Rob Zombie is to say the least a contentious director among horror fans. In most fans minds he is either a visionary auteur or an incredibly overrated one hit wonder. For this writer though Devil’s Rejects is a solid, but very hard to sit through piece of work and his Halloween remake as well as last film Lords of Salem are almost good movies. The rest of his filmography meanwhile is not really worth discussing. Thus far 31 seems to have been met with mixed reviews, but to this reviewer 31 marks a return to form.
Lords of Salem had the potential to be good but suffered incredibly from Zombie seemingly having no idea how to end the movie. 31 meanwhile is a much more consistent work. Zombie’s fans and detractors will find most of Zombie’s familiar tropes. The film takes place in the 1970s, likely Rob’s favorite decade, and is full of music from that period. The films ensemble is also full of Zombies go to actors with his wife Sheri Moon Zombie unsurprisingly serving as a main character. The casting though is definitely one of the films strengths. If your into B movies and character actors you will find plenty of familiar faces. Malcolm McDowell serves as a villain as does Lew Temple from the Walking Dead (Axel) and Tracey Walter (Bob the Goon from Tim Burton’s Batman).
The film also gives you some familiar faces playing unlikely roles like Elizabeth Daily. For those who grew up in the 90s Daily provided the voice for many beloved cartoon characters from such shows as Rugrats, Quack Pack, and Powerpuff Girls. Considering Daily’s live action roles are relatively few and far between seeing her pop up here as a scantily clad psychopath is a bit surprising.
Ginger Lynn who is better known for appearing in adult films also gets a minor role. The best casting choice, however, comes in the form of Richard Brake as the films main antagonist. Brake’s slim but toned physique coupled with his vocal delivery and makeup job creates an extremely intimidating adversary. Rather than a trailer for the film check out the clip “31- Getting Ready” on youtube to judge if you want to give the film a chance. The clip shows Brake getting ready to hunt the films protagonists by slicking back his hair, applying his makeup, and screaming “I’m not crazy I’m in control” repeatedly before hitting himself in the face several times before donning his outfit that makes him look more than a little like a bloodied up Joker. For Batman fans this may be a fun touch as Brake played Joe Chill in Batman Begins. The film seems to be inspired by Zombie coming across some statistic about Halloween being a date in which disappearances spike.
As such 31 is set on Halloween aka October 31st. The film follows a group of carnival workers on the road to their next destination. The carnies are kidnapped so a group of sadists can bet on the protagonists odds of progressing through their maze of psycho gladiators. The setup is poorly explained. You are given little idea of why Malcolm McDowell’s group is dressed as members of the French royal court pre revolution and how they put all of this together. The viewer is more or less only told that they do this every year on Halloween. Why their gladiators all have very vague clown themes and are named some variation of Doom-Head, Pycho-Head, Sex-Head etc is also never explained. The weirdest of which is Sick-Head who is an extremely short Spanish speaking Neo Nazi which is maybe a reference to real life Nazis escaping to Latin America? Once you get past asking these questions the film is pretty good.
If you saw this in a lightly populated theater maybe it would get some scares out of you, but in a home viewing the film basically becomes an action movie once the game begins. The various carnies do a good job fighting off the gladiators creating some good action sequences. The shaky cam stuff mostly works and the film occasionally pauses on a frame before moving on creating kind of a comic book panel effect. As the film plays out the carnies numbers are whittled down but they repeatedly outperform expectations. McDowell’s group is then forced to call in Brake aka Doom-Head, who had taken this Halloween off, in order to avoid a group surviving for the first time. Said call then interrupts Doom-Head who is having sex with Ginger Lynn’s character while watching Nosferatu. Presumably Zombie wanted to either maintain some mystery, or leave the door opened, for a sequel of some form because little about the game is explained, but otherwise the viewer is treated to a pretty good Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Running Man type work. If you like or don’t mind Zombie’s various tropes and are a fan of any of the actors your likely to walk away pleased. If Zombie’s previous works weren’t for you though this one’s arguable uptick in quality is not likely enough to win you over.