After working a packed auditorium into a frenzy at last September’s premiere of Lords of Salem at the Toronto International Film Festival, Rob Zombie anxiously took his seat and watched his audience watch his film, his first independently financed feature. It’s also the first film he’s made following a messy split with the Weinstein brothers, who produced and distributed Zombie’s ambitious — and highly idiosyncratic — entries in the Halloween slasher franchise.
Zombie’s introduction to the crowd was quick, probably due to his eagerness to get the film seen by the critics he most wants to please: a theater packed with fans and horror buffs who might be surprised at what’s coming. When he made Lords of Salem, Zombie didn’t retreat into the allusive, manic style he’s known for. Instead, he made a more tonally measured horror film, one whose deliberate pace is partly inspired by Rosemary’s Baby and the films of Stanley Kubrick. Zombie knew that that drastic change could easily alienate his audience. During early screenings of House of 1000 Corpses, his 2003 debut feature, a preview crowd booed during a long, tense crane shot, thinking the projectionist had fallen asleep. But as Lords of Salem played, the audience grew quiet, involved, accepting the film for what it is: something new.
“That was nice,” he says. “The movie took over them.”
While he has not completely rejected his goth-cum-psychedelic style, Zombie approached Lords of Salem with greater rigor, achieving and maintaining a consistent tone. He notably sliced out scenes featuring character actors Clint Howard and Udo Kier, two recent additions to Zombie’s collection of recurring cast members, because he later thought those scenes tangential. Sheri Moon Zombie, the director’s wife, stars as a DJ who is hypnotized by a coven of witches and subsequently impregnated with the devil’s son. When shooting an especially long take, Zombie reassured her, “I know this is going to seem stupid, and you’re going to feel like you’re standing there for a year. But bear with me!”
Zombie says, “I’ve made that mistake before. My gut reaction told me that I was going too slow, but when I got into editing, I thought, ‘What the fuck was my big hurry, why did I rush through that?'” That would lead to him attempting to pace the film in the editing room — and not having all of the footage he needed. This time, he says, the “film really came together on-set.”
Zombie’s memories of House of 1000 Corpses are understandably not fond, given how brusquely Universal Studios’ executives treated him. But making that film was paradoxically also a liberating, and, according to Zombie, “chaotic,” learning experience.
“Back then, the cost of the movie was so inconsequential that [Universal] didn’t pay attention to what we were doing. But when they realized, they stopped everything. That movie went into limbo when, I thought, it hadn’t really been finished. I walked into Universal one day, and the editor told me,’We were just told to pack up and get out.'”
History repeated itself when Zombie made his Halloween films: The Weinsteins wrested creative control from the director. (Those films were commercial successes; the first is still the highest-grossing film to open on Labor Day weekend.) Again, Zombie learned from his negative experiences, but this time, he taught himself how to work with people who did not respect or understand his vision. “The way I survived it was thinking: ‘Whatever sand castle I build today, the wave’s going to crush tomorrow. So I’m just going to ignore everything he’s saying today. I’m just going to do whatever I want until he shuts me down.'”
At the same time, it’s easy to see why Zombie thinks Lords of Salem was “the easiest [film] to make,” given that he was his own harshest taskmaster. But while Zombie had total control to make his latest film as weird as he wanted, he also knew that he needed to adapt his vision to suit his film’s needs. “Nothing’s worse than not being sensitive to your own movie,” Zombie insists. “If the movie’s going in one direction, don’t try to force it in the other direction. And if that happens, you have to find another approach.”