Starring Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, Malcolm McDowell, Richard Brake, Jeff Daniel Phillips
Directed by Rob Zombie
Screened at FrightFest 2016
Opening with an extended black and white monologue by a psychotic-looking clown by the name of Doom-Head (Brake), Rob Zombie’s 31 gets off to a promising start. There’s that expected over-indulgence in dialogue that Zombie has become known for but here it feels solid; distinctly formed.
It’s an attention-grabbing opener for those not particularly enamoured with Zombie’s regular faux-70s schtick – and when it culminates in a burst of blood-splattering violence, 31 immediately sinks a compelling hook.
Sadly, Zombie just can’t seem to help himself and as we’re introduced to our core group of protagonists – a gang of travelling carnies led by den mother Venus Virgo (Foster) — it seems we’re right back in the oversexed, profanity-spewing, weed-smoking, stilted ‘daddy-o’ universe that the filmmaker just can’t seem to step away from no matter how hard he tries. Of course, it’s the ‘70s.
Which is what makes the rest of 31 such a pleasant surprise. This gang of misfits, including party girl Charly (Zombie) and wannabe alpha male Roscoe (Phillips) start off as quite an annoying bunch and, given the plot of the film, getting them into the lauded ‘Murder World’ environs can’t seem to come quickly enough.
It’s once the crew have been abducted and introduced to the rules of 31’s sick game, however, that Zombie manages to turn things upside down – letting himself vent all of his craziness into the psychopathic villains rather than his protagonists.
And, wouldn’t you know, it works beautifully.
To escape with their lives, the gang must survive 12 hours within the confines of an expansive industrial complex – their every move overseen by three period-garbed rich folk (led by the always welcome Malcolm McDowell) as they’re hunted by a distinct gamut of memorable slashers.
First up is the diminutive Sick-Head (an off-the-wall Pancho Moler), a profanity-spewing, leather-clad Mexican Nazi dwarf whose delight in the slaughter is absolute. In pure Running Man style, it’s up to our group of friends to fight back or die, eventually moving through the course of the night to be introduced to Death-Head and his cohort Sex-Head, chainsaw-wielding clown duo Psycho-Head and Schizo-Head and, finally, the consummate professional murderer himself, Doom-Head.
As the blood flows and the bodies drop, Zombie’s characters develop much better shape and stronger ties, making for an initially unpalatable crew that work their way into your heart. Sheri Moon Zombie is on better form than ever during her transformation into raging survivalist, but ultimately it’s the villains that steal the show here – most notably Richard Brake’s powerfully present Doom-Head. Cocksure, arrogant, repellent and very, very insane, this is Zombie’s most iconic character to date.
Visually, Zombie’s having a wild old time (as usual), with 31 sporting some great sets, inventive lighting and more than a few nods to John Carpenter’s heyday. Though why the rich overseers of Murder World see fit to dress in period aristocracy garb is outside of explanation. If taking a satirical shot at the ridiculous costuming of The Hunger Games, Zombie’s right on point… but instinct informs that he just thinks it looks sufficiently weird/cool.
The film isn’t over-the-top gory, but there’s enough splatter to satisfy and when it hits, it hits hard. The violence is stark, brutal and uncompromising and Zombie’s direction is assured – resulting in chainsaw fights and other encounters that often feel fraught with danger.
Grating first act and uninspired ending aside, 31 delivers a bloody fun time. Sure, it isn’t entirely original in concept, but within the Running Man meets $lasher$ confines of Murder World, Rob Zombie seems right at home – and delivers the most accomplished genre film he’s managed to date.