Rob Zombie‘s transition to the film world is, if nothing else, intriguing. After finding success uncharacteristic to the metal genre with band White Zombie, the metal rocker decided that basing album concepts off classic horror movies wasn’t cutting it. He wanted in on the game. By 1999, he had written an original script, The Crow: 2037, but the project was abandoned for a variety of reasons. Instead Zombie paired with Universal Studios to make his horror house debut, House of 1000 Corpses and so began his bloodstained path to 31.
Corpses was shelved for years (three to be precise) before it was released to the public and immediately earned Zombie a new level of cult status. Though that film could hardly be regarded as a critical or commercial winner, Zombie’s more Western-tinted direct follow-up, The Devil’s Rejects, found more success, becoming his defining cinematic feature. 11 years and three films later, Zombie debuts 31, offering definitive proof that he hasn’t really evolved as a filmmaker so much as given himself over to his basest, most carnal instincts.
Rape, blood, carnage, rape, psycho killers, Mexican Nazi midgets, rape. It’s worth noting that to date, 31 is the second Sundance Midnight movie to feature Nazi midgets (see, or rather don’t see, Yoga Hosers). Unsurprisingly, both movies that feature said Nazi midgets are pretty, pretty bad. Worse still, the Nazi midget in 31 gleefully exclaims a grotesque fondness for threatening the ladies in his path with obscene sexual violence.
Zombie’s sixth film possesses a very single-minded outlook on women in horror that, on the one hand, appears to mock the schlock of 70s slashers and their final girls and yet debases the whole idea of female empowerment by treating them as little more than fuck-bags or victims.Let’s backtrack for a second and give a little bit of context to the events. Not that a Rob Zombie movie particularly needs much context seeing they are essentially a prolapsed torrent of pouring blood and severed body parts. It’s Halloween, 1976. 31 opens with a bus full of “performers” (or are they swindlers and prostitutes? It’s not clear) taken hostage by thick brutes in prison stripes.
The flock is thinned down to five – Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Venus (Meg Foster), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Levon (Kevin Jackson) – who are forced to participate in a twisted game of cat and mouse. Each are presented with the odds of their survival (ranging from 60-to-1 to 1,000,000-to-1) and a customized weapon and told that if they survive the oncoming waves of murder-drunk baddies, that they’ll be able to escape with their life. Little do they know that this outcome has never come to fruition before.
What follows is a gory, largely off-putting sequence of kills, none of which offer any novelty to the genre or showcase any creativity whatsoever. There’s a distinction between excitement and excess that Zombie fundamentally fails to process here and without any clever practical effects work, it’s all very rote and forgettable.
Even with an opening 15 minutes of exposition, Zombie fails to give life to his characters so when they’re forced into this heinous situation to face brothers wielding chainsaws or tall Germans wearing tutus (don’t ask), those whose survival we’re supposed to root for are essentially faceless pin cushions. Their being so wildly ill-defined restricts our investment so that by the time they’re being run through the meat grinder, we can muster little other than a shrug and wait for the next to depart.
Which is truly a shame because the movie opens with what is easily the best crafted sequence in Rob Zombie filmography history. Thank Richard Brake for that. Brake has frequently been Zombie’s ace up the sleeve and here offers an unblinking monologue as a killer clown (but don’t call him a clown) giving a captive priest his last rights before a proper axing. Zombie shoots the scene in black and white, locking his camera tight on Brake’s unwavering dementia. Brake is almost too adept at playing a psychopath and creates a hard-to-swallow sense of unease that envelopes the cinema and thins the air. Zombie isn’t able to configure that kind of hair-raising psychological torment into the DNA of the remainder of 31 though and from there on out, it’s all downhill.
CONCLUSION: Rob Zombie’s ’31’ is a demented game of hide and seek, full of unbridled misogyny, unintelligible motives and senseless violence. Fans of his will revel in the blood rain but don’t expect any converts this time ’round.
*Reprint of our 2016 Sundance review.