31, the latest effort from Rob Zombie, is in the truest sense of the word an “effort”. Zombie’s worst instincts once again return to plague his directorial style after he nearly put them to rest with his last film, the almost-impressive psychological horror Lords of Salem. Rob Zombie has yet to make a fully appreciable movie. I’m quite a sympathizer of his, again in the truest sense of the word. I want him to do better; I hope for his cinematic success. I have never outrightly disliked any of Zombie’s films, but I’ve never totally enjoyed one either. His two best films – The Devils Rejects and Lords of Salem – show what he might be capable of if he disposed with the very things he seems to hold so dear. All of his characters are composite creations who swear like sailors raised on Tarantino movies, and his scenes of violence are hard to watch for all the wrong reasons. I have never felt uneasy during a Zombie movie, just a bit queasy.
31 is his most slapdash effort since his debut film House of 1,000 Corpses. It is so cheap looking that it’s startling, and there isn’t an ounce of tension to be found. Still, I didn’t mind it. It’s not very good, but it moves at a rapid pace and there are a handful of moments that do improbably work against the better efforts of the director. The biggest ace up Zombie’s sleeve is the veteran actress Meg Foster, who had a small role in Lords of Salem and a meaty supporting role here. Foster, all sinewy arms and legs, dressed like an aging hippie and looking damn good doing it, is the only actor who is at all convincing in her role. She seems to actually be trying, something that I can’t honestly say of anyone else in the cast. Zombie has always possessed a skill for casting forgotten genre stars in his films but has rarely given them much to do. Foster plays an ass kicking septuagenarian in this, and she’s fantastic. If he has any sense his next film will star her and not his frequent star and always-wife Sheri Moon Zombie. Mrs. Zombie is one of the flattest actors working today, and it’s no surprise that her acting career stretches to little more than the six films directed by her husband.
Set on Halloween night in 1976, 31 follows a group of carnies (I think, at least) who are kidnapped and forced to compete in a deadly game against psychotic clowns and a midget dressed as Hitler, presided over by a group of weirdos dressed like Effie Trinkett on bath salts. It is, literally, an extreme horror version of The Hunger Games but nowhere near as awesome as that should be. Despite being set on the holiday 40 years ago, the film neither feels like a Halloween film nor a period piece. I actually forgot it was supposed to be set in 1976 several times because, besides the soundtrack and lack of mobile phones, nothing feels or looks at all 70’s, even the fashions or vernacular. The setting almost seems like an afterthought. Even the soundtrack, something Zombie usually nails, is obvious and fleeting. Clearly they didn’t have much money to spend on music rights.
I truly do not know what the main characters do. They’re a touring road show, I got that, but we barely have time to meet them before they’re assaulted and hauled off to a bland industrial park where the rest of the film is to take place. The inciting sequence where this group is taken hostage is cut so terribly and filmed so shakily that I truly had no idea what was happening. This is a running theme in the movie, which has some of the worst camera work I’ve seen in a theatrical release. Multiple times I thought an entirely different character had died than the one who actually did, and every single fight scene is shot in such extreme close-up that about halfway through I stopped even trying to decipher what was happening because it was hurting my eyes. Zombie also employs a series of freeze frames as transitions which are at first effective, then silly, but always pleasant in a gritty 70’s exploitation way.
The production designer should be drug out into the street and shot. Everything is saturated in grays and blues and greens. The entire movie basically takes place in a run down factory and a bathroom, with lighting so dark you can’t even tell where you are most of the time. You wouldn’t want to look at it anyway. Before seeing this I actively steered away from any trailers, but the plot description says that these people are trapped in an amusement park. That could not be further from the truth. Amusement parks are colorful and probably cost more than $70 to design. The scenes that show the three masterminds ruling over the game (Zombie stalwarts Malcolm McDowell and Judy Geeson among them) were clearly shot in a single day separate from everyone else. Though they appear to see everything and can communicate with their victims via intercom we never even see a shot of a TV screen or cameras. There is no sense of place or location established, so everything feels disconnected. It is exceptionally lazy in execution, which is not really something I would have expected from Zombie. Regardless of content, his movies have always been interestingly designed and easy to look at. His version of Halloween 2, though mostly a dud, shows what a remarkable visual director he can be when he puts some effort into it.
What works for the film are mostly ancillary things, though when added up they do save the film from utter ruination. Meg Foster is about 85% of the reason the movie works, about 10% is Richard Brake as Doom Head, the main villain, and the remaining 5% can be attributed to the sick thrill of seeing something this go-for-broke on the big screen regardless of its quality. Brake anchors the films startling opening and helps the film ease into the home stretch well after it has become a shouty, crunchy, stabby bore. Zombie proves himself to be far more adequate at dialogue than he allows himself, and he is one of the few directors who are actually very good at aping the Tarantino dialogue style. You can see his influence from the moon, but it works. Yet, after a great opening monologue, the film falls back on lines like, “That shit is fuckin’ whack, motherfucker,” and, “Fuck off man, can’t you see I’m in here with some fuckin’ pussy, motherfucker?” Lords of Salem completely reigned back Zombie’s penchant for crass hillbilly dialogue, and during the opening of 31 I was beaming with the thought that he might truly be maturing as a writer. No dice.
Of course there is the usual Rob Zombie dose of cutesy sexualized violence, taking the form here of Elizabeth Daily’s character Sex Head who is basically Baby Firefly from House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. She skips into her scenes, twirls around with sharp objects in each hand, and delivers each line in a squeal. Luckily, her screen time is short. There is a scene in which a character is getting violently amorous with a prostitute that is intercut with quick clips of Nosferatu and played under a death metal song. This scene is so indicative of a Rob Zombie moment that it plays almost like a parody of itself. I couldn’t help but shake my head and throw my hands in the air. Zombie keeps making variations on the same damn idea.
Yet, somehow, the movie isn’t bad. It’s watchable. That may be damning with faint praise but there are so many awful horror films circulating that for one to be watchable is really quite an accomplishment. But for this year, which has given us such artful, lean and mean horror films as Don’t Breathe, Green Room and Lights Out, being watchable doesn’t really make the cut. Rob Zombie might make a great movie one day, but I used to think he would make a great movie one day. He doesn’t seem to possess any understanding of what makes a truly great horror film tick, or even what makes some of the best extreme cinema films so powerfully revolting, and by extension powerful. He only understands how to up the volume, up the blood, up the saliva, and pray that something will stick to the wall. 31 signals a turning point for Zombie. He can step up to bat and make something that tests his moxy as a filmmaker and devoted horror fan, or he can keep making watchable distractions for which the best compliment will be, “That was brutal.” 31 is brutal and relentless, but not in the way I believe Zombie intended.
Written and Directed by Rob Zombie
Cast: Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Meg Foster, Kevin Jackson, Lawrence Hilton Jacobs, Elizabeth Daily, Torsten Voges, Lew Temple, Jane Carr, with Judy Geeson and Malcolm McDowell.
Rated R for strong bloody horror violence, pervasive language, sexual content, and drug use