Directed by: Rob Zombie.
Written by: Rob Zombie.
Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie (Charly), Jeff Daniel Phillips (Roscoe Pepper), Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs(Panda Thomas), Meg Foster (Venus Virgo), Kevin Jackson (Levon Wally), Malcolm McDowell (Father Murder), Jane Carr (Sister Serpent), Judy Geeson (Sister Dragon), Richard Brake (Doom-Head), Pancho Moler (Sick-Head), David Ury (Schizo-Head), Lew Temple (Psycho-Head), Torsten Voges (Death-Head), Elizabeth Daily (Sex-Head), Michael 'Red Bone' Alcott (Fat Randy), Esperanza America (Snoopy), Andrea Dora (Trixie), Tracey Walter (Lucky Leo), Ginger Lynn (Cherry Bomb), Daniel Roebuck (Pastor Victor), Devin Sidell (Georgina), Gabriel Pimentel (Brumaire).
It wasn’t that long ago that I thought that Rob Zombie may well become the next great American horror director. Sure, his debut film – House of 1,000 Corpses – was marred by studio interference and Zombie’s own inexperience. Since then though, Zombie’s output has been strong – The Devil’s Rejects (still his best film) was a bloody, dark comedy that took Zombie’s influences and put them in a blender to come up with something wholly unique. When he remade Carpenter’s Halloween, he didn’t try to out Carpenter-Carpenter, but instead put his own odd spin on the film – almost making a biopic for Michael Myers. Halloween II pushed the surreality to an extreme for a studio horror film. Although I wasn’t a huge fan of his last film – The Lords of Salem – it was clearly his most ambitious to date, and I liked that he was pushing himself that far. Admittedly though, his films have never made all that much money – and so the last few years have been a series of starts and stops, and almost films that got pushed back or cancelled. Perhaps that explains why 31 feels so rushed – its Zombie returning to low-budget filmmaking, and putting out a quick and dirty horror film just to get something out there. The film is undeniably his work – it has the dirty aesthetic that makes you want to take a shower and get a tetanus shot after watching it. It’s violent, with a twisted sense of humor, like much of Zombie’s work. It’s cynical almost to the point of nihilism. But it’s also something that none of Zombie’s films before have been – boring. Incredibly, incredibly boring. There is not an original moment in the film – which simply repeats what Zombie has done before with less imagination than ever. While Zombie is often associated with the torture porn films of the mid-2000s, I always thought his films were more thoughtful about violence – or at the very least, less interested in punishing the audience. Not so with 31 – which is simply downright awful.
The film focuses on a group of carnies, travelling around the dusty, back roads of America in a van that makes the one from American Honey look clean by comparison – you can sense the stench coming from that vehicle. The five of them end up – through a series of events too dull to recount here – locked in a giant factory like building, where three rich people (Malcolm McDowell is one of them – along with Jane Carr and Judy Geeson) unleash one killer at a time on them – started with a little person, going to a giant, and his nymph sidekick (don’t blame me, I didn’t name the character Sex-Head) – and eventually coming back, as we know they must, to Doom-Head (Richard Brake) – who we see in the opening scene of the film, talking directly to the camera about how he is going to murder you. Did I mention that all of these murderers are dressed like clowns? Not friendly birthday party clowns, but the type of clowns you know have herpes clowns.
There is a message somewhere beneath all the carnage in 31. The killer clowns are racists and misogynists and Nazis (yes, they actually wear swastikas) – and the group of carnies is a group of easy friends of different races, who laugh, get high and fuck together, and generally seem to be okay people, even if they are dirty. They are forced into an arena where they can either try to work together and survive – by killing the other side – or let the bad guys win, and have control over everything. Perhaps Zombie was thinking about the election yet-to-come when he made 31 – but that seems to be giving him perhaps too much credit here – the films feels slapped together more than anything else, and as soon as you make people literal zombies, any claim to subtly flies out the window.
31 didn’t really work for me, because it lacks the genuine humanity of Zombie’s best films. Yes, I know that sounds odd, giving that he makes violent horror films, but Zombie has always viewed his characters – good and evil – as people (even Michael Myers) – and when he lingers over their deaths, it isn’t to rub your nose in the blood and viscera – it’s to watch a person in their final moments, and reflect on what that means. Here, it’s all just so more blood.
Zombie remains a talented filmmaker – and perhaps low budget filmmaking is the way to go from here on out – it gives him the freedom to do what he wants. Yet 31 feels like it’s been slapped together at the last minute – and while Zombie brings his characteristic style to it, there’s something off about it from the beginning. When you’re bored even my Sheri Moon Zombie – Zombie’s wife and muse, who has delivered some genuinely great, wack-a-doo performances (when they started making movies together, she would have played Sex-Head – and she would have been great), you know something is off about a Rob Zombie film.