Call Rob Zombie’s brand of movie horror inscrutable, if you will. Call his work profane, the sort of stuff that leaves your senses feeling as if they could use a good scrubbing. Just don’t call what he does formulaic. Like there’s much chance of that.
“I try as much as possible not to fall in line with trends,” says Zombie, 48, speaking by phone from his New York home base about his new film, “The Lords of Salem,” which opens Friday, as well as a new CD, “Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor,” dropping April 23. (Further pushing his candidacy for hardest-working man in horror, he’ll soon be headed out on a rock festival tour that hits the Comcast Center in July.)
Born Robert Cummings, Zombie first parlayed his ghoul-metal rock stardom and the genre cred of self-directed videos like “Dragula” into a parallel career as a feature director with “House of 1000 Corpses” (2003). It was an ode to ’70s exploitation fare so tonally true to its grungy, funky inspirations, it risked going unreleased. Production execs turned squeamish at the sight of a serial-killer clan, say, turning Rainn Wilson (pre-“The Office”) into a taxidermied perversion dubbed “Fish-boy.” Two Hollywood studios backed out of release commitments for the film before it finally nabbed a distributor a couple of years after it was shot.
In the decade since, an undeterred Zombie has continued leading moviegoers on a tour across his personal mondo bizarro, both with his “1000 Corpses” sequel, “The Devil’s Rejects,” and a couple of reconceived “Halloween” films. (His “Halloween II” even tried on some psychedelia for size.) Now comes “Salem,” a locally shot indie starring his wife and regular troupe member, Sheri Moon Zombie, as a radio DJ who falls under the sinister spell of modern-day witches. It’s a more refined rendering of Zombie’s familiar aesthetic, but it’s still laced with hallucinatory, unholy elements — feral covens, satanic clergy, circus-freaky hellspawn. In short, it makes the demonic-possession flick of the week seem like rational territory.
“I guess all movies get stuck in a formula, but horror movies really do,” says Zombie, speaking in an easygoing, midrange tone that, amusingly, is nothing at all like the electronically tweaked guttural growl he summons for his music. “When ‘House of 1000 Corpses’ came out, everything was still in ‘Scream’ mode — teens and some sort of faceless killer. Now everything seems to be ‘Paranormal Activity.’
“I understand that,” he continues. “It’s Hollywood, and if one thing is successful, the inclination is not to do the exact opposite, but to make 10 more exactly the same. As a business, that’s fine — but to me as an individual, it’s irrelevant.”
Consistent with his standalone outlook, Zombie also shrugs off modest comparisons “Salem” has garnered to some notable entries in the Cinema of the Enigmatic. Advance-screening viewers have cited echoes of Roman Polanski, as well as “Altered States” maverick Ken Russell. Certainly, Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” comes to mind, as Sheri Zombie’s Heidi Hawthorne pads around her gloomy, throwback apartment house, unsuspectingly becoming the fertile pawn (or is she?) of the strangely hospitable golden girls next door. Coincidence? “When I make a movie, I’m not really looking [to reflect] specific influences,” says Zombie, apparently not one for Tarantino-esque spot-the-homage rhapsodizing. (Never mind the shared predilections that led Zombie to contribute a fake trailer, “Werewolf Women of the SS,” to Tarantino’s “Grindhouse.”) “The only reason you ever really reference other movies is because you have to convey what’s in your head to your crew.
“A lot of Italian films, things like [“Suspiria” director Dario] Argento’s films, were something I could show people and go, ‘This is in the ballpark,’ ” he adds. “And Polanski and Kubrick. But it was nothing specific, just different vibes from different places to get my point across.”
The vibe Zombie wanted most: visually wild. It was enough to make him go with just back story flashes of the Salem witch trials, history that he researched heavily, but that he felt might come across as staid. Shooting on location was a must, given the city’s strong sense of place. But, he says, “the more I learned about the witch trials, the more I knew I didn’t want to make one more factually accurate movie.” (Between Zombie’s upbringing in Haverhill and his tats-dreads-and-scars rock persona, you picture him being a lifelong authority on Salem, but his familiarity seems more casual — greater than a trolley tour rider’s, less than a Wiccan townie’s.) “The movie basically would have been a bunch of people in Puritan clothes hanging each other,” he says. “I wanted to take things further.”
As usual, he managed to find a collection of actors surprisingly willing to go there with him, some making a cult-pleasing genre encore, others making us wonder if they signed up on a lark. There’s Meg Foster, venturing back to Hester Prynne’s world — sort of — as 17th-century grand witch Margaret Morgan, all creepy incantations and grimy nudity. There’s Patricia Quinn (Magenta of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” fame), as one of Morgan’s diabolically cultured contemporary disciples, urging Heidi to submit to arcane lusts in language that might make Dr. Frank-N-Furter blush. And OK, Zombie concedes, maybe it did take a little doing to get Quinn to the set from her London home to purr those lines — but only because of pesky visa issues.
Taking the phone handoff from her husband, Sheri is quick to note that as much as his movies are about atmosphere, Zombie has an “actor’s director” approach that’s also integral to their skewed tone. In his first couple of efforts, this involved encouraging cult figures such as Sid Haig and Bill Moseley to do their mad, manic thing. In “Salem,” we see it in touches such as Heidi’s on-air patter with her fellow DJs, and an amusing snippet of her continuing on with Berlitz French tapes even while downward-spiraling to hell. “Rob likes characters that [have aspects of] real people, because they become real to him when he’s creating them,” she says. “I think that’s what separates him from horror directors or writers who are just out for the blood and guts. His stories aren’t just, Scream! Jump! Blood! People can invest in his characters.”
This could really come into play in the project he’s gearing up for next, the hockey feature “Broad Street Bullies,” about the bruising Philadelphia Flyers of the ’70s. (What, no Bruins love from the Haverhill guy? “More interesting story,” he shrugs.) The choice might be even more surprising if we hadn’t already caught Zombie dabbling in the mainstream with a 2010 directing gig on “CSI: Miami” — for an episode featuring a porn king’s occult bacchanal, but still.
At the same time, taking in the snarling-sideshow sounds of “Venomous Rat,” or even just the title and acid-flashback CD art, you’d also guess that Zombie’s first love will always be letting random blackness spill out. “It sounds silly, but in my head, I did conceive this as a concept album — just sort of a secret one,” he confesses. “I really like rock-concept movies like ‘The Wall’ and ‘Quadrophenia’ and ‘Tommy,’ so I thought, I’ll have this [in my pocket], and who knows, maybe someday. But the band doesn’t know, I haven’t told anybody, and when you listen to it, it doesn’t matter.”
Similarly, if you watch “Salem” and take away little slices of hell rather than some more fathomable evocation of dread, Zombie is probably fine with that, too. Again, he’s never gone for horror that’s prepackaged and instantly digestible, where everything makes sense. And if some are outraged — a scene with that savagely sinning demonic priest comes to mind – so much the better. Any outcry yet? “Well, since the movie hasn’t been released. . .” But when does that stop anyone anymore? “Yeah, but the people that have seen it were prepared. We’ll see later, when it’s unsuspecting audiences seeing it, if they have a more shocked reaction. I hope so.”
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.