Rob Zombie’s latest horror film 31 arrives on Blu-ray on December 20
Rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie‘s latest horror film 31 opens with what might be his greatest sequence, a dingy black and white shot of a greasepaint smeared, rot-toothed dirtbag (Richard Brake) grinning malevolently while purring out an expletive-soaked soliloquy to an unseen audience. Or rather, we the audience are his audience. It’s a fourth wall break that is artful and avant garde and hints that Zombie might be further mining the more abstract, European tinted work of his boldest film to date, The Lords of Salem.
But then the camera cuts to a bloody, wounded minister, pleading for his life and the safety of his children. And his tormentor announces that his name is “Doom Head.” And your eyes roll. “Doom Head”? Really?
And then, of course, the scene turns sadistic and cruel. Except it’s not authentically sadistic. It’s boorish and boring. As a colleague of mine remarked, a more evolved sensibility would have stayed on that monster’s face. Held that shot. Kept it going. It would have have been magnetic, mysterious, iconic. Instead, it just takes the now tired route of “Americans tied to a chair and tortured and butchered for cheap shock value” shtick, the sort that was old back in 2005 and now plays like an out-of-tune guitar.
Really, Zombie should know better. Because he’s one of a kind. His language is his own. His music, his film, his persona — love it or hate it — has always been simply an extension of who he is. All these medias, just colors in his creative palette. But 31 feels like leftovers. It finds Zombie in a state of frustration (the film was partially funded via a crowdfunding campaign) and anger; anger at the critics who have dismissed his work and the fans who have often turned against him. But that sort of contempt is no starting point to create a good film. And 31 feels like a splattery shrug; a forced bit of designer sadism that comes across like Zombie replicating the version of Zombie that he thinks people want. I’d say that — like most horror films — repeated viewings would be necessary to fully explore the world that Zombie has created here, but 31 is just so damned unlikable and unappealing and unamusing that I cannot imagine anyone wanting to dive back in.
And yet, it should be noted that many critics, many mainstream critics in fact, have praised the film. I myself have had a mixed reaction to Zombie’s body of work. I loved his debut House of 1000 Corpses because of just how messy, experimental and enthusiastic it was. I hated The Devil’s Rejects, though I know I’m alone in that disdain, because it tried to make folk heroes out of inbred, cackling murderers. Out of the two Halloween films, I prefer the second film for its audacity and weirdness. The Lords of Salem was an astonishing feature length rock video that I thought promised a real evolution of his craft. Which makes 31 all the more of a bummer. In it, we have the usual trailer load of unlikeable characters — here, a troupe of stoned, overly chatty carnies — who make a pit stop at a roadside circus called Murderworld (even that name lands with a thud), getting sucked into a subterranean hellhole where they are forced to play a game called 31, a sort of live-action video game that forces them to face off against an army of killer clowns. After suffering through a shrill opening that sees Sheri Moon Zombie shaking her arse again and smoking pot while adopting a Jamaican patois and another character wearing a gorilla mask while chatting up a chubby naked woman (it sounds better than it plays out), 31 does admittedly spring to life when we enter the cavernous domain and meet the overlords of Murderworld, played by real deal actors Malcolm McDowell and Judy Geeson. Dressed in powdered wigs and French period clothing, McDowell (who has the gift of energizing literally every single film he appears in, however briefly) and Geeson are fantastic and further hint at the more interesting, esoteric film that is buried beneath. But then the diminutive Nazi clown shows up and we’re treated to more (yawn) Hitler fetishizing and swastika shock and every freaking character is named “something” head and then the whole sideshow sinks into a series of routine chase and butcher sequences while classic rock plays.
Lionsgate’s Blu-ray contains a two-hour making of documentary that I scanned through and a Zombie commentary. The former is way more fun that the feature. The latter finds Zombie taking us step by step through the process of making of what might be his lowest-budgeted movie and one gets the sense of just how quickly the entire thing was put together. McDowell was brought in as a favor in the last minute. Characters were designed on the fly. I could be reading the man’s tone wrong, but he just doesn’t seem that engaged in his anecdotes. Everything is matter-of-fact. There is a distinct lack of passion for the material. Which makes sense in the context of the final product.
I wanted to like this movie. Because I genuinely do like Rob Zombie. I respect his work. His music. His vision. And his legacy. And maybe the point of 31 is to strike back against the people that have not allowed Zombie to progress. Salem didn’t do so hot. His hockey movie couldn’t get financed. Maybe with this film Zombie is just saying, “F**k you!” to all of us and just giving us an overload of so much Zombiespeak sound and fury that we in essence become numb to it. He wants us to reject it. He wants to burn down his house and then rebuild on the ashes. If that’s the case, then 31 is a masterpiece of transgression and art terrorism. If it’s just a movie… then God help us.