Sundance Review: Rob Zombie’s 31 is a Bizarre Horror-Tattoo Come to Life



Rob Zombie’s latest horror flick is spastic freakshow.

There is probably no filmmaker working in the horror genre that splits opinions more than Rob Zombie. Admittedly, I’m conflicted by his films at times myself. I’ve always supported his move into being a director, and while I may not be the biggest fan overall, I believe 100% the man has brilliance in him.

I was a big fan of THE LORDS OF SALEM, and think so far it’s his masterpiece (not the often cited THE DEVIL’S REJECTS) and was happy to see him embrace a more muted approach. And while I wished he’d continued down that road, some of his fans opinions be damned, he has indeed returned to the mondo-bizarro horror-tattoo-come-to-life haunted-funhouse style with his new flick 31.

Is it more of the same?

In a way.

The premise is simple. Five hardcore carnies are abducted by a band of masked freaks on Halloween, and taken to a hidden compound where they become the prey in a twisted, gory game of hide and seek called 31. Run by three Devils, a trio of high stakes gamblers dressed in Colonial garb.

The five carnies are re-released into an industrial maze, where they must survive for twelve hours, as the Heads are released one-by-one two-by-two into the nightmare labyrinth.

Who are the heads? Doom-Head. Sick-Head. Psycho-Head. Death-Head.

And so on, you get the idea…

Beginning with a twisted midget Nazi who speaks Spanish, the Heads get more twisted and dangerous as the game progresses: a pair of chainsaw-wielding psychotic brothers, a Nordic giant, a pixie-ish psychopath, and final “boss” if you will, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain clown-faced maniac who gives a rich vigilante a lot of trouble in the city they both live in called…yeah, never mind.

So the upside of 31 is that the movie is indeed a carnival ride of insane set pieces, and gladly the clown aspect is managed really well.

This could easily have been “HOSTEL FOR JUGALOS”.

But it’s not. At all.

What it is though, is a pastiche of films like THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME by way of Tobe Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE; Hooper, of course, made THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, another film 31 takes serious cues from (no surprise there).

31 seems like a fan film from Rob Zombie to his general demographic, many more of whom you’ll find shopping at Hot Topic than in a thrash pit somewhere throwing down, or at home watching William Lustig’s MANIAC.

Case in point, during the Q and A at the screening, I saw, a young lady ask him “what was your inspiration for HALLOWEEN”.

Um…tee hee. Luckily Mr. Zombie is incredibly understanding.

At the same time I am not saying this is a bad thing. It’s merely where a huge faction of his audience lays. And given this film was funded in large part via Kickstarter, it’s honorable that Mr. Zombie didn’t go off the rails and abandon his core-audience. Then again it comes off kind of like a film made on consignment, and personally I want to see Zombie go off those proverbial rails. Hell, I think he is actually more suited to make kids’ films. I’m not joking. Stick this guy on a THE HAUNTED MANSION. Because there is one place his films shine, undeniably: the visuals. His eye for design is immaculate, and his ability to deliver some really fucked up action is top flight. Just don’t look for any 3 dimensional characters. This is SCOOBY DOO sans a dog, shot through the lens of a glue sniffer high on Testors and brown acid.

I could play the sound bite game and go as far to say Rob Zombie is the Tim Burton for psychotic children with a penchant for sharp implements and squishy things.

RZ acolytes will indeed relish the giggling viciousness of this dark humored freak-fest. A couple favorite scenes of mine involve a little ultra-violence in a bathroom stall and the discovery of a human sex-doll, that for me challenges the Spanish midget Nazi as “Most Twisted Player”.

Yeah, that one is going to stay with me for awhile.

I also appreciate, amidst all the winks and nudges to grindhouse and horror flicks, the also tangible nods to Kubrick. Yeah I said it. Rob Zombie homages Kubrick (at least I think he does) and not the films you might think. He takes it to BARRY LYNDON and EYES WIDE SHUT.

31 of course stars his muse Sheri Moon Zombie and he’s pulled old school TV actor Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs into things, along with returning Zombie players Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson, Lew Temple, and for me the major stand-out, actress Meg Foster, as Venus Snow, the proverbial “Madame” of the carny quintet.

I really do have to hand it to the entire cast, including all the Heads. It’s so far the best “reading” of this side of Zombie’s work, and I could loosely see it as almost a reboot of his CORPSES duology, or at the very least taking place in the same universe.

I told you his films left me conflicted. That said, the highest compliment I can pay them is that I’ve seen them all at least twice.

Shot on a minimal budget over a mere 20 days, Rob Zombie’s 31 succeeds as a throwback to the days of quickie exploitation movies. That’s exactly what it is trying to be, and what it is. So, if you want caviar, keep looking. But if you are in the mood for a candy-colored bacon cheeseburger of a flick with extra grease and BBQ sauce, 31 is for you.