As I’ve mentioned before, Rob Zombie’s films have mixed appeal for me. I enjoyed House of 1000 Corpses for the most part, I liked The Devil’s Rejects quite a bit, I loved The Lords of Salem, and I (mostly) hated his Halloween interpretations. His gritty 70s aesthetic is unique and his love of horror is endearing but that doesn’t always translate into great films. One of my biggest complaints about Zombie’s films in general is his contrived and unnatural dialogue. So, when I saw that he was (once again) credited as sole writer on his latest film, 31, I hoped for a The Lords of Salem but prepared myself for a Rob Zombie’s Halloween II. Which end of that spectrum did it land on? Read on to find out!
A troupe of traveling (presumably-freelance) carnies (is that a thing? really?) heading to their next gig gets kidnapped. (and a couple of their groupies are killed , but they’re not too broken up about it. neither is the audience. in fact, they were obvious throwaway characters from the start) They wake up (from being knocked out) to find themselves captive in some sort of warehouse that has been retrofitted as a themed arena for a The Running Man style murder game hosted by some folks dressed as powdered wig wearing Mozart types. The anachronistic aristocrats tell them that they’ve been recruited to play this year’s “31” (hey! that’s the name of the movie… for some reason). The annual secret event is held every year on Halloween, which is today! (October 31st? that’s why they call the “game” 31? really?) Each of our carnies is assigned a number and given odds of survival so the rich folks can place bets and then they are pitted against clown themed murderers with names that follow a [edgy noun]-head formula. (ie: doom-head, sex-head, death-head, etc.) OH NO! Will any of our unrelatable, unlikeable carnies win the game?
Alright – That may be my snarkiest synopsis yet. In my defense, writing out the plot makes the movie seem even more ridiculous than watching it does. If your impression from reading the above is that I HATED 31, then I’d understand. But I didn’t. Well, not really. It’s definitely more of the Rob Zombie fare that we’ve come to know (and possibly love). Since I like some of his past work, I like some of this as well. There are some cool set pieces and some exciting violence. And I still like the dirty 70s cinematography that has become a director trademark. Zombie’s dialogue writing hasn’t improved at all. (the ‘bad guy’ names may have tipped you off on that front) In fact, there are some really cringe-worthy lines in this film. Some of the worst lines are also poorly delivered; thereby, compounding the problem. And character development is so shallow that we only get broad strokes like: that guy’s a dick; she’s a survivor; she’s a tough old prostitute/pimp; his name is Panda for some reason; etc. (further, Zombie’s portrayal of the groupies-cum-tagalong-prostitutes (no pun intended) is misogynistic by anyone’s measure) Zombie is at his best when crazy, blood-and-grime covered characters are menacing folks. And there’s plenty of that in 31. Doom-head in particular is played perfectly by Richard Brake. (by “perfectly”, i mean that he drawls gravelly lines, smiles menacingly, and enunciates idiosyncratically. i don’t mean that in the ‘he deserves an Oscar’ sense) Whatever nuance Zombie achieved with The Lords of Salem is absent here though. The story is nonsensical and serves only to string strange characters and set pieces together. The sub-plot of the rich exploiting the poor is vapid at best. (and Malcolm McDowell’s effort seems a bit too ‘just give me my paycheck’ here). And the ending is ambiguous in a way that seems unintentional. In short, you should definitely know if you’re going to like this film before you watch. Big Zombie fans (and apologists) will find it palatable. Zombie agnostics (and haters) will not.
The Final Cut: Rob Zombie’s 31 is more Rob Zombie’s [everything else he’s directed]. It’s slightly better than his worst, but not as good as House of 1000 Corpses, and it falls way short of The Lords of Salem. If you like his stuff, you’ll find this one an acceptable (though not particularly spectacular) entry into his oeuvre.