Written and Directed by: Rob Zombie
Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie, Richard Brake, and Malcolm McDowell
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"In hell, everybody loves popcorn."
31 is Rob Zombieís pure, unfiltered id projected onto a deranged Halloween funhouse where his greatest hits serve as the inspiration for each room. If youíre here looking for a recommendation, beware that it is arguably the most Rob Zombie movie imaginable, and, depending on your persuasion, thatís either horrifying or intriguing. Suffice it to say that this divisive filmmaker is not looking to cater to any middle ground: much like Zombieís other work, 31 has seemingly been designed to be loved or hated, and, chances are, you knew where you stood when it was announced.
So, if youíre still here, I assume youíre either curious about what works or hate-reading to see just how awful it is. Despite just about everything Iíve said so far, it turns out that 31 does fall somewhere in between those two extremes, at least if youíre predisposed to enjoying Zombieís work. As someone who generally falls into that category, even I have to confess that 31 is a bit of a middling effort, one that doesnít reach the delirious peaks of Zombieís best work but at least manages to avoid the valleys of his worst moments. It is the proverbial solid outing from a filmmaker churning out a film he could probably make in his sleep at this pointóit might be the first Rob Zombie film that feels kind of perfunctory.
You can feel him trying to cobble together a greatest hits collage almost immediately: a ponderous Nietzsche quote opens the proceedings, eventually yielding to an opening credits sequence scored by the crunchy riffs of James Gangís ďWalk Away.Ē A title card informs us that Zombie has once again stranded us on Halloween night in the 70s: this time, itís 1976, just a year before the events of House of 1000 Corpses, and a group of carnies is bound for its next stop. Typically filthy Zombie shenanigans play out: gross jokes are shared between an explicit sex scene and other crass dialogue, and a gas station stop has Sheri Moon Zombieís Charly lewdly hitting on the cranky old fucker who crudely informs the gang that theyíll have to service their own damn selves. Rest assured that Zombieís sensibilities havenít changed much at all during the past decade: this is sheer hicksploitation nonsense, an ugly, grimy portrait of backwoods America attempting to recapture the gross provocations of the drive-in era.
In this respect, it is more or less successfulóit is very much what you expect from a director that swaddles every film in scuzzy beards and wife-beaters. However, Zombie also shows flashes of what makes him such a genuinely terrific horror filmmaker: for all his outlandish, off-putting exploitation tendencies, few directors are capable of crafting classically evocative atmosphere. His is a very specific brand of nostalgia-tinged set dressing coaxed by seemingly innocuous touchstones that congeal into a palpable All Hallows Eve backdrop: infamous tourist traps, dime store holiday decorations, Wolfman Jack howling away through fuzzy radio reception. For about 15 minutes or so, 31 is an authentic transmission from the Americana ghosts of Halloween pastóitís the sort of place you donít mind hanging out in despite the somewhat obnoxious company.
Which is why itís disappointing that Zombie all but hastily abandons it: after filling up for gas, the carnie crew hits the road, only to run into an ominous array of scarecrows blocking the road. Their efforts to remove the roadblocks are met by a group of masked madmen who gut some of the bunch before abducting five survivors. When they come to, the quintet finds that theyíve been kidnapped and forced to participate in a deranged annual ritual for a group of psychotic libertines (presided over by Malcolm McDowell): for 12 hours, theyíll be let loose in an elaborate compound, where theyíll be forced to fight for their lives against maniacs wielding various implements of torture and murder.
Thatís essentially the hook here: 31 is a redneck riff on "The Most Dangerous Game," here reimagined as a gore-soaked exercise in over-the-top violence and bad taste. It's Less a sustained narrative and more the cinematic equivalent of visiting the most fucked-up roadside Halloween haunt imaginable. Each segment has its own distinct theme depending on what the libertine cabal unleashes upon their victims, with little no escalation along the way. Basically, the plot degenerates into one showdown after the next between the carnies and Zombieís hosts of freaks and weirdos, resulting in a somewhat tedious experience in need of some tightening and tension-building. You wish 31 felt like it were building towards something rather than exhaustedly slumping towards a finish line before giving the fuck out. Zombie just kind of quits at the climax before tacking on an ambiguous coda, leaving the audience to shrug a bit. It certainly isnít as emphatic as Zombieís previous work.
But up until that point, itís hard to say Zombie doesnít unleash his perverse imagination. Perhaps in an effort to push every provocative button imaginable, he unloads everything from a Nazi-dwarf to chainsaw-wielding clowns, making it the rare film that covers Naziploitation and Dwarfploitation in one fell swoop. Taken as individual set pieces, these scenes are generally killer: Zombieís design impeccable design sensibilities make 31 an aesthetic feast, particularly for those looking to gorge on the directorís singular vision. What he accomplishes with the interior sets is nothing short of remarkable: on a shoestring budget, he transforms this warehouse into an industrial nightmare of filthy, grungy bathrooms and steampunk boiler rooms. Amidst the squalor are some intriguing chambers, including one that hosts a grotesque banquet, a Grand Guignol Last Supper of sorts that invokes a slight Euro-vibe.
