Ever since he first made the jump from musician to moviemaker, horror fans like me have wanted to root for Rob Zombie. It has little to do with whether one is a fan of his music or not. It's that there was a consistent aesthetic at work in everything he did that made it seem like he was going to make the kind of movies that genre buffs were going to love.
After all, here was a guy who named his band (White Zombie) after a great 1932 Bela Lugosi horror flick, sampled exploitation and horror classics like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Night of the Living Dead in his songs, and embedded cult culture and film references throughout his records. In short, beneath the shaggy hair, scraggly beard, and heavy metal gloom, he was basically just a sci-fi/horror nerd. Add to that his background in graphic arts, filmmaking experience making music videos, and it was easy for any person who shared his tastes to figure some good could come from having Zombie behind the camera.
But with today's release of his fifth movie, Lords of Salem, it's time to come to terms with the sad truth: Rob Zombie as a filmmaker is at best a one-hit wonder, and a case study in the dangers of putting a fanboy in the director's chair.
Hopes were high going into Lords of Salem, as it represents Zombie's first fully original work in eight years, following his dalliance with the mainstream—a remake of John Carpenter's horror landmark Halloween, and then a sequel to that remake. While those films didn't feel like the phoned-in paycheck pieces that one might have feared, the first was a tone-deaf spin on what made Carpenter's flick so frightening, taking away a lot of the blank bogeyman anonymity that gave the killing machine Michael Myers his primal power to terrorize. The misread was particularly surprising coming from such an astute student of the genre as Zombie. While the sequel felt more like it was his own work, grafting the grimy grindhouse aesthetic of his earlier films to the ongoing saga of Myers, all the fantastically sleazy style in the world couldn't win out over the flawed substance that had been set up in the first film.
But the return to all-new material meant a chance for Zombie to return to the heights of his divisive 2005 sophomore effort, The Devil's Rejects. Critical consensus has never been on Zombie's side, but this loose sequel to his debut effort—2002's intermittently satisfying mashup of the 1930s Golden Age of Horror with grislier '70s horror sensibilities, House of 1000 Corpses—is the closest the director has ever come to earning a "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Plenty of people still dismissed it as an execrable piece of ultra-violent trash cinema, but just as many lauded it—for being a masterpiece of ultraviolent trash cinema.
Count me in the "masterpiece" camp. The Devil's Rejects felt like a summation of a half century of exploitation cinema, with Zombie rolling together the lurid grime of grindhouse with dusty existential road movies and human-nature-based horror, and even added in a tongue-in-cheek Star Wars homage along the way. It's a stretch to even call it a horror movie, but like the best horror, it had pointed social and political resonance for the time in which it was made, not to mention just being a relentlessly good time. It'd have been hard to imagine how someone could make a montage set to the entirety of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" even remotely tolerable in 2005, but Zombie both pulled it off and made it the unforgettable climax of his movie.
Lords of Salem trades the grainy, gritty look of Zombie's previous work for a slicker, more elegant gloom, the first of a number of departures from what one might expect from the director. The film is set in Salem, Massachusetts, where Heidi (the director's wife and constant leading lady, Sheri Moon Zombie) is a recovering addict and part of a trio of nighttime DJs at a local radio station. A mysterious record that arrives at the station one day, addressed to her from what she thinks is a band called "The Lords," winds up being an audio trigger for her and women all over Salem who are the descendants of persecuted 17th century witches.
Far less violent than his past work, Salem instead takes a slow and methodical approach to building tension, looking to unsettle and chill more than shock. And I did find it to be an unsettling experience -not because it was particularly scary, though it does have its moments. Rather, it was unsettling because every criticism I've always defended The Devil's Rejects against, I found myself lobbing at Lords of Salem. Where the haters of Rejects found Zombie's encyclopedic knowledge—and constant referencing—of horror-film history to be nothing more than pastiche bordering on self-parody, I'd always claimed it was smart, deftly woven homage. Yet in Lords of Salem, instead of enjoying what Zombie had created by stitching together the work of others, I just found myself ticking off the boxes for each influence as it sprung up.
Zombie has described this film as "if Ken Russell directed The Shining." But he hardly needs to say that out loud: Those reference points are placed with a clumsy nudge and wink that leave no doubt as to the director's intentions. Smash cuts to title cards announcing each day of the week are lifted right out of The Shining, while the hypersexualized and operatically bizarre acid-trip of the film's conclusion could never be confused as anything other than a loving tribute to Russell. David Lynch and Roman Polanski are also invited to this party, along with just about every occult B-movie the '80s ever produced.
It's a credit to Zombie's interest in growing as an artist that he's drawing from more mature inspirations here, but it's also part of why the movie doesn't work. Remixing his influences is effective for Devil's Rejects for the same reason it's always worked for Quentin Tarantino: The movies they're referencing were often either disposable, or already made from well-worn re-used parts. Exploitation and genre cinema don't just welcome recycling and invite imitation. They thrive on it.
But the reference points here are all artists with such distinctive styles that referencing them has to be done subtly. Otherwise it feels like imitating the inimitable.
Five films into his career, Zombie is branching out, but still fundamentally building his films the same way. Maybe The Devil's Rejects was a fluke strike of brilliance springing from that formula; but the lesson of Lords of Salem may be that if he wants a second strike, Zombie may be better off staying trashy instead of classy.