Rob Zombie’s previous movie “The Lords of Salem” was a definite step in a different direction for the director. It replaced his usual manic and aggressive violence with a sort of slow burn melancholy. When that movie got both a commercial and critical thumbs down, Zombie appears to have decided to get back to his roots with the ultra-violent “31,” a movie that’s no more complicated than the one sentence description of its plot.
What’s that plot, you ask? “Five people are kidnapped on Halloween and have to survive a twelve hour Murderworld where they’re chased around by maniacal clowns.” That’s it. That’s everything that goes on in “31.” It takes place in 1976 which seems to only be necessary to justify Zombie’s usual exploitation aesthetic. That it takes place on Halloween is completely meaningless, to the point that I’m confident it’s never mentioned once, except in interviews with the director.
The Murderworld of “31” is run by a trio of fops in opera wigs and garish costumes. Malcolm McDowell seems to be the leader and Judy Geeson and Jane Carr are his partners in crime. The fops wager on who they think might survive, often changing the survival odds and announcing them over the PA system to the competitors. Injured competitors find their odds of survival decreased, naturally.
The killers they employ are crazed clowns with their own batch of fetishes and weapons. When the first bad guy you see is a Mexican Nazi Midget, you know you’re in for a special sort of adventure. The killers operate like video game bosses, the longer the heroes survive, the more hardcore the clowns get.
Can I speak freely about how tired I am of Joker/Harley Quinn imagery? We get more of it here. The biggest bad has slick hair and a bloody smile, moving methodically with a seemingly calm drive, blathering on pretentiously about life and death. Before we meet him we encounter a bubbly blonde with a bloodlust and a baby’s voice. It’s completely played out in the DCU, it doesn’t do itself any favors here. Why a person as visually creative as Zombie is aping such a cliched image is a question for the ages.
The five survivors are given no time to develop, not that it would matter if they did. Sheri Moon Zombie is at the center of it, for no other reason than we know she’s Zombie’s wife and is going to be protected. Jeff Daniel Phillips, her co-star in “Lords of Salem” is back too, as is Meg Foster. They each fight to survive in the same basic way - normally a story like this thrives on the character dynamics, who’s strong, who’s weak, who rises up, who collapses under the weight of it all. We don’t get any of that here. They just take shots at whatever comes their way. Not even the ticking time limit of the game adds suspense as the twelve hours elapse with no real escalation in tension.
Zombie’s direction this time is endlessly aggressive. I’m not one that usually notices shaky cameras but there’s so much of it here, along with strobe lights, that most of the fight scenes are impossible to follow. At his best Zombie has made scenes of intense violence that he forces the audience to stare at, even when they don’t want to. Here you can’t stay focused if you try, lest you have a seizure.
Rob Zombie isn’t trying to convert anyone to his style of movie, and that’s fine. I imagine hard core Zombie gore fiends will love this one. Not that anyone is expecting him to be making some sort of subtle masterpiece, but is it too much to ask for a movie to at least have the depth of “House of 1000 Corpses?”