As Rob Zombie awaits the release of his latest film, “The Lords of Salem,” he can’t help but feel a bit nostalgic for a bygone era. “The 70s was the last great time when I loved horror movies,” he muses from beneath dark sunglasses. “Once horror movies entered the 80s, they just took a weird turn.”
“The Lords of Salem” is Zombie’s sixth outing in the horror genre (five live action, one animated), and according to the director, it will probably be his last. “I think this is a good one to end on,” he says. His next movie, “Broad Street Bullies,” is a true-life sports film about the Philadelphia Flyers, as far from chills and thrills as you can get. “I don’t see myself doing another (horror movie) for a long, long time, if ever.”
This coming from the man who made a name for himself directing gory, gleeful throwbacks like “House of 1000 Corpse” (2003), “The Devil’s Rejects” (2005), and the remake of “Halloween” (2007). Why the sudden resistance?
“Horror movies are so looked down upon, it’s almost insane,” explains the filmmaker. “Not by the people who love them, but by the studios, and by the actors. Sometimes you’ll see an actor who’ll be in a horror movie on some talk show, and they keep trying to change the subject. They’re so embarrassed by it. That’s why I use some of the same people: they love it, whereas sometimes the agents won’t even tell their clients about it.”
Scaring audiences has been apart of the cinematic experience since the very beginning. During the silent era, Lon Chaney – the Man of a Thousand Faces – created a terrifying one in “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925). As the silents transitioned into the talkies, Universal Studios made their bread and butter from monster movies, with Bela Lugosi as “Dracula” (1931), Boris Karloff as “Frankenstein” (1931), Claude Raines as “The Invisible Man” (1933), and Lon Chaney, Jr., as “The Wolf Man” (1941).
Though these films were successful with the public, critics and the Academy rarely took notice. “Even Alfred Hitchcock felt he was not respected because of the way people perceived those films,” says Zombie.
Then came what Zombie believes to be a true renaissance of the genre. “In the 70s you’d get A-list, major directors like William Friedkin (“The Exorcist,” 1973), Stanley Kubrick (“The Shining,” 1980), and Roman Polanski (“Rosemary’s Baby,” 1968) who would do a horror movie, and there was no shame in it,” he explains. Those films were feted with critical acclaim and awards, bringing an unheard of respectability to what was once considered cheap entertainment.
But Zombie’s tone quickly changes as we enter the next decade. “Then the 80s came: suddenly, there was nothing but shame in it. It just became cheap slasher material, and that literally was all there was. The movies never really recovered from it.” He’s referring to the trend started by John Carpenter’s classic “Halloween” (1977), which spawned several screaming-teen blood fests such as “Friday the 13th” (1980), “Prom Night” (1981), and “Silent Night, Deadly Night” (1984).
“The companies love them because they generates a fortune,” Zombie continues. “Most of these studios wouldn’t be in business if it wasn’t for the horror movies. It almost seems like they build the company on horror movies, and as soon as they get big enough, they just pretend like it never happened. It’s just the dirty little secret. They treat these films just slightly above the way they would treat porno movies.”
His latest one, “The Lords of Salem,” concerns a modern-day radio D.J. haunted by visions of the Salem Witch Trials, something that has fascinated the filmmaker since childhood. “I grew up in Massachusetts. On class field trips, we would go to reenactments of the Witch Trials, the Witch Museum, and all that stuff. You can read about the Witch Trials, and you wonder how could this ever happen? How could all these right-minded people ever point fingers at their friends and family and start hanging them? I look at it and think this reads like something that could easily happen today. People are so hysterical and insane. I didn’t make the film because of that, but it totally feels like this could happen again without much thought.”
Zombie got his start in the music business, which he feels both helped and hurt him when transitioning into directing. “It helped in the sense that, for me, I had done so many things like making music videos or putting tours together where I already knew that when you accept a sum of money to produce something, you have to do it. It teaches you the reality of the business, which is not always the nicest thing in the world.”
“The part that might of hurt me is that early on, nobody likes it when you move from one field to another. It was weird because I think they couldn’t detach the musical persona from the person who wanted to make a movie. It sort of worked against me for a while, but I understand why. A lot of the perception in hard rock is that everyone is a drunken idiot all the time, so why would you let him make a movie?”
Still, Zombie doesn’t feel the need to prove himself as a capable filmmaker when getting a project off the ground. “I always want things to be good; that’s my only goal. But it’s not because of that. That doesn’t really bother me anymore. Six films and ten years later, I don’t even think about it.”