The Lords of Salem: Five Years Later

How ahead of its time was Zombie’s polarizing film?
By  · Published on September 13th, 2018

Rob Zombie may have started his career being a shock rocker with White Zombie before breaking out into his own colossally successful solo act, but his stage show always had an undercurrent of tongue firmly planted into cheek. A celebration of all things spooky with a pulse-pounding metal soundtrack scoring countless old films from Astro Zombies to their namesake, Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie. The mirth came from the discordance between the classic films and the modern metal, elevating both media simultaneously. I’ll admit Rob Zombie’s music videos did give me formative history lessons on a quality of film that I may not have had the means to discover in the early days of the internet.

Which made his directorial debut in 2003, House of a 1000 Corpses, such an event for a 15-year-old nerd, dragging his parents and reticent brother to Zombie’s premiere film. And while admittedly House does at times feel like an extended music video, peppered with imagery mirrored from the surrealism of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, there was enough ingenuity and inventiveness in its callbacks to his own inspirations (the topper being the looming question mark at the end of the film) to excite audiences.

But his work, as our own Rob Hunter would point out, is oppressively violent. House’s sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, is perhaps his most critically lauded while simultaneously being his most vile. But wedged within that was a filmmaker using violence to make an artistic statement through the history of film. An exploration of depravity and violence is perhaps Zombie’s greatest theme in his oeuvre. This mission statement is perhaps most expertly dissected in his much-maligned Halloween remake.

Not without its merits, the major thorn in fans sides was the metaphorical unmasking of Michael Myers. Gone was the lumbering mystery of Myers and his intentions, replaced by an expanded backstory giving young Michael not only motivation but also an emotional component in his tangible connection to his family. If anything this inclusion should have shown Zombie’s reverence for the original John Carpenter masterpiece, eschewing making a carbon-copy remake by giving audiences a wholly new vision of the character and the series.

But audiences have been fickle on Zombie and his often questioned cinematic eye. For years now he has been attempting to make films that step outside the boundary of his brand of horror. Broad Street Bullies was intended to be his first foray outside of the genre, about the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team in the mid-70s that ultimately stalled. What perhaps could be his magnum opus, Raised Eyebrows, about the final years of Groucho Marx’s life, has been slated since as early as 2015 but hasn’t yet gone into production. I’ve theorized that these artistic blocks resulted in the film 31, a purposeful over exaggeration of his own style. A cinematic middle finger, an exhaustive relenting to his own artistic ambitions. Which makes 31 its own fascinating bit of filmmaking when you account for his own artistic process, but also makes fans of Zombie’s directorial work yearning for the art we know he can create. And we know this because of 2013’s The Lords of Salem: his most polarizing and perhaps greatest achievement so far.

The debate over The Lords of Salem flared up again on the internet this past week thanks to a tweet from the revived Fangoria’s editor in chief Phil Nobile Jr.:

At the heart of Phil’s tweet is a simple observation: thematically, and visually, The Lords of Salem is very reminiscent of the contemporary trends in horror cinema, the boorish elevated horror. This, of course, sparked further discussion and debate:

What this dissolved into was yet again another debate on the merits of Zombie’s most tonally different film. Some find it to be a meandering mess, as pretentious as it is boring, while others found Zombie’s divorce from his typical dour violence to be refreshing, especially coupled with it’s startling, grotesquely beautiful imagery.

Zombie’s film is a cinematic achievement that should be celebrated and encouraged, a daring artistic risk that, for the most part, succeeds. The Lords of Salem is a dreamlike nightmare, rooted in history and Americana mythos, accented with the slick visual influence of Italian horror maestros like Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento in a rare tale of the urban wyrd.

The Lords of Salem’s pulpy story starts off simply. A trio of radio disc jockeys are one of the most listened to shows in the Salem area. One night a wooden box packed with thick black vinyl is sent to the station for Heidi La Rock (Sheri Moon Zombie), who believes it to be another of many unsolicited albums they receive to play on the air. 

