Monday, 19 September 2016

31 (2016)

When rockstar/filmmaker Rob Zombie - worth a reported $40 million and whose last three films over the last eleven years have been about as good as film on teeth - took to for two crowdfunding campaigns for his latest project, I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of cynicism. It irked me that moneybags Zombie asked his fans to part with their hard-earned cash to raise funds for his new movie production on the strength of three celluloid abortions after his last good effort way back in 2005 with The Devil’s Rejects.

While I still think, he had a nerve doing this given his immense wealth the reasons he gave was that he wanted complete creative control complaining how his vision was stifled before. Complete control is what an artist should have over their hard work but rarely do directors get final cut. After viewing ‘31’ it is evident that being able to do everything his own way with an independent production has paid off with a brutally entertaining outcome showcasing the rocker come horror auteur is in his element here. However, I am sure he could have dug deep into his large pockets for a mere $1.5 million budget instead of asking his fans (who have already put him where he is) to put up the cash in exchange for perks.

The film opens with a pitch-perfectly executed monologue scene featuring main antagonist the terribly named Doom Head wearing clown face paint and played with complete conviction by the hugely talented character actor Richard Brake. He is seemingly breaking the fourth wall looking straight into his medium close-up of the camera as if talking to the viewer delivering his dialogue with effortless cool. Brake portrays a highly memorable horror villain that is Rob Zombie’s best character to date. A cold sadistic psychopathic showman who loves killing and takes great pride in how good he is at his work, likes to spout morbid philosophy, quotes great historical figures as he sees himself as a great figure in his own field and points out grotesque obscure facts he finds interesting.

Doom Head then disappears for about the next hour of the film and unfortunately, for the rest of the first act we are subjected to Zombie’s usual shortcomings as a writer that has plagued his work since his awful 2003 debut ‘House of I000 Corpses’. A stylishly shot and edited title sequence employing home video like footage introduces us to our protagonists over the course of the macabre proceedings, we then learn that this is actually the period setting of Halloween, 1976 and then we start getting to know the group. We have here yet more southern hillbilly stereotypes that were refreshingly left out of the filmmaker’s previous work - the otherwise train wreck The Lords of Salem (2012). This is disappointing as that was a step forwards and this is a reversion. We are hit with a barrage of Rob Zombie’s trademark limp dick wannabe hip third-rate Tarantino-esque dialogue with the addition of cursing going into overload. This grating nonsense goes on for about quarter of an hour. By the end of which I was so irritated, I was ready to rip my face off and was convinced I was going to hate a fourth Zombie movie in a row.

Then something happened that won me back despite the writer and director’s inability to understand pacing to build suspense and tension with just a sole scene hinting at a looming danger. The group - carnival workers traveling through the US in an RV - are suddenly abducted and a few savagely murdered by a masked gang who take them to an undisclosed grimy location - a large rundown filthy building. Three evil rich upper class snobs dressed as 18th century aristocrats forces the survivors into a deadly game of survival on which they make wagers. It is feasible that Rob Zombie is commentating on the class system here - the upper classes use the working classes as pawns for their own dangerous amusement with utter contempt for their lives. The always-reliable veteran character actor the great Brit Malcolm McDowell who really hams it up here leads the despicable trio. The luckless carnies are forced to run, hide and fight against the handpicked crazy and eccentric deadly stalkers called “The Heads”. Just like the baddest of them all, Doom Head they are all called something Head… yep so lame. Yet they are imaginative and entertaining over the top looneys dressed as terrifying demented looking clowns who live for the kill and are paid handsomely for their murderous work.

So then, this is essentially ‘Running Man 2: Run Hillbilly Run’. While the premise is hardly original and very basic and it is all pretty fucking silly, it is always entertaining. The group of friends show unity in their fight for survival doing their damnedest to take care of each other showing true friendship. This made me sympathetic towards their hellish plight after I started out hating these characters. Even Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon holds her own in her final girl role as Charly. There is still some of the aforementioned cringe making iffy dialogue sprinkled throughout but it is far less prevalent here. Although the annoyingly unnecessary excessive use of the “fuck” word is still employed.

There are some truly effective intense moments of gory brutality helped realized by Wayne Toth’s exceptional SFX work and this grisly imagery is captured by David Daniel’s moodily lit cinematography. The camera switches from tight focus for the dialogue scenes to shaky cam for these set-pieces; the latter of which is jarring at times. The sublime score by Rob Zombie band guitarist John 5 is atmospheric and energetic perfectly supplementing the ferocity of the extreme violence and the nihilistic nature. At times it recalls Fabio Frizzi’s compositions on various heyday Lucio Fulci films - ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (1979), City of the Living Dead (1980) and ‘The Beyond' (1981) - and Riz Ortolani’s work on  Ruggero Deodato’s ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980). Unfortunately though, the film reaches an anti-climax as Zombie goes for subtlety. POSSIBLE SPOILER. It harks back to the title sequence determining the survival of Charly; home movies capture the past. END OF POSSIBLE SPOILER.

It is fitting Rob Zombie compared the tone of ‘31’ to the even more gritty and explicitly nasty The Devil's Rejects, as while not as good this is easily his best work since then. It is far from being great there is still some of the filmmaker’s usual shit in it (although for a change, he did not write too many characters that become extraneous to the plot) and the ending is disappointing. There is though a lot to like, as it is ultimately entertaining genre fare. Is it good? Probably not but I just really enjoyed it for what it is - decent deep down and dirty mean spirited fun.

Zombie needs to grow as a filmmaker though and move away from aping the shit out of the tropes of 70’s and 80’s grindhouse movies. A genre is never going to evolve with its popular contemporary filmmakers always going back to its past to pick out its greatest hits for nostalgic compilations. I have never doubted Rob Zombie’s talent as a director and I am sure he could direct the hell out of a great script. In other words, he should let a better writer handle screenwriting duties. Because studio inference or not, ‘Halloween’ (2007), ‘Halloween II’ (2009) and The Lords of Salem all suffered from his cack-handed writings abilities.

*** out of *****

Dave J. Wilson

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  1. Good to see you back. Great review and totally agree; can't believe The Devils Rejects is ten years old though. There sounds enough hear that my interest is piqued... we'll see...

    1. Thank you very much. Yeah Rob Zombie showed a lot of promise with ‘The Devil’s Rejects’. Only to squander that potential on those two God-awful Halloween films. A franchise he just wasn’t suited to. ‘31’ is a move in the right direction and I hope he can make something even better with his next film.

  2. Definitely a step up compared to the awful Lords of Salem, but that's simply just it. A "step". Not a "leap". Still fun, though, and your review pretty much covers everything I enjoyed about the film!

    1. Yeah even though I know in my heart this isn’t a particularly good film overall, there was enough in it to keep me entertained. It does have some genuine good moments of filmmaking. If Rob Zombie can direct a better script I’m sure it could be on par with ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ or maybe even better.