Written & Directed by Rob Zombie
Starring Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Malcolm McDowell
It’s pretty much become a requirement now for horror fans to embrace nostalgia. Remakes aside, most of the good stuff coming out lately is set in and/or shamelessly lifts the style and production techniques of some bygone era. The current trend is drooling obsession over all things 80s, channeled in genre offerings like Drive, The Guest, It Follows, and recently, Stranger Things. But Rob Zombie has always kept one foot in the Golden Era of horror: the 70s.
On October 30th, 1976, five travelling carnies are kidnapped from their groovy van and brought to Murderworld, an isolated compound where Malcolm McDowell and other distinguished people in powdered wigs run a sadistic game called “31.” Our gang of misfits has been recruited to spend their Halloween night surviving for twelve hours against a pack of crazy clowns whose goal is to murder them as violently as possible. Think The Running Man, but with more clown makeup, chainsaws, colorful language, and a hell of a lot more blood.
Now let’s get this out of the way. If you’re not broken into the Zombieverse you’ll probably want to stay away from this one. Even if you’re uninitiated but interested in Zombie’s world of greasy bearded hillbillies who curse like sailors before murdering people or being murdered, this isn’t the best place to start. Some of Zombie’s devotees were let down by his last couple of offerings, recently the slow and dreamy The Lords of Salem. So now with 31 Zombie has set out to go back to the exploitative lunacy that established him as a filmmaker in the first place. He announced 31 as his “most brutal” film yet, saying, “It’s pretty intense, it’s pretty humorless, and it’s pretty all-out.” As a result, he had to fight the commonplace indie fight with the MPAA to scale down from the death sentence NC-17 rating to R.
This will leave lots of fans clamoring for a director’s cut. Because the obvious trimming that took place leaves a somewhat watered-down quality to 31. It’s unquestionably a rough ride, but it doesn’t quite give you that baseball-bat-to-the-face feel that Zombie lovers know and expect. The violence is there. The mania is pretty much there. It’s definitely over-the-top. But even though I just saw it late last night not much is sticking out as majorly memorable.
With his first two films Zombie made the unprecedented accomplishment of actually creating memorable horror characters like the iconic Captain Spaulding and the Firefly family. The kinds of characters fans can quote, get tattoos of, and dress up as on Halloween. But 31’s cast, while not at all by the numbers, just isn’t particularly iconic. Now make no mistake: Zombie handles the protagonists better than most writer/directors would when given the same premise. As Chris Bumbray pointed out in his review, other filmmakers probably would’ve made them airheaded college kids on a road trip. But instead we get a diverse crew of road-weary carnie veterans. They’re not exactly likable or deeply developed or remotely well acted, but that’s not why we’re here anyway, is it? No, when it comes to this kind of horror film, the most important character is the villain. Nobody cares about Sally in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; it’s Leatherface we buy posters of.
So along comes 31, a movie with villains named Doom-Head, Schizo-Head, Father Murder, and Sister Serpent. Just by the astoundingly cool names alone you’d think these characters would live on as legends in the collective horror consciousness. The answer is a resounding “eh.” Some of the characters have unique looks at least. One of them is a Spanish-speaking little person dressed as a sort of BDSM Hitler, which I can’t say I’ve ever seen in a movie before. But his presence isn’t threatening or memorable in the slightest, and is even a bit shrilly annoying. You’ve got a guy named Death-Head who wears goggles and a tutu and speaks German and who was basically weird for weird’s sake. And we also get the Zombieverse version of Harley Quinn. But aside from that you’ve got a gang of rich people pulling the strings, and some chainsaw-wielding clowns, which is about as original at this point as one of those J-horror ghost girls with their hair in their faces.
The only really standout baddie in the cast is Doom-Head. On the surface he’s essentially the Rob Zombie Joker. As in, what would the Joker be like as a trailer park-residing meth head with a potty mouth? But Richard Brake is a surprisingly strong presence here. After a bit part in Zombie’s Halloween II, here he gets to take center stage, even opening the film with a long single-take monologue that led me to think this movie would be better than it eventually turned out to be. The most chilling thing about the character is out in the real world he just seems like cliché white trash, but once he enters Murderworld and puts on that makeup and classy jacket he transforms himself into an inhuman monster that truly enjoys the terror he inflicts. Basically, this is your classic case of a pretty cool character trapped in a lesser movie than he deserves. Maybe Zombie’s intention was to make the other killers less interesting so that when Doom-Head comes in, he effortlessly upstages them all. If that’s the case, then consider your mission accomplished.
Aside from Brake, the best part of the film is the look. Yes, the handheld camera often gets too shaky, especially to cover up the shoddy choreography of some fight scenes. But overall Zombie knows how to construct some really dynamic visuals. His signature grime and decay is cranked up to eleven here, making the rusted industrial Murderworld set look and feel like Hell. The makeup is deliberately sloppy, the costumes are dirty, and the beards are greasy. It all gives off this prevailing disgust that makes you wish they had showers in movie theaters. But it’s not all ugly. There’s great use of shadow, beautifully framed wide shots (rare in modern horror), and heaps of stunning silhouette shots. Zombie is even gutsy enough to use dated techniques like freeze frames, wipe transitions, and zooms that are undeniably 70s.
Look, you can’t judge a film by what you want it to be; you have to judge it based on the intention of the filmmakers. General audiences are going to hate this movie, but Rob Zombie didn’t make it for them. He set out to make a straight-up manic gorefest for fans of House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. And the fan consensus seems to be overall enthusiastic. Personally, 31 didn’t give me the visceral assault and lingering dread after credits that his early work gave me. Those first two movies, particularly The Devil’s Rejects, are forces of nature. They were original, memorable, deeply disturbing, and absolutely fucking nuts. 31 feels like watching an extreme Halloween haunted attraction. You get some thrills, you get grossed out, you get a lot of edgy-for-edgy’s-sake, and obvious homages to classic movies, but there’s not much to make you want to go back. Because there’s not a whole there other than shock value, and you can’t be shocked twice.
I worry that I’m simply desensitized to Zombie’s style and that he can’t do much more to surprise me. He’s undeniably talented and deserves credit for creating his own brand. But this one occasionally drifted into self-parody. What I’d really like to see him do is experiment with different genres and continue to grow as an artist rather than try to replicate stuff that once proved to work. It seems like he desperately wants to do that, but feels boxed into his niche. He’s been developing a drama called Broad Street Bullies that tells a true story of the Philadelphia Flyers. Let’s hope he resolves lingering legal blockades so we can see that. He’s mentioned making a western, which judging by certain scenes in The Devil’s Rejects, he just might nail. He could probably apply his grittiness to make a really intriguing crime drama. His aesthetics and bold decision-making absolutely could work outside of horror. So let’s let the man do what he wants.
31 is currently available on VOD platforms, including Amazon and iTunes.