The record seems to be one track, a loop of the same repeating notes. This has an instant effect on Heidi, and when played over the airwaves the following night, an effect on every woman who listened to it. The album, sent by the ominous-sounding band The Lords, tumbles Heidi down the rabbit hole as she finds herself rooted in an ancient coven of witches who may or may not be in the market for an Anti-Christ.

What makes Rob Zombie’s film feel like our modern elevated horror is predominantly in its visual storytelling. He uses slow zooms to gradually build tension, composing shots with singular figures in the middle of the frame to create a visually disorienting tableau that mimics the discombobulation the women feel after hearing the album.

He steps back from his trademarks, barely lingering on the gore. He doesn’t relish in the monstrosity of it all. When we see the devil for the first time, he is merely a shadowy figure hidden behind Heidi, then later in a far distance, barely perceptible. This is about mood, and feeling, something Zombies Italian influences excelled at.

And it’s from this same well that today’s pop horror is pulling from; dream logic that misdirects us, making us question what is real and what is an illusion, psychologically tying us to the experiences of the protagonist. The final tableau in The Lords of Salem is of a sacrilegious Virgin Mary standing atop a pile of dead bodies. It leaves us in a familiar place of dire confusion, the same as modern horrors like Hereditary and A Dark Song do. That whatever happened it feels unimaginable, unconscionable; religiously cosmic.

But what separates Zombie’s film from some of the pretension of the term elevated horror is how unapologetically horror his film is. Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond is unquestionably an early example of art-house horror that still was unafraid of its genre moniker, showing bodies oozing with bubblegum pink goo and eyes being lacerated in countlessly amusing ways. By starting with an intrinsic scene of horror, Zombie is fearlessly putting his passion on screen. It’s not a film masquerading as a psychological drama while shunning its horror elements. Much like how Robert Egger’s film The Witch made sure to wash away any preconceived notions that the supernatural horror was anything but real, The Lords of Salem is unapologetically, pridefully horror.

But it’s also not character-driven horror. While we do see hints of Heidi’s past in her drug use and Whitey’s (Jeff Daniel Philips) earnest concern for her, we have tiny little threads that make up the emotional component of the story. But it’s by no means a character drama because that’s not what it’s trying to be. This is a film built on symbolism that uses its striking imagery to elicit an emotional response, rather than through its characters.

Which brings me to the biggest criticism of Zombie’s film, which is also a larger criticism of his body of work: his frequent casting of his wife Sheri Moon Zombie. I think she is an admirable actress and I’ve always appreciated the reckless abandon she fuels her characters with, but she just carries The Lords Of Salem. While she connects with her character, you crave the nuance from an actress like Toni Collette. We see her reacting to the dreams and hallucinations, but we don’t see the toll outside of the superficiality of a sweat addled brow and bags under the eyes. Sheri Moon Zombie gets a lot of heat for her roles in her husband’s films that are at best ill-informed and at worst boldfaced slut-shaming. I think it has to do with perceptions that Rob Zombie is merely a trashy, exploitation director when his work proves the opposite. Remember The Devils Rejects? It was heralded for, dare I say it, elevating the splatter/exploitation genre from the popularity of the torture porn movement of the mid-2000’s.

Speaking of casting, credit should be given where it is due for having a cast made up relatively of women over the age of 50, not playing grandmothers or wives but rather strong, empowered, and frightening people. Zombie allows these older women to be sexy in a way that studios rarely ever do. Not saying that this movie isn’t free from horrors crutch of female victimization, especially considering the film’s sexual assault hallucination that has aged about as well as an avocado (which is to say very poorly).

The Lords of Salem is a mature piece of genre filmmaking that was stuck between a rock and a hard place, cleverly ahead of its time while also being sidelined for its skewing of Zombie’s own visual aesthetics. But in a cinematic climate that favors slow burn, mind-bending horror with a religious lilt, The Lords of Salem may be Zombie’s most accomplished film to date.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)