Rob Zombie’s last foray into the horror genre, 2013’s The Lords of Salem, had middling success, certainly not the kind of impact that Zombie had with films like House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, or even Halloween. While not everyone can appreciate his stylistic choices, one has to give credit to Zombie’s perseverance and determination to mimic the gritty grindhouse/exploitation flicks of the 1970s – in a sea of supernatural horror films and remakes, Zombie’s throwbacks can be refreshing.
31 is his latest venture into the grindhouse genre, but refreshing it is not. The film mostly evinces the nature of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – something that one could say was the inspiration for both House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil‘s Rejects before – following a troupe of touring carnival workers on October 31, 1976 after they find themselves abducted and thrown into a game of deadly hide-and-seek in a warehouse owned and operated by a bunch of rich weirdos wearing powdered wigs. Among the horrible murder-makers is poor Malcolm McDowell, a man who either needs to get a new agent or simply loves the trade warts and all; along with him, veterans Judy Geeson and Jane Carr phone in some performances, forced to say things like “Sex-Head” and “Schizo-Head.”
As for the carnival troupe, Sheri Moon Zombie keeps Zombie’s cuckolding fetish alive as final girl Charly, with Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Venus (Meg Foster), and Levon (Kevin Jackson) rounding out the rest of the cast. In general, every single character in 31 is insufferable, due mostly to Zombie’s script; expect the most juvenile dialogue imaginable, with a bombardment of sex jokes, innuendo, and “pussy” imagery at every turn. If Zombie’s intent was to get the viewer to root for these characters, he actually achieves the opposite: it’s better for them to die, just so they shut up.
The film’s opening sequence introducing the carnival troupe is the most cringe-worthy because of the constant inane dialogue, but 31 manages to get slightly better as Zombie introduces Murderworld and the game they’re all about to play. That’s because, for the most part, there’s a lot less talking and a lot more action, and this is actually one of those films where the lack of backstory for the characters results in a more enjoyable experience – the less we know about these characters, the less Zombie’s dialogue can ruin some truly horrifying murder scenarios that play out like a real-life version of the video game Manhunt.
With that said, 31 lacks tension because of Zombie’s direction. The action scenes are explosive but too often repetitious, with spiked bats and chainsaws going at it like Peter Pan/Captain Hook swordplay. The flashy effects only highlight the poor blocking in the film, since most of it is hidden; nearly incomprehensible fight scenes abound thanks to dim lighting and strobe light effects, and too often the viewer is left to wonder who got hurt, where, and how mortal it could be.
Despite all of these issues, there’s a certain imbecilic fun to the whole thing, especially as the games get bloodier and the body count rises. Zombie’s predilection for gore is preserved here, although perhaps not as prevalent as some of his previous films. His attention to the villains, too, is entertaining; while it’s clear that Zombie is going for the most outrageous evildoers possible (a little person with a swastika on his chest [Pancho Moler], a woman with her nipples Xed called “Sex-Head” [Elizabeth Daily]), at least they’re creative I guess. Even the main bad guy, the one they call Doom-Head (Richard Brake) has a philosophical side, at least when he’s not anally blasting someone during Nosferatu.
Most viewers, though, will fail to find much to like about 31, and some might not even make it through the first fifteen minutes. This is probably Zombie’s worst film, filled with the kind of dirty jokes that fourteen-year-olds write anonymously on Facebook and almost entirely pointless during the conclusion. There was a chance Zombie could have at least generated a theme about exploitation and wealth, but even that is ditched for more jokes about vaginas and how fingers smell after they’ve been stuck in bodily orifices. 31 will offer teens at slumber parties a couple of laughs, and perhaps even gorehounds will find a couple of things to like about the constant violence; but everyone else should steer clear of this poorly-realized ode to grindhouse cinema.