We get it by now: Rob Zombie loves the grotesque excesses of the grindhouse flicks of his youth, and he has dedicated his filmmaking career (and a good portion of his music career) to genuflecting to the disreputable gore, T&A, and general nastiness of those films. He’s sort of a Tim Burton wearing a blood-soaked wife-beater, paying homage again and again to the monsters and psychos that shaped his imagination. In 31, Zombie’s latest act of devotion, the spasm and stink of his style haven’t changed. Past fifty now, Zombie will likely be making movies in this same stubbly flea-pit mode well into his autumn years. The question is whether he’ll run out of stories to tell in that mode — or if he has already.
31 is an arch bit of diabolism in the tradition of Saw and your choice of and-then-there-were-none slaughterhouse entries. Five carny workers are kidnapped and brought to a place (hell) presided over by powder-faced aristo-Brits (including Malcolm McDowell), who give the five victims twelve hours to survive in a dank and dripping maze of pipes and chain-link fences. Our protagonists are trapped in there with a variety of killers, one of whom is played by the gaunt and leering Richard Brake, who seems to embody Zombie’s whole hellbilly, grubby-guignol aesthetic — the role Sid Haig used to fill. If Hollywood is serious about having another go at Stephen King’s The Stand and they need a Randall Flagg, they could do a lot worse than Brake; the movie could have used more of him.
Part of the problem is that after a while, 31 devolves into a predictable survival action film, with the structure of a video game (Brake’s character, Doom-Head, is like the final boss) and more than a few endless fights between people wielding axes, crowbars, knives, chainsaws. Zombie falls back on unreadable editing to suggest rather than depict carnage; I understand that the movie was rated NC-17 twice before being whittled down to something with the less restrictive R rating, and that Zombie plans to release an uncut version on disc, but I don’t expect the action to be very much more comprehensible. The shakiness of the style, in which the camera jerks from side to side even to capture a reaction shot, will always be part of the film’s, and Zombie’s, DNA. Sometimes it works, sometimes it frustrates.
That’s true of the movie in general. A crowdfunding effort, 31 is cast almost exclusively with actors Zombie has worked with before —McDowell, Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Meg Foster, Judy Geeson, E.G. Daily¹ — alongside various faded icons like erstwhile porn queen Ginger Lynn (thrown away in a mean-spirited scene) and former Sweathog Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (slipping into a Jamaican accent and performing smoothly). This isn’t the kind of movie that’s built for actors, and Zombie’s antagonistic yet orotund dialogue doesn’t help; people are either spitting clotted mouthfuls of blood and vituperation at each other or just carelessly scattering F-bombs like rusted pennies into a fountain. Only poor old bedraggled toothless Tracey Walter gets to bring some sozzled warmth to a scene, though Meg Foster’s trademark blazing eyes come close to declaring her the movie’s star by visual default.
Zombie obviously can’t make movies any other way — even his Woolite detergent commercial a few years back is hilariously gnarled and in-your-face — and anyone who knows anything about artistic instincts can’t fault Zombie for this. 31 is set on Halloween of 1976 so that Zombie can engage in a few vintage needle-drops (Joe Walsh, Lynyrd Skynyrd) and nods to the films that fed his fire (at one point a fight is backed with music that sounds suspiciously like Goblin’s score for Suspiria). For some artists, a particular mode or visual/sonic emphasis is like a sore tooth they can’t stop tonguing, an itch they go crazy if they can’t scratch. Zombie scratches his itch here until it bleeds, but is the scratching pleasurable any more for anyone other than him?
¹Daily plays Sex-Head, a Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl who reminded me of Harley Quinn, which then led me to imagine Rob Zombie’s Suicide Squad.