It is safe to say that the films of Rob Zombie are an acquired taste, possibly safer than the films themselves which never give what is expected of them and are as inevitably confrontational as Doom-Head, the messed up axe-wielding clown whose monologue to the priest bound and gagged before him opens 31‘s black and while prologue.
“I’m not here to make you happy. I’m not here to brighten your dismal day.” Setting out the movie’s pitch, Doom-Head swiftly makes good on his promises to kill the priest but only after telling a story, a pattern that echoes through the rest of the film.
It’s 31st October 1976 and a road trip for carnival workers Charly, Venus, Panda, Levon, and Roscoe, looking for new business and new opportunities, but they’re burnt out, snapping at each other. Having stopped off for gas and to take in some of the rustic local colour they resume their trip, but coming across a road block their camper van is ambushed and they are kidnapped by masked assailants.
The five of them taken to an underground industrial facility, a maze of rooms, cages, traps and obstacles, they are chained up and assigned numbers, told by those running the show that they will be forced to play the game of “31,” the object being to survive twelve hours within the walls of the private Hell into which they have been placed.
What is acceptable is just a matter of conditioning, circumstance and necessity, and, in the words of Doom-Head, “Murder school is now in session.” With no other choice but to fight or die, the five friends are pushed beyond their limits and adapt to what is happening in the only way they can, by using anything they can as a weapon to protect themselves, to take out their captors before they themselves are brought down.
Crude, raw and a brutal ordeal to witness, 31 is, as with much of Zombie’s work, a vicious tribute to the era of cinema he grew up with such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, but without any of the fetters of contemporary mores or the feasibility of staging the violence which restrained those productions.
A Rob Zombie film is almost guaranteed to be devoid of good taste, and with one of the denizens of the dungeon, Sick-Head, a sadistic Hispanic midget dressed as a miniature Hitler, it soon becomes apparent that taboos are being lined up to be broken, while observing from above in their aristocratic finery and powdered wigs are the instigators, Father Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder, Sister Dragon and Sister Serpent, impervious, untouchable and delighting in the murderous mischief they have created.
Unsurprisingly, Zombie doesn’t flinch from the deaths and none are easy on the audience or the characters, the camera showing every wound, every personal violation and horror with no offer of relief or respite, and nor is there any leavening element of the fantastical which might soften the sharp edges of the variety of weapons.
With the opening titles spun from home movies of carefree days in the sunshine and the seventies rock soundtrack there are echoes of The Devil’s Rejects, while the carnival flavour of the travelling entertainers recalls House of 1,000 Corpses, and beyond Zombie’s own body of work the competitive elimination and enforced participation, remind of The Running Man and its modern retelling The Hunger Games as well as The Purge: Anarchy.
As is standard Zombie has drawn heavily from the rotating cast of his repertory company, and joining his wife Sheri Moon Zombie as Charly, a constant presence in all his work, are Jeff Daniel Phillips as Roscoe, Meg Foster as Venus, Richard Brake as Doom-Head, Lew Temple as Psycho-Head, Ginger Lynn as Cherry Bomb, Judy Geeson as Sister Dragon and the venerable and intimidating Malcolm McDowell as Father Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder.
As ever, Zombie favours experienced actors who are unafraid to perform his material, the characters he is interested in the derelicts, the freaks, the marginalised and the disenfranchised, and new additions include the distinguished English actress Jane Carr as Sister Serpent and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, a long time staple of American television, as Panda.
The sixth live action feature film from Rob Zombie, 31 is more overtly violent throughout than The Lords of Salem, substituting gore for atmosphere, perhaps a reaction to the poor reception and financial performance of that more abstract piece which struggled to connect with an audience, and it is a shame that while uncompromised in presentation that the direction of Zombie’s future films should be dictated by the lowest common denominator of the horror audience who prefer not to be challenged.