Holy shit, Rob Zombie made an…OK movie! For real this time! (Sorry; still scarred from Lords of Salem.) His latest offering, 31, is actually such well-paced fun that you forget that he’s cast his wife in it yet again, and fires our way all manner of chainsaw-wielding clowns, Hispanic Nazi midget knifers, and Malcolm McDowell in his dandiest Regency attire.
31 follows a surprisingly spacious RV full of carnies we don’t care about. We get our standard Zombie intro: 20 minutes of overacting disguised as bonding, overuse of the F word, some mild cultural stereotypes, and two obese copulators telling a wildly disgusting joke while a man displays his gorilla mask. Also, it’s the ’70s, a production design idea that is abandoned for the rest of the movie’s nondescript, subterranean setting.
After an encounter with some oddball locals at a nearby gas station, the group of five are ambushed and kidnapped to a massive underground compound, where McDowell and his cohorts (Judy Geeson and Jane Carr) explain everything: they’re going to play a game called 31 (relating to the day of their capture, October 31). All they have to do is survive 12 hours of cat-and-mouse through a labyrinth of gross, themed rooms, dodging the unnumbered bunch of murderous clowns whose sole purpose is to butcher them to death.
Its opening sequence – a monologue by sadistic torturer Doom-Head, shot in black and white and with chilling delivery from Richard Brake – suggested something more stylised than Zombie’s previous efforts. And indeed, much of the direction seems more careful, with deliberately-choreographed shots and screenshot-worthy angles. But then he fucks it up in almost all of the fight scenes with his bizarre, inexplicable choice of shaky cam + slow-mo. So not only can we not see what’s happening, the 2-odd minutes of non-stop blur in every one of those sequences is both nauseating and boring. A pity.
As for the characters: because their pre-carnage development time is eaten up by cringeawful dialogue and ‘good-times-in-the-’70s’ Instagram-filtered montages, it’s hard to give a shit about what happens to them because what we do get to see of them is so trashily unrelatable. Only Meg Foster‘s Venus is mildly sympathetic in the microseconds of screentime she’s allotted. Each of the ‘Heads’ – the killer clowns – are, by design, far more interesting, but a lack of quotable lines and one-note delivery dull any inventiveness their presence might have lent to the film. I hate to say it, but the remake of 13 Ghosts did the ‘motley ghoul crew’ thing better.
And for all the hype and controversy, it’s not actually even that gory. Yes, there’s a chainsaw, and lots of stabbing, but much of the violence happens off-screen, and instead we see a hole and a lot of blood, but not the violent act itself. Zombie did have to make two rounds of cuts to prevent an initial NC-17 rating from sticking, so maybe he had to go to far and basically neuter his film’s main draw.
There are some great touches of black humour, but they’re few and far between, as the film’s only reason to exist is to just keep chugging, tunnel-visioned, towards its end. The game setup and the episodic introduction of each villain keeps the movie at a brisk, video-game-like pace, making it feel less than its 100-minute runtime. But then there’s the ending, which disappoints – not just because it’s an anti-climactic cop-out of a tonal logic fuck-up, but because, with Aerosmith’s “Dream On” failing to force us to chill the hairs on the back of the neck, he’s self-plagiarising the final scene of The Devil’s Rejects. It’s a pale imitation that’s awkward to watch.
But I think Zombie needs help. Actually, he fucking deserves it. He’s obviously imaginative, creative, and pulls from a range of classic influences. He doesn’t need a bevvy of crowdfunding fans who will throw money at him to do ‘whatever’, because they, like the studios who used to fund him, are also starting to tire of his deliberate mediocrity. Instead, he needs stable DPs, script writers who aren’t ’90s edgelords, more experienced actors (that he won’t waste), a wider variety of characters (even white trash), and a butcher of an editor. He could be better, and for the tawdry, fun trash that this could have been, this film should have been better, too.