While writing this review as I watch the movie, I realised (though it must have been obvious to everyone else in the world) that Rob Zombie is horror’s Quentin Tarantino. No really, he writes as well as directs his own works, he understands the film genre, not just plots but characters, cinematography, contemporary soundtracks, the feel of the eras in which he loves, as well as a stable of fave actors (especially semi-forgotten character actors), he favours playing with the cameras for split screens and slo-mo shots, and never shies away from long, profanity-laden streams of dialogue and gore. Both of them also tend to surprise interviewers expecting sub-literate meatballs, instead finding them intelligent, well-spoken, knowledgeable and passionate about their works.
Both of them aren’t always successful with their efforts, and will divide fans and critics. And I will always watch a new Zombie or Tarantino movie, I wouldn’t necessarily rewatch them (one notable exception for me had been Tarantino’s HATEFUL EIGHT, which I had initially dismissed as being self-indulgent and derivative, before reassessing it as a more appreciable claustrophobic story.
Zombie’s last movie, LORDS OF SALEM (read the review from our sister, the talented Sezin, here), was an amazing, atmospheric offering, a multilayered story that stayed with me long after watching it. His latest, 31… probably won’t. Not that it’s not an enjoyable movie- but I’m getting ahead of myself. 31 (referring to October 31, on which I’ve read some obscure holiday came about after Zombie read a statistic that more people disappear around Halloween than at any other day of the year (what, not even on Purge Day?).
Zombie used crowdfunding to cover part of the movie’s costs, because as he put it, “the game changes all the time, and a movie that you could get made years ago, you cannot get made anymore, because the business changes, things change.” He added that crowdfunding allowed him to make a movie that might not have been otherwise funded traditionally and that “if you wanna do stuff outside the system, you’ve gotta function outside the system”. It makes sense, and unlike many other projects, you could be forgiven for believing that, with the talent involved both in front of and behind the camera, that you’ll get your money’s worth.
31 opens with an extended close-up of a white-faced man (Richard Brake, a Welsh actor who played the killer Joe Chill in BATMAN BEGINS as well as the zombie lord The Night King in GAME OF THRONES), whom we’ll later know as Doom-Head, giving us a long monologue to an unseen person. Eventually we see the person, a preacher, whose pleas for mercy are lost when Doom-Head guts him.
Then we get the credits and a montage of scenes, where we learn it’s 1976 and our protagonists are a group of carnies between jobs travelling around in their Winnebago. We have dancer Charly (the always pleasing-to-the-eye Sheri Moon Zombie), the much older Venus (Meg Foster, looking sinewy and kickass, even if her crazy trademark eyes look a little darker these days), the patoised Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), the heavier Levon (Kevin Jackson) and the sideburned Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips). After a quick stop at a desert gas station, they end up driving through the night, stopping when they find some scarecrows blocking the road. They get out to remove them.
What’s the worse that could happen?
They wake up bound, gagged and wearing numbered manacles, as three figures in powdered wigs and faces and Napoleonic French Fop outfits appear. Their leader, played by Malcolm McDowell, announces that they are the unwilling participants in a game called 31, which is basically The Most Dangerous Game coupled with The Running Man. The rules are simple: survive the next 12 hours in their underground labyrinth, while people pursue them in an attempt to torture and kill them. They also have odds placed on their survival, odds that will change during the course of the evening. Sherri’s initial odds are placed at 500 to 1, which seems kind of steep, given that she’s the director’s wife and is unlikely as hell to be killed off before the end of the movie.
The killers are all dressed as clowns with (Pancho Moler as Sick-Head, a diminutive, Spanish-speaking, Nazi, Lew Temple and David Ury as the chainsaw-wielding rednecks Psycho-Head and his brother Schizo-Head, the very tall German actor Torsten Voges as Death-Head, and EG Daily as his diminutive companion, the Harley Quinn ripoff Sex-Head) and use various tools. (By the way, EG Daily voiced Tommy Pickles in Rugrats, Buttercup in Powerpuff Girls and the title role in BABE: PIG IN THE CITY. Thus adding a layer of mindfuckery to the proceedings).
Going over the plot and how predictable and derivative it is is beside the point. Zombie remains a talented director, with an eye for pacing, lighting, production, casting, sets (he knows how to use a limited budget). Where he falters here in this, one of his weaker efforts, is the story and characters. Looking back at some of the films that have inspired him, such as HILLS HAVE EYES and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, you see that they bring ordinary people into extraordinary situations, where the horror starts at 1 and gradually works up to 11.
But 31 starts at 11, and with protagonists who are barely relatable (Carnies? Really? Did they ever even exist, or were they just a ’70s rumor like getting high from taking aspirin with Coca Cola?). We learn next to nothing about them, or about the bad guys, either the organisers or their hired killers and attendants. Why do the killers dress up as clowns (well, that’s obvious)? A better script could have fleshed out all the motivations and given nuances of personality. Remember all the killers in THE RUNNING MAN? Here the killers (and heroes) are less memorable.
The only one of note who gets more than just a sliver of personality is Richard Brake’s Doom-Head, who proves to be an erudite killer with a penchant for dual switchboards and a fear of losing control of his psychopathic side. Earlier this year, Scott reported here that Zombie predicts that Doom-Head is destined to become the “next great villain of horror”. I can believe that; the character is very intriguing, and generates a genuine sense of menace. Now, put him in a road movie with Captain Spaulding…
Look, 31 is fun, especially after all the bland, generic PG-level horror movies that fill the theatres time and again. Rob Zombie brings a sense of danger to his offerings, offerings that are professionally, expertly assembled.
31 is available now in Video On Demand, and the trailer is below. And always remember:
Director: Rob Zombie
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 4 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Deggsy