed to do HALLOWEEN II before me and their agent was like, “Oh, do you have any advice for them?” I wasn’t thinking that I was going to do it and I just felt like they were going to get fucked. You think you’re being hired for what you did, but you’re not. “Oh you’re a square peg, but we’re definitely going to try and jam you in this round hole.”

FANG: Do you still feel like that’s a struggle for you?

ZOMBIE: No, because I don’t care. I just won’t do it. I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do. I said that day one on HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and I had nothing to fall back on. I go, “Look, this is what I’m going to do. If you don’t want to do it, that’s great. But let’s not pretend that we’re doing something else.” It’s not I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER or whatever movie. No offense, let’s just part ways now. People want to make money, they want to do their thing and that’s all good. So, I try to be pretty honest about it.

FANG: A lot of what people recognize about your work is on a stylistic level. What do you think you put in there that’s more personal?

ZOMBIE: I think the characters all have very personal aspects to me. Every character I’ve created has some—you can’t help but base everything on yourself or people close to you. You know what I mean? The Laurie Strode character: I took Laurie Strode and I took myself and turned myself into that girl at that time, how I would have been. I didn’t go create some weird version of how I thought John Carpenter was thinking of a teenage girl 30 years ago. I was like, “Well, this is what I remember being a pissed off, angry 17 year-old who liked punk rock.” So, it’s always very personal to me, the things people say and do and the way they act.

There’s this, “Oh, it’s these white trash characters.” I don’t think of it that way, at all. I think that just seems real to me, or that’s my reality. What I find so knocking is when every single one of these teenagers is a supermodel. All their boyfriends are supermodels, too. That sort of DAWSON’S CREEK version of a horror movie that people seem to love and now is taken as some sort of reality. I never got it and I still don’t get it.

With LORDS OF SALEM, one of the big notes was “make everybody younger.” I always find that strange too, because who cares? There’s this real sickness, teenagers will only watch teenagers. We know that’s not true. I was a kid watching DAWN OF THE DEAD, I didn’t wish that the SWAT team guys were 17 years-old. You can’t have recovering drug addicts working at a radio station where they clearly have been a long time and make them all 18. Being young is great, but you can’t look at that person think that there’s a history to them. That character looks like, six months ago, they would’ve been doing their homework.

FANG: The film seems to have a lot left out, be it in the script or actually deleted scenes. Some of these genre actors’ performances you can see in the film in pieces.

ZOMBIE: There seems to be a misconception about the people that were cut out, that they had these huge parts. Barbara Crampton and Sid [Haig] both worked one day. They were tiny roles to begin with. Sid’s part and Michael Berryman’s part were going to be bigger, but that whole part of the movie got all fucked up because we ran out of time and Richard Lynch passed away. I had to edit him out of the movie. That was sort of a different problem to solve.

The one thing to drive you crazy on a movie like this, because we shot for 22 days, is you figure, “Shit I wish I had known I wasn’t going to use that stuff, because I wouldn’t have wasted my time filming it. I could have put more time into the other things I wish I had time for.”

Patricia Quinn, Judy Geeson and Dee Wallace in THE LORDS OF SALEM

Patricia Quinn, Judy Geeson and Dee Wallace in THE LORDS OF SALEM

FANG: It’s interesting that this is your fastest and cheapest, but looks and feels the most grand.

ZOMBIE: It is. It looks like the most expensive film out of all of them, because as you go along you learn more. You know how to get what you want on screen. A lot of times, from experience like I learned on HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, you’re just wasting money and you’re wasting time because you just don’t know. You don’t know the time saving tricks of how to do things yet. I could have made all those other movies much cheaper now. That doesn’t mean I like it that way. It mostly becomes a problem for the actors because there’s no time for mistakes. Everybody basically had to nail on the first or second take. That was the problem, because certain things come out as you’re shooting. Like the relationship between Heidi and Whitey. It was not really in the script at first, but started evolving and had we more time to shoot, we could’ve really made something more out of that. Jeff, with the phone call scene where he calls her from the dock. That had to be the scene that sold the whole relationship. There was no time to do more scenes. Everything had to count on that one little phone call.

FANG: With something like Salem, there’s clear iconography. Also, the sisters reminded me of MACBETH. I’m curious about your own use of symbols and iconography in the film.

ZOMBIE: Really, as far as witches go in a cinematic sense, the only witches in my mind that had any of the vibe of what I liked was in Polanski’s MACBETH. Funny you brought that up. There weren’t a lot of reference points for this film. It’s not like you’re trying to emulate a film, or copy or something like that, but just so you have a way to convey things to people. On a film this short, you don’t have time. You’re not doing storyboards, you’re not doing big production paintings, you’re not doing models. There’s not a lot of reference points people can look at. There were only a few films, and that was one of them. It was helpful for sort of the look and vibe of the witches.

THE LORDS OF SALEM is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Anchor Bay. For more with Zombie, see our 30-minute video interview done with Google last  April.

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About the author
Samuel Zimmerman
Fangoria.com Managing Editor Samuel Zimmerman has been at FANGORIA since 2009, where fresh out of the Purchase College Cinema Studies program, he began as an editorial assistant. Since, he’s honed both his writing and karaoke skills and been trusted with the responsibility of jury duty at Austin’s incredible Fantastic Fest. Zimmerman lives in and hails from The Bronx, New York where his pants are too tight and he’ll watch anything with witches.
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