Watching Rob Zombie’s latest horror film, 31, is only slightly more pleasurable than rubbing your eyes with sandpaper. As if edited inside of a strobe light, Zombie’s seizure-inducing style still can’t hide the complete absence of substance. The kills are uninspired, the acting is stilted, and there’s not a single ounce of tension to be found. The entire affair feels torn from the last page of Zombie’s idea notebook. A thoroughly dispensable gore-fest that’s completely bereft of scares.
Imagine yourself trapped in an RV full of circus freaks who communicate only through tired sexual innuendo and pointless obscenity. Now imagine that those are the only heroes in a world populated by grotesque, psychopathic rapists and murders. It’s like rooting for a group of pedophilic demons to overthrow Satan. In fact, the only mildly interesting character is an arch-villain named Doom-Head (Richard Brake), who bores his victims into a stupor with ridiculous babble before finally dissecting them with knives.
The traveling circus freaks are a dude who looks like Lemmy (Jeff Daniel Phillips), a grandmother from Hell (Meg Foster), a guy with a hilariously over-the-top Jamaican accent (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs burning his Welcome Back, Kotter karma), and Sheri Moon Zombie (as Sheri Moon Zombie). It’s Halloween day and they’re going somewhere to perform some act that no human being with a functioning frontal lobe would wish to see. Along the way, they get kidnapped by Malcolm McDowell dressed as a dandy, who makes them play a game called ’31.’ Much like soccer, the rules of 31 are frustratingly vague. The participants must survive a gauntlet of crazed murderers for 12 hours. Their reward for survival is… undetermined; no one has ever survived. How terribly sinister!
The murderers are generic in every way, save some distinguishing physical trait. Sick-Head (Pancho Moler) is an angry little person who speaks Spanglish and cackles like a witch. Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) and Schizo-Head (David Ury) are bearded freaks who wield chainsaws and enjoy fornicating with wounds and vacant eye sockets. There are other lunatics afoot, but they aren’t worth mentioning. Indeed, none of this is worth mentioning. 31 is sans mentionables.
Zombie is known for his distinctive visual style, even amidst his puerile stories and despicable characters. Here, it feels like he’s trying to stage The Running Man inside of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. You guess the premise pretty quickly; moronic characters will move from room to room before meeting their inevitable demise. Sadly, Zombie doesn’t even attempt to give these rooms their own personality. Each room feels like the same hostel basement after a street festival hosted in a city with no indoor plumbing.
It can’t be understated how incredibly ugly this film is, both with its visuals and editing. One scene, in particular, has such an abrasive stroboscopic effect that it will actually make your eyes ache and water involuntarily. Zombie certainly wouldn’t be the first filmmaker to experiment with aversive stimuli, but the least he can do is warn people who might have epilepsy or seizure disorders. Besides, he doesn’t need cheap parlor tricks to make his film coarser than it already is.
It’s hard to criticize the actors for being terrible, as an entire class of savants at the The Actor’s Studio couldn’t save this dialogue. One does not expect something profound from a Zombie film, but the sheer hatefulness and violent sexism directed towards the female characters is still unsettling. Rape jokes and debasement abound, as each psychopath promises a heinous violation before the final coup de grâce. Malcolm McDowell seems to be having fun, stalking about in his make-up and powdered wig, but he’s not particularly menacing or interesting. No one is particularly menacing or interesting.
Perhaps there are hardcore Rob Zombie fans that will find something entertaining in 31. For everyone else, however, it would take James Cameron and his deep-sea submarine to find something salvageable in this wreck. This is generic horror at its absolute worst, with boring “heroes” and generic villains moping around unimaginative settings as if searching for a reason to care. It isn’t just bad, it’s embarrassingly lazy. Zombie can be an interesting filmmaker and he has a unique visual eye, but 31 is an Apollo-sized step backward for him.