31 (2016)

The concept of a Rob Zombie film, especially after seeing his early videos and the whole aesthetic of White Zombie and his solo career, is often a bit more than what one usually gets.  I do think he gets way too much criticism, and much of it springs from valid distaste of his version of Halloween and its follow-up, Halloween II.  As much as he may love John Carpenter's movie, the original's success had as much to do with relatable characters and the killer remaining in the background as it did with the kills.  True to form for Zombie barely anyone in his versions was a decent person and, honestly, Carpenter provided us with all the backstory Michael ever needed.  Even the original sequels tried to do too much explaining.

All the unnecessary backstory was strange given his first movie, House of 1000 Corpses, was as random as the lyrics to his songs.  It was obviously an homage to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it had so many random elements featuring his art and video style that it was more of an assault on the senses than a movie.  Its sequel, The Devil's Rejects, was a different beast, telling a coherent story and setting a certain expectation for Zombie's cinematic style: dirty, greasy, blood-soaked and unapologetically depraved.  Unfortunately, after that, came the Halloween movies.  In recent years he has been back to trying to scrape together enough to make his movies, often to have them rejected by people who don't even bother to watch them. 

In 1976 a group of carnies are traveling to their next show when they run into a bunch of strange scarecrows in the road.  When they get out to clear them all but five are killed.  The remaining group consists of two women, Venus (Meg Foster) and Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie) and three of the men: Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) and Levon (Kevin Jackson).  They are all given numbers and told the rules of the game "31" by Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell), which is basically to survive 12 hours as hired killers dressed as clowns try to end their lives.

The first is Sick-Head (Pancho Moler), a dwarf sporting a Hitler moustache and a swastika on his chest, followed by the chainsaw-wielding brothers Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) and Schizo-Head (David Ury) and another team, Death-Head (Torsten Voges) and Sex-Head (Elizabeth Dailey).  As the clock winds down and both survivors and killers diminish, Father Murder and his compatriots call in the ultimate finisher, Doom-Head (Richard Brake), a psychotic killer who takes pleasure in his job. 

This was Rob Zombie's first crowdfunded film and, considering The Munsters, I expected this to be cheap looking and possibly even filmed with a Go-Pro.  Instead, this is the first movie since The Devil's Rejects where Zombie makes good on his own style.  The Lords of Salem was a lot better than most people think, but it relied too much on nostalgia, where 31 once again deals largely in sweat and blood.  Like The Devil's Rejects this is a movie one can almost smell, including the greasepaint Doom-Head applies so lovingly.  

The other contention I know most people have is Zombie's inclusion of his wife in major roles in all of his films.  The truth is that at this point she has been playing an exploitation scream queen so long that she's grown into it and learned to play to her strengths.  Unfortunately, this continued nepotism has pretty much turned any one off from using her outside of a Rob Zombie film despite the fact she has some talent that wasn't as evident early on.  She is great in this and works well with Meg Foster.  Malcolm McDowell is obviously there for the paycheck, but he's still happy to camp it up.

The real star, and Zombie knows this because the movie begins with a black and white close-up of him introducing himself, is Richard Brake as Doom-Head.  Brake is a character actor that typically plays bad guys and shady characters and has been in Rob Zombie movies before, but this is his first time as one of the main characters.  From the outset he gets one's attention and Zombie, not exactly known for holding back, manages to use him just enough where he works, as it is a character that could quickly become unintentionally humorous if used wrong. 

Ever since Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez tried to bring back the exploitation genre there have been few movies that did it right, since most are stuck trying to replicate what they hoped those movies back in the 1970s would be, rather than what they usually were.  They seem too self-conscious.  This may not be at the top of anyone's list of the greatest movies of all time, but it is one of the best exploitation films in recent years and, unlike those of the past, it keeps things moving and doesn't get boring.  I just hope that Zombie starts to realize more often where his strengths lie. 

31 (2016)
Time: 102 minutes
Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Kevin Jackson, Richard Brake, Malcolm McDowell
Director: Rob Zombie



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