Rob Zombie as a filmmaker has always been confounding. After a middlingly watchable Texas Chainsaw Massacre rip off House of 1,000 Corpses, Zombie followed things up with The Devil’s Rejects. Rejects took the two most interesting actors from Corpses and his wife Sheri Moon Zombie off on their own psychotic rampage that actually asked some intriguing questions about police brutality and vigilantism while also being a weirdly endearing yet intense ride of a horror thriller throwback to the likes of Tobe Hooper and Sam Peckinpah. Then he made a terrible Halloween remake that removed the mystery of Michael Myers, a sequel to that which went completely off the rails into stupid country and an experimental horror film Lords of Salem that felt like a redneck horror concert trying to be a Kubrick film. So, every time I go into a Rob Zombie movie, I don’t hope for the best. The only hope is that he’ll at least have something different. That was my only pipe dream going into his latest film 31.
Unfortunately, those hopes were pretty much dashed by the time 31 gets past the set up. Basically, five people in 1976 – Sheri Moon, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Meg Foster and Kevin Jackson – are on a road trip when they’re kidnapped by mysterious dudes dressed in skeleton outfits. They’re brought to some mysterious opera theater where people in Victorian white wigs – lead by Malcolm McDowell – force them through a game called 31, which involves them wading through a maze within 12 hours as random psychopaths dressed as demented clowns try to kill them gruesomely. So it sounds like a Rob Zombie idea. His films are often distinct, mainly for their grimy cinematography and an extremely bleak outlook on humanity. None of his work is mainstream. Hell, even his best film The Devil’s Rejects got mixed reviews at the time with good reason. 31 is just as vindictive, violent and vulgar as the rest of his filmography… but that’s not enough anymore to even get much of a reaction.
One can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Most of Rob Zombie’s style has become old hat at this point. It’s become expected after this long that the average Zombie film will feature any of the following at some point:
- A 1970s setting
- Excessive non-sensical cursing
- An eclectic soundtrack with tunes from 1950s-1970s
- Excessively dark lighting
- Extreme violence
- Carnival-like production design
- Carnie style redneck villains
- Exploitation film wipe transitions
- Sheri Moon in a grating role
- One entertaining enough performance
All of this is on full display in 31. Hell, even the last one is there for the one mildly redeeming element that is Richard Brake as the clown final boss of this horrific circus. 31 peaks quite early with a direct monologue to the camera from Brake as our cold open. Sure, it’s just as poorly written as all of the other dialogue here, but Brake’s intimidating stare and the black & white cinematography manages to show off the violence with some decent enough restraint. It’s more about the moral implications of our villain rather than an excessively violent barrage of heinous actions. There’s an indication that this entire enterprise is just a job for him. He just clocks in and out, with nothing really personal about his kills beyond the entertainment of how elaborate it can be.
Unfortunately, Brake doesn’t pop up again until the third act, leaving us with the same generic type of redneck clown characters Zombie usually trots out. They keep espousing the same generic barrage of colorful language that Rob Zombie LOVES all of his characters to espouse. Zombie’s writing still feels like it hasn’t progressed beyond finding dirty words and writing them down like a 14 year old who just learned them. There’s nothing exciting, new or semi-interesting about anything being said here. Zombie wants to be a Quentin Tarantino with his “creative cursing,” but he uses it as a crutch in the exact same twangy dumb way he usually does. All these different killers even feel like juvenile ideas for Todd McFarlane toys, from Pancho Moler as a Chilean little person dressed like Hitler to EG Daily as the worst Harley Quinn cosplayer ever. One never feels invested in these or our main characters since they’re all just fodder for poorly framed gore and by the end, we’re left wondering “Who cares about any of this nonsensical grimy bullshit?” It’s part of what makes 31 feel like Zombie on autopilot.
Even at his worst, Rob Zombie took risks. Halloween 2 was a risky move that blew up in his face. Lords of Salem even managed to be something relatively outside of the usual narrative structure of Zombie’s films. 31 features the usual beats, never reigniting them. It paints the auteur theory in a terrible light when Zombie just seems to be so one note. The film even ends in a fashion that’s fairly reminiscent of The Devil’s Rejects on a structural, thematic and emotional level, only without the mad suicidal joy or propulsive perfectly used music. The few new additions are brief stabs at social commentary that amount to a hill of beans, especially with the aristocratic commentary involving Malcolm McDowell and his cronies that bark out the odds of our heroes’ survival occasionally.
“Creative Bankruptcy” is a harsh term, but one can tell that Rob Zombie has officially hit it with 31. After roughly a decade and a half of making films, Zombie hasn’t really progressed. Especially with a production significantly made up of crowdfunding, one would figure that this could be a chance for Zombie to have a vision unfiltered by studio hands. No one there to stop him from making what he wanted. So apparently what he wanted to do was this: a lesser retread of The Devil’s Rejects. For years when walking into a Rob Zombie film, I always hoped I’d eat crow and see him make another great film again. See him do something that proved Rejects wasn’t a fluke. Unfortunately, he seems to keep proving that this is unfortunately the case. Damn that optimism. Not appropriate for a repetitively cynical filmmaker like Zombie anyway.
Rating: 0.5 out of 5 Mangled Corpses