By Gina McIntyre
---- — LOS ANGELES — Walking by the gated façade of the Los Angeles Theatre downtown, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the glamour of the historic movie palace, which hosted the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film “City Lights,” had been lost to the past. But behind the wrought iron bars that seal off the entrance is a French Baroque-inspired marvel, with a six-story lobby wrought in gold and red, decorated with dazzling chandeliers and winged cherubs.
When musician and filmmaker Rob Zombie was searching for a location for the climactic scene in “The Lords of Salem,” his new movie about a cursed radio DJ that opened in theaters Friday, found the theater’s threadbare grandeur perfectly in keeping with the movie’s visual aesthetic — part Argento, part Kubrick, a grindhouse tale funneled through an art-house lens.
“You could have made a quickie hand-held little horror movie, but I wanted to come to places like this and I wanted to make this huge, grand, operatic surreal piece with no money,” said Zombie, a Haverhill native, perched on the theater’s central staircase. “I wanted it to look like an expensive film, even though it wasn’t.”
Zombie, now 48, made a name for himself in heavy-metal circles as the frontman for the band White Zombie and is about to release his fifth solo studio album, “Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor,” out April 23. But the intersection of movies and music has been his creative cornerstone for decades.
His songs — both as a solo artist and with White Zombie (the band was named for the 1932 Bela Lugosi film) — were frequently featured on soundtracks to movies and videogames before he made the leap to feature filmmaking in 2003 with the grisly “House of 1000 Corpses.” He found inspiration for lyrics, song titles and concert performances in films — especially underground, cult and horror cinema.
After “Corpses” and 2005’s “The Devil’s Rejects,” Zombie took on two high-profile Hollywood horror films, a 2007 remake of John Carpenter’s landmark “Halloween” and its 2009 follow-up, “Halloween II.” He also directed the animated movie “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto.”
“The Lords of Salem” marks Zombie’s return to the indie movie realm; he made the film in less than five weeks on a budget of about $2.5 million. It represents a new artistic frontier for the writer-director, who has replaced the extreme bloodletting of his earlier movies with a nightmarish weirdness that’s hard to shake off.
“Coming off the ‘Halloween’ movies, which are very physically violent, with people just attacking people and lots of screaming and yelling, just chaos, I was like, ‘I don’t want any girls in peril screaming.’ There’s no screaming. ... Nothing jumps out. There’s not loudness. It’s this really subtle unfolding of the story.”
“The Lords of Salem” begins with East Coast radio personality Heidi Hawthorne receiving an unmarked record by a mysterious band known as the Lords. After she plays the screeching, droning song on her show, she begins to experience headaches and night-terrors that bleed into the daylight hours. Her increasingly erratic behavior causes her friends to worry that the recovering addict might have succumbed once more to her personal demons, when in fact it’s a trio of sinister women plotting her doom.
“I wanted it to seem like a very weird atmosphere sort of nightmare, where you’re not sure, is it happening, is it not happening, is she imagining it, is this some drug-induced thing?” Zombie said.
He first hit on the idea six or seven years ago on a trip to Massachusetts, where he grew up, when he stumbled on a book about the Salem witch trials: “I knew about it since I was a little kid because we used to go to Salem and they’d take you to the reenactments of the witch trials for your fourth-grade field trip... but I hadn’t thought about it in a long time.”
Zombie returned to the idea in 2010 when he and producing partner Andy Gould approached Jason Blum (“Paranormal Activity”) about making a film. In refining “The Lords of Salem” script, he fleshed out the role of Heidi, which he wrote for his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, a model and dancer who’s appeared in all her husband’s films and many of his music videos.
The cast features a number of actors familiar to Zombie’s fans. Horror fixtures Ken Foree, Dee Wallace, Michael Berryman and Sid Haig join an ensemble that includes Patricia Quinn, Meg Foster, Judy Geeson and Bruce Davison. Zombie said there’s a reason he so often works with the same people.
“Casting for horror movies is really difficult because actors hate horror movies,” he said.
“There’s been actors I’ve gone to for roles who I really like and who I will look at their resume and go, ‘Well, this person hasn’t done anything in 20 years’... and you call them up and offer them a lead role, they go, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do a horror movie.’”
He enlisted John 5, the lead guitarist in his band, to craft the score, including the haunting Lords song. Zombie’s instructions were to keep the music simple, memorable, in the vein of the scores Carpenter wrote.
“I took a really unorthodox approach to doing some of the music,” said John 5, who composed the score with Griffin Boice. “I used this big cello bow across an acoustic guitar and it just made the most radical sound, just so creepy and scary. Griffin had this piece of metal, it looked like a little hammer, and he was grinding it against what looked like a metal ashtray almost. That’s what you’re hearing (in the Lords song). Those are all man-made sounds.”
Working with John 5 on the movie, Zombie said, helped them segue into writing and recording “Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor.” After he finished editing “Lords of Salem” at his rural Connecticut home, he set up a recording studio and invited his bandmates to move in to work on the 12 songs on the collection — tracks including “Dead City Radio and the New Gods of Supertown,” “White Trash Freaks” and a cover of Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band.”
“It was one long session,” Zombie said, “that I’m sure Sheri enjoyed immensely, everyone in our house nonstop for eight months.”
Zombie has a forthright, professional demeanor that isn’t always easy to come by when you’re talking to a rock star. At a screening of “The Lords of Salem” at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, last month, he told the audience members that half of them would likely hate his movie. Nor was he entirely off the mark — an early review on the website Geeks of Doom, for example, characterized “The Lords of Salem” as Zombie’s weakest film.
“Corporate America wants everyone to like everything,” Zombie said. “You must like all TV shows, you must like all products, because that’s how they make the most money. But the things that I’ve always loved aren’t those things. And I just told the audience, ‘Hey, it’s fine. I know some of you are going to love it to death and some of you are going to hate it.’ ... Everything isn’t for everybody.”
With promotion for the film nearly finished, Zombie’s ready to move on to the next thing. He’s set to headline the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival, a 26-city tour that kicks off June 29 in San Bernardino, Calif. But he’ll be back to film soon: He’s just completed the script for his next movie, the true-life ice hockey drama “Broad Street Bullies,” about the Philadelphia Flyers in 1974, when they won the Stanley Cup.
The movie is a departure for Zombie, giving him a chance to showcase a very different side of himself, the cineaste who often cites the work of Chaplin, Polanski and Kubrick, Woody Allen and Michael Haneke — though there’s still likely to be plenty of gritty action in the rink.
“‘Rocky’ meets ‘Boogie Nights’ on ice, that’s the way I see it,” he said. “I would love for it to look like ‘The French Connection’ looks. That movie is perfect.”