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.