The unhinged inhabitants are no less memorable; what most may lack in backstory, they more than make up for with over-the-top personalities. You sense that this is where Zombieís heart really lies: in dreaming up this mad menagerie of freaks and lunatics that look like they sprung from the unholy union of Spirit Halloween and Hot Topic. When Pancho Moler appears decked out in SS insignia, brandishing knives, thereís no mistaking that youíre taking a tour straight through Zombieís warped mind. Both the chainsaw-wielding clowns and an S&M duo amp up the paint-huffing absurdity of it all: at a certain point, 31 becomes a chaotic swirl of sleaze and violence thatís often undercut by shaky camerawork and choppy editing. Itís frenzied, sure, but it starts to feel like an assault.
Emerging from this chaos is Richard Brakeís Doom-Head, by far the filmís most compelling figure. A grease-painted sadist prone to waxing philosophically about his violent exploits, Doom-Head is Rob Zombieís riff on Heath Ledgerís Joker. Itís not exactly pure mimicry, but itís hard not to make the comparison, even if Brakeís performance is more sinister than it is at all playful. For the first time since leaving the Firefly a bullet-riddled mess, Zombie has crafted a genuinely awesome character, one whose shadow looms over and swallows the rest of the cast (save for Jeff Daniel Phillips and Meg Foster, the carnies are a throwaway bunch, and even these two just barely register).
I wouldnít go so far as to say Brakeís performance is the only redeeming quality of a movie that doesnít deserve it, but you do wish the rest of 31 could keep up with it. Itís one of the very few assured elements of 31, an otherwise obligatory effort that struggles to sustain itself beyond its aesthetics. Zombie delivers a movie that feels like itís aimed at the most stereotypical ďhardcore horrorĒ audience: you know, the sort of long-haired, Goth freaks that crave sleaze, sex, and violence, the sort of folks thatíll applaud a gnarly decapitation-via-chainsaw. And thatís fine: certainly, I am not too far removed from this crowd in spirit, and I love that Zombie continues to cater to an offbeat audience that rarely sees such unrepentant exploitation play in multiplexes. Itís just hard to say that this is the very best version of that film when Zombie himself has already done it more effectively.
By his own admission, this is in fact the first film that feels exactly what you might expect coming from Rob Zombie, and thatís sort of a problem. Even though he doesnít firmly wedge himself up his own asshole like, say, Tom Six, Zombie feels a bit too content to sample himself here. He conjures up the freakshow vibe of House of a 1000 Corpses, the rugged, twangy exploitation of The Devilís Rejects, the Naziplotation nonsense of Werewolf Women of the SS, and the gothic, Eurohorror leanings of Lords of Salem, weaving them all into a hastily-produced crazy quilt that feels fit to fly on the back of a banged-up heavy metal van adorned with painted skulls. Coming immediately after Lordsóa film where Zombie showed a willingness to move slightly out of his comfort zoneó31 feels like a couple of steps back. If it were his first post-Halloween effort, it might feel like a return to form; instead, it feels like a retreat because we now know heís capable of more.
In many ways, it reminds me of Shocker, which also felt like Cravenís desperate attempt to recapture past glory when he didnít really need to after Serpent and the Rainbow and People Under the Stairs, a couple of triumphs that proved he didnít even need a Freddy redux. Likewise, 31 is Zombieís messy attempt to retrace his steps back to the Firefly Clan, who could intrude upon this film at any given time without causing much of a disruption. Nearly every step leads the audience back to Zombieís earlier work, right down to another attempt to score the final moments to an iconic classic rock track. That this effort falls flatter is indicative of 31 as a wholeóitís just off from being something special even though most of the ingredients are the same. With a few cuts and a more inspired climax, it could stand alongside Zombieís best work; as it is, itís a few steps down, though still heads and shoulders above the likes of Halloween.
And yet, middling, coasting Rob Zombie is still more compelling than most horror movies that play on thousands of screens across America. Even in a year thatís been unusually strong for multiplex horror, 31 commands attention simply because its directorís distinctive, singular voice canít be ignored. Save for his ill-conceived Halloween redux (which was more like Rob Zombieís John Carpenterís Halloween), every Zombie movie is worthwhile in some way, if only because he genuinely does not give a fuck about making movies for everyone. And thatís okayóin fact, itís to be commended.
31 is not going to be everyoneís cup of tea: itís coarse, abrasive, and confrontational in that purely juvenile manner Zombie has perfected. The halfway point between Herschell Gordon Lewis and hordes of lesser Tarantino imitators, Zombie is nothing if not committed to making uncompromising films. Thereís a place for that even if it doesnít always result in an absolute triumph.
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