Rob Zombie’s always been about theatrics and strong visuals, whether it be in his art, his music, or his films. Dig beneath the surface, however, and there’s usually not a whole helluva lot there. Even back in the days of White Zombie, the man has always put the “show” first, from his band’s meticulously crafted image to their multimedia stage shows that helped to distract people from the fact that they were listening to some pretty mediocre music. Zombie carried this approach into his first film, “House of 1,000 Corpses”. It’s a loud, visually scrumptious horror film, for sure, but take away the artsy editing and oftentimes gorgeous photography and you’re left with a rather run-of-the-mill Texas Chainsaw Massacre rip-off packed with terrible dialogue, embarrassing performances, and sloppy direction.
Zombie would show promise with the much more straightforward “The Devil’s Rejects”, and even managed to build up some great character moments despite his penchant for overwriting dialogue and obvious inability to reign in the scenery-chewing habits of his chosen stable of former b-movie stalwarts. I personally find his remake of “Halloween” to be his most “accessible” film in that it’s a polished and refreshingly original take on the Michael Myers mythos. Love it or hate it, Zombie put his own stamp on the material, and I really actually liked a lot of the ideas it and its much-maligned sequel put forward. That being said, the writing was still mostly terrible, and his obsession with toilet humor seemed to reach a new nadir.
It wasn’t until “Lords of Salem” that I felt Zombie had finally come into his own as a horror auteur. I know very few share this sentiment, but I really enjoyed the film as it evoked the nightmare logic stylings of my favorite Euro horror flicks and features some of the most impressive and hauntingly beautiful imagery I’d seen in a genre film in quite some time. Sure, it didn’t make much sense, and, once again, Zombie proves he is NOT an actor’s director as his cast runs roughshod over him at every turn, but, as a purely visceral experience, Lords of Salem proved that, as a visual storyteller, Zombie was a force to be reckoned with.
Sadly, most people didn’t see the film the way I did, and Lords of Salem proved to be a flop with both critics and many of his most ardent supporters. Zombie’s fans wanted more Devil’s Rejects and less artsy pretense, and, with his new film, “31”, it’s obvious Zombie has gone out of his way to deliver something that would still let him strut his stuff as a visual artist while also appeasing those fans crying out for the next Captain Spaulding.
Set in the 1970s (although it can be argued that all of Zombie’s films take place in that decade regardless of whether or not it’s true), 31 centers on a tight-knit group of carnies traveling the rural roads of the American Southwest en route to their next stop. The group consists of conman Roscoe Pepper (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Panda (Welcome Back Kotter’s Lawrence Hilton Jacobs doing his best Jamaica Mon accent), Levon (Kevin Jackson), and the group’s maternal figure, Venus Virgo (Meg Foster), who oversees a stable of burlesque performers, including her star attraction, Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie).
The group stops at a remote gas station where Roscoe is accosted by a skimpily clad local (Elizabeth “E.G.” Daily who is as insanely attractive as she was 30 years ago in her Valley Girl days) who asks him a lot of probing questions about hunting and whether or not they’re packing any sort of weaponry. Roscoe doesn’t find anything wrong with this bizarre line of questioning, however, and, when the girl bids him adieu he and his cohorts head back out on the road. Later that evening, however, the group comes upon a collection of strange totems blocking the road, and, when Roscoe and Panda go out to clear the way, they are attacked by a cadre of masked men who murder their driver (as well as a couple of Venus’ girls) and bind and blindfold the survivors.
The group wake up in the bowels of some sort of industrial complex where they’re greeted by Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell), Sister Serpent (Jane Carr), and Sister Dragon (Judy Geeson) –a trio of gambling elite types dressed in powdered wigs – who inform them they are to take part in a game called 31, in which they’ve 12 hours to survive against a rogues gallery of murderous henchmen dressed in clown garb. The odds are calculated, the bets are placed, and our heroes are left to fend off the forces of Father Murder until morning.
31 plays out like a Rob Zombie greatest hits collection, with lots of mixed-media inserts, grating sound effects, a cast that looks like the roster of a Midwest horror convention, and some of the most juvenile and off-putting toilet humor this side of a Kevin Smith movie. Once again Zombie proves incapable of keeping his cast in check, and the resulting performances are almost universally over-the-top as his players spew forth heinous dialogue that sounds as though it were written by a fifteen-year-old hillbilly after an all-night glue-huffing session.
The plot – or what passes for one – makes no sense at all and is full of gaping holes. Why are the three wealthy Brits here in the first place? What is their motivation for doing what they do? If so many people have gone missing in this area, why hasn’t anyone searched the ENORMOUS abandoned factory/murderhouse in the middle of nowhere? Why the fuck is the game called 31?? It’s obvious that none of this matters to Zombie and his only real concern is making elaborate murder set pieces and splashing as much gore across the screen as his budget will allow. Sure, Lords of Salem wasn’t exactly the most coherent piece of cinema I’ve seen either, but that was a supernatural film and, to me anyway, seemed meant to be viewed as a sort of waking dream/nightmare. The lapses in logic and plot structure seemed right at home there, but in 31 – which is not much more than a stylized mish-mash of tropes borrowed from The Purge, Hostel, and Zombie’s own films – these plot holes are positively glaring.
I will say that, visually, 31 is quite impressive. The aforementioned sets are gorgeous and atmospherically shot by cinematographer David Daniel, and Zombie is incredibly gifted when it comes to framing a scene. As I’ve said before, I’d love to see Zombie work from someone else’s script, with an entirely new collection of actors, and really exercise his authority as a director to keep his actors from spinning out of control because, in terms of sheer style and visual acuity, Zombie is one of the most exciting talents working in the genre today. Sadly, it seems, he’s either unable or unwilling to do any of this and appears more than happy to continue making films that are loaded with potential rather than giving us the true genre-defining classic I truly think he’s capable of.