As I’ve told friends in the past, I have a love / hate relationship with the vast majority of Rob Zombie’s filmography. On one hand, I think the shock rocker has undeniable talent behind the camera. He knows how to compose a shot and edit a sequence, and he’s proven very adept to toiling in the grime of the 70’s-inspired ‘exploitation’ market. On the other hand, that seems to be the ONLY market he seems interested in exploring ( I would definitely like to see him try his hand at someone else’s script…in a different genre). I’ve liked Zombie’s music, going back to the mid-90’s when I was first introduced to White Zombie’s excellent ‘Astro-creep 2000: Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric-Head’, and the accompanying hill-billy horror art work of the CD’s liner notes. I was naturally curious when it was announced that he would be taking that aesthetic and applying it to his first feature, which was 2003’s House of a Thousand Corpses. Clearly inspired by 1974’s classically unpleasant Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I thought that it served up exactly what it was that Zombie wanted to accomplish with his debut. While there is definitely some unsettling shit that goes down in House of…, it was the 2005 sequel, The Devil’s Rejects that tuned me into Zombie’s tendency to ‘push the line’. He seems to have this affinity for sometimes taking onscreen violence and depravity to an uncomfortable, in-your-face level, and that certainly reared its ugly head in that flick. This was a trend that Zombie would continue, to various degrees of success over the years and one that has effectively kept me an arm’s length from fully embracing most of his cinematic output (with the notable exception of 2012’s Lords of Salem…which I really like, for some reason). So, taking that squeamishness into account, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to race out and see 31 was it hit The Big Screen in limited release a few years ago. However, I did unexpectedly stumble upon the entire movie posted on Youtube last night and decided to give it a look, just cuz.
31, in true Rob Zombie fashion, takes place in the dusty American mid-West of 1976. We meet a hip n cool group of weed-smoking, shit-talking carnival workers (of course, featuring Zombie’s sexy wife Sheri-Moon Zombie in a lead role…yet again) on their way to…somewhere. One night they encounter an eerie road-block of scarecrows and are soon set upon by a group of sinister, striped-wearing goons who viciously assault and abduct the group. They later come to, and realize that they’ve been captured by a strange group of mysterious people dolled up in 17th century French aristocratic garb (all ruffles, pancake make-up and powdered wigs), led by ‘Father Murder’ (Malcolm McDowell). They are told that they have 12 hours to survive in the industrial maze of an abandoned factory in the middle of nowhere, where they will be mercilessly hunted by a group of murderous clowns known as ‘The Heads’. From there, the bloody chase begins.
31 was a sorta-passion project that was born out of two Crowdfund efforts by Rob Zombie, which resulted in a meagre $1.5 million budget, that I have to admit was very well used, even just for the cast he managed to scrape together. That being said…this is PURE Zombie (in the best AND worst senses). All of his twisted theatrical sensibilities are on display and he again embraced the redneck-ish unpleasantness at the core of the ‘story’. I would also go so far as to say that this one was aimed squarely at Rob Zombie purists and can easily be missed by the casual viewer. There is almost nothing we haven’t already seen in his previous titles, in one form or another. We get the desolate desert backdrop, the scummy side-characters (what they did with actor Tracy Walter’s gas station attendant was totally unnecessary and needlessly crass), the 1970’s trappings and the gritty, almost documentary ‘look’ and feel that Zombie has mastered. We get the plethora of unneeded F-bombs that seem to punctuate nearly every sentence of dialogue and unrelenting scenes of horrible mutilation and murder, set to popular songs from the time period. SO…it’s a true Rob Zombie movie, in which he didn’t extend his talents in any way. Truly, the man could’ve directed this in his sleep. Having said that, I wasn’t AS put off as I would’ve expected to be when the final credits rolled. I flat out expected to fucking hate this movie, given all the shit I’ve read about it. I took it for what it was…and actually didn’t hate it. In fact, I’d wager that I liked it more than The Devil’s Rejects (large parts of which I genuinely loathe), and that surprised me. A sizable part of what I liked was seeing what he pulled off with so little money. While it does feel a somewhat rushed and padded in the narrative structure, it IS a full, complete movie with a clear atmospheric ‘flavor’ of its own. It’s almost a shame that it only made something paltry in return, something like a measly $5000 at the Box Office. On the Plus Side, some of the actors seemed to be having a good time throwing in for this flick, with Richard Brake (Doom) and Meg Foster (Leviathan) definitely sinking their teeth in to leave an impression.
All in all, 31 was NOT the horrid shit-show I fully expected, though I will admit that this movie has almost no social relevance at all and really is just an excuse for Rob Zombie to pull his pud again with the subjects onscreen that he loves the most, being the fucked up and nasty redneck characters and situations he relentlessly and constantly delves into. It’s impressive in what was accomplished with so little money and there are a couple scenes that are genuinely amusing and / or tense. The crazy, Spanish-spouting midget in the Hitler garb was a source of both of those feelings and was a obviously a pure Zombie creation. And THAT, right there, is a good place to wrap up – if you’re a fan of Rob Zombie’s previous movies, especially the Firefly Trilogy ( House, Rejects and the upcoming 3 From Hell ), then 31 will work for you, as it taps into the elements that made those titles ‘Zombie’. For everyone else, this would be a take it-or-leave it situation. The average horror fan will probably be fairly well-served, but the typical movie-goer will probably be turned right off, and possibly be downright offended by what transpires in 31’s one hour and 42 minute run-time. Like I said, I expected to detest this movie when I hit Play…but was mildly surprised when I was left thinking it was actually kinda OK…for what it was.