The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.
The fan: Multi-hyphenate Rob Zombie has made a living reflecting decades of pop culture through his own carnival mirror, first as lead singer of White Zombie and then as the writer-director of cult genre fare like House Of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. Always polarizing, Zombie’s latest, the woefully overlooked Lords Of Salem, found the director tapping into his love of Polanski and ’70s, character-driven horror. It’s also a sly tribute to Zombie’s other cinematic love: silent movies.
The fanned: Silent movies. Anything and everything.
The A.V. Club: There’s a lot of ground to cover here, so how about starting with some of your favorites?
Rob Zombie: One of my favorites is The Man Who Laughs. That’s an epic silent film. I like a lot of the epic ones, Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Phantom Of The Opera. A lot of the Lon Chaney films—West Of Zanzibar is one that I really love. As far as comedies, there are so many good comedies. I love Charlie Chaplin, obviously. The Circus. City Lights is a masterpiece. I love Buster Keaton, and movies like The General and Battling Butler. I really like Harold Lloyd, and Safety Last! is an obvious one, but it’s also probably his best. I like “Fatty” Arbuckle and some of the other comedians too. It’s a pretty wide range. The genre of silent movies that I just started getting into is Western. That was one that I never watched as much as the others. There’s so many great films that you feel like you’ve seen everything, but then you crack open a vault of amazing stuff.
AVC: It’s a daunting learning experience.
RZ: It’s almost like you have to think differently than you do with regular movies. It’s as if you loved rock music your whole life and someone suddenly says, “Now, only listen to classical music.” That’s what I like about it. It’s such a different rhythm. It’s such a different experience. I’ve always loved them, and I think I first fell in love with silent movies in third or fourth grade. For some reason, I have no idea why, my teacher brought in a 35mm canister of Phantom Of The Opera, the silent version. I was blown away by it. I had always seen pictures of Chaney as the Phantom because it was so iconic, but I had never seen the film until, whenever that was, 1973 or something. It’s funny because as a kid I was so wrapped up in it that I don’t even know if I realized it was silent. I mean silent movies aren’t really silent.
The greatest experience I’ve had was a few years ago when I rented out the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles for my wife Sheri’s birthday and showed what I think is one of the best silent movies, which is The Unknown with Chaney and Joan Crawford. We had live accompaniment to it, and I was talking to the guy doing it, and he was like 95. He said he had been playing organ for silent movies since he was a little kid, and he played organ for The Unknown when he was 13. I was like, “Oh my God, that’s insane.” So, I was pretty blown away by that. There’s another film that we screened that night that I really love called Mystery Of The Leaping Fish. Have you seen that one?
AVC: Never even heard of it.
RZ: It’s this really weird movie with Douglas Fairbanks. He plays this character, if you can believe this, called Coke Ennyday. He’s like a Sherlock Holmes-type character, but all he does is massive amounts of coke throughout the movie, and never solves a crime. [Laughs.] You have to check that one out.
AVC: There’s the specific La Voyage Dans La Lune tribute in The Lords Of Salem, but do you think silent film has played into your other films as a director?
RZ: I think it’s probably played the most into The Lords Of Salem. That could almost play as a silent movie. A lot of it is one character by herself. A lot of the other ones are very dialogue-driven.
AVC: Speaking of films that could have been silent, have you seen Gravity?
RZ: I haven’t had a chance to see Gravity yet.
AVC: Who are some modern filmmakers you think are achieving visual poetry?
RZ: A lot of Stanley Kubrick films could be silent films, like Barry Lyndon or 2001: A Space Oddity. They’re so visual, and 2001 is almost like a silent film at times. It’s probably more European filmmakers who have embraced it, and a lot of the great silent films came from Europe anyway. Now, I find that when I go to the movies, it’s like somebody sent a note to all the studios saying, “Louder is better.” [Laughs.] I just find movies so obnoxiously loud sometimes that I can’t even stand sitting there. I’m like, “Really?” I get that an explosion is loud, but every time someone lights a match, does it have to sound like an explosion? It’s because they get crazy in post-production, mixing sound, looping, Foley, and ADR. It becomes ridiculous. Every time I make a movie, I drive the sound mixers crazy, because I’m always muting things. The Foley guys want to Foley everything, every footstep. I go, “First thing: get rid of all the Foley steps. All that creak-creak sound? Get rid of it!” Especially on The Lords Of Salem, I was like, “Get rid of everything!” If it wasn’t on the actual production sound, I don’t fucking want to use it. It’s so over-the-top. I like silence. People are so bombarded that silence is what unnerves them.
AVC: Silent films can be such an immersive experience. It’s a shame that silent films might become a foreign relic to the ADD generation.
RZ: There’s always going to be somebody, some kid that’s progressive and has an old soul that will be watching silent movies. I think it’s a rarity. Maybe it always was a rarity. The thing that I see disappearing is just the love of old movies among kids. Everything’s accessible, so you can get it, but when everything’s accessible, that means you have to access it. And if you’re not interested, you don’t. The thing I remember as a kid is watching whatever was on TV. If it was a silent movie, you watched a silent movie. If it was a Chaplin short in the afternoon, you watched that. If it was Marx Brothers, you watched that. You were forced to experience things you might not normally have given a shit about, because there was nothing else on TV. Now that you can program your own life, you’re just going to program what you already like. Because of that, people’s taste becomes much more narrow-minded.
AVC: It’s the shuffle syndrome too, in terms of music.
RZ: It’s the same with albums. As a kid I would buy an album, and because it was expensive I listened to it over and over. There might have been a couple songs I liked immediately and I didn’t like the rest, but eventually I grew to like the whole thing and accept it. Now it’s like, “Oh, fuck those songs. I’m only listening to these two.” People are so tempted to say, “Oh, it sucks.” The funny thing is, maybe it doesn’t suck. Maybe you just don’t get it yet. There’s a great quote from Woody Allen about 2001. When he first saw it, he didn’t like it. Everyone kept talking about it and he went to see it a second time. He said something like, “The second time, I got it. I realized for the first time in my life that a filmmaker was ahead of me. I had to catch up to what Kubrick was doing. It wasn’t that the movie was bad, it was that I didn’t get it.”
It’s like with trailers. I find making trailers really frustrating, because sometimes the worst trailers are for the best movies. It’s really hard to get the movie across in 30 seconds. A lot of times the best trailers are for complete dogshit movies. It’s a shame that people are beyond quick to judge things these days. Lots of great stuff gets lost that way.
AVC: Do you think silent directors were inherently more talented than today’s directors?
RZ: No, not really. I think some of them were brilliant to do what they did with what they had on hand. You watch some of the Chaplin stuff, and a lot of the comedians especially, what they did is mind-boggling. The physicality of what they did. That guy is the lead actor, the stunt man, and the director? It’s mind-boggling. I don’t know if they’re more talented, but people like Tod Browning or D.W. Griffith were obviously people that were above and beyond. There are talented people of every generation.
AVC: If you and your wife have a movie night, is it typically a silent film?
RZ: Sometimes. We watched one last night, because I told her I had to do this interview today. We watched F.W. Murnau’s The Haunted Castle. It’s slow and primitive. I wouldn’t put it up there with one of the greats.