As a filmmaker, Rob Zombie has a phenomenal flair for rendering aggression as palpable violation. Zombie’s aesthetic merges the subliminal editing of his music videos with the totemic theatricality of his concerts to arrive at a formality in which his characters’ wills are entirely explicit via pop-cultural iconography. Zombie’s characters are horror-movie archetypes—the drifter, the vengeful tart, the crazed redneck, the killer clown—that have been imbued with an exaggeratedly primal agency that’s alternatingly exhilarating and exhausting. What Zombie conjures, with a forcefulness that should be the envy of most other contemporary American horror directors, is a true tang of nihilism—of America eating itself alive out of selfishness.
These gifts are initially on display in 31, which suggests for a while that it might transcend the rank obviousness of its many derivations by sheer stylistic force of will. The film opens in black and white in an anonymously dank corridor, as a silhouette strolls out of a bright entrance in the background of the image toward us in the foreground. The silhouette momentarily thins out as it approaches, resembling the classic spindly, bobble-headed alien of pop-cultural lore. The superb sound editing accentuates the shape’s foreboding footfall, while water drips atmospherically in the background and Peter Mendoza’s “Call It a Day” plays on the soundtrack, providing a cheekily obvious aura of menace.
The silhouette eventually emerges in front of us in full close-up, and he’s revealed to be a pasty, bloody psychopath called Doom-Head (Richard Brake), who suggests an emaciated Nick Cave and who lights a stogie and monologues to us in a series of lurid come-ons, which are delivered by Brake in a pulpy pentameter that’s intimately familiar to Zombie’s oeuvre. Doom-Head is about to kill, but first he must put on a show. This opening is a telling illustration of the weird pull of Zombie’s filmmaking, as it’s so blunt and self-consciously over the top that it somehow does a loop de loop past obviousness and absurdity, attaining a chillingly gleeful gravity.
The film then shifts its focus to the good guys, who are nearly as crude and ostentatiously defined by surfaces as the villains. The director stages a scene—an extended conversation among a group of hippy artists in an obviously doomed party van—that’s so traditional of 1970s-era horror movies and their imitators that it scans as a form of kabuki. Yet he informs it with propulsive volatility, reveling in a state of untapped tension that’s both sexual and violent, which are one in the same in Zombie’s cinema.
Zombie shoots his characters disconcertingly up close, cutting among their faces and their various genre-movie bric-a-brac (wigs, masks, tattoos, cowboy hats, toys; even the van is outfitted with bull horns) with a channel-surfing abandon; he makes scuzzy poetry out of flatly characterized individuals shooting the shit. Where many directors bore us silly setting up a thriller’s exposition, Zombie plunges us head-first into his id, conjuring a netherworld of ’70s kitsch and 2000s-era violence that’s distinctly his own, suggesting less a plot in motion than an arbitrary collision between forces.
Unfortunately, 31 soon collapses into repetition and unintended self-parody, as it’s devoid of the subtext and the empathetic audacity that drove The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween II, and The Lords of Salem. The narrative is revealed to be a mixture of elements from Escape from New York and The Running Man, following a van of carnival workers as they’re kidnapped and locked into a labyrinthine warehouse and forced to play “31,” in which they have to kill their way out of their cage for a wealthy cabal’s amusement.
The story is unsurprising and Zombie’s execution even less so, as the filmmaker offers up a greatest-hits package that plays literal-mindedly to his brand: psychotic clowns, hairy hillbillies, Southern rock, ’70s trappings, Sheri-Moon Zombie as the lead, Malcolm McDowell as a haughty blue-blood cipher, and a casually astonishing metal-flavored score. Even the film’s murder scenes recall specific sequences in, particularly, House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. Yet there’s nothing in 31 to rival that moment in The Devil’s Rejects where a killer mocks his prey, begging God to validate the latter’s faith by striking him dead with lightning bolts as he screams to a pitiless blue sky, or those unfairly maligned scenes in Halloween II where a lost Michael Myers regards a fantasy of his dead mother and a white horse.
Which is to say, there’s no emotional texture in 31. With the exception of Brake, who isn’t around much, there’s little of the ferocious performative personality that one gets from Zombie regulars like Sid Haig and Bill Moseley, and the warehouse setting handcuffs Zombie’s normally thrilling awareness of landscapes, causing him to resort to typically and monotonously steely visual clichés. The game of “31” itself is also limp as a thriller device, as the characters listlessly march from one death scenario to the next, exhibiting little sense of internal conflict. 31 is dispiriting because it finds Zombie confirming the claims of his detractors, who’ve myopically pinned him as a one-trick pony, a charlatan of dime-store dementia.