Rob Zombie’s latest film, 31, concerns the five unfortunate carnies kidnapped by other carnies and forced to play The Redneck Running Man, er, I mean 31. It’s namesake is because the “game” takes place on October 31st or something. Personally, I think the film is called 31 because on average, that’s how many jump cuts there are per minute.
The film starts off with a monologue by main antagonist Doom-Head (played by Richard Brake, Batman Begins, Game of Thrones). The scene plays for about five minutes and is framed solely on Brake’s face. It’s a testament to Brake that the scene works. Also, this is the only time you’ll be able to focus on a scene in the entire movie, as the rest of 31 seems like it was filmed by an epileptic coke head (perhaps Coke-Head will appear in the sequel).
The abandoned building the unfortunate carnies (including Zombie regulars Sherri Moon and the Geico Caveman aka Jeff Daniel Phillips) are trapped is populated by a group of psychos with the suffix “-Head”. This is either in reference to or inspired by Rob/White Zombie songs Electric Head parts 1 & 2, and Iron Head. In either event, it is derivative. When Zombie announced the names of the Head’s on his Facebook page, I replied under my personal account (my first name is Richard), “Getting real creative with the names there Rob”. He commented back, “Thanks Dick, I mean Richard”. I closed the conversation by saying “Point in case”. This goes to show Zombie doesn’t really care what the internet thinks (which is commendable) nor does he have the capacity to understand constructive criticism (this is a problem). More on this later.
The “hosts” of 31 are a group of old white people dressed up in Victorian garb (because, reasons) and are played by legendary veterans Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, The Barber), Judy Geeson (To Sir With Love, Inseminoid) and Jane Carr (The Adventures of Billy and Mandy, Perry Mason: The Case of the Posthumous Painter, aka Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Framing). Malcolm McDowell’s introduction of Sick-Head, complete with McDowell’s heavy cockney accent, confused myself and other viewers into thinking the characters name was “Shit-Head”. Sick-Head is played by midget actor (and first midget skateboarder) Pancho Moler. I had a brief run-in with Pancho at the pool of the Rosemont Inn during my stay there during Flashback Weekend. Pancho was trying to swim laps, and I was trying to stay out of the way of the other people in the pool, thus causing me to get in his way a few times while he was trying to exercise. I’m pretty sure he called me a shit-head. Anyways, Sick-Head is a Spanish midget obsessed with Hitler, because this is a Rob Zombie movie. One moment of brilliance in the film has Zombie’s wife, Sherri Moon, squaring off with Sick Head while they yell at each other in Spanish. This scene is cut short (haha, get it?) by Sick-Head closing a fence and locking her out (sorry, spoiler).
Blade Runner is one of Zombie’s favorite films and the basis for the White Zombie song “More Human Than Human”. Blade Runner is also the template for a lot of 31‘s visual style. Shot in an industrial complex with face painted weirdos and non-face painted weirdos forced to battle to the death in the rain, you can tell Zombie wants 31 to have a gravitas to it’s visual flourish. When it comes to the visuals, Zombie nails it. The problem is Zombie doesn’t write characters the audience can invest in, and even if they could, the camera is shaking and edited in such a way to make focusing on just about any scenes impossible. Thus, the scenes have no emotional weight other than what the viewer projects.
The guys and gals playing the Head’s are comprised of veteran actors such as Lew Temple (The Devil’s Rejects) and Elizabeth “E.G.” Daily (Buttercup from The PowerPuff Girls, and Tommy from Rugrats), who do the best they can with what they are given. The problem is that they are no more threatening than the college students populating your local spook house, and are killed off shortly after their introduction.
The only character in 31 that gets any depth at all is Doom-Head who makes his return to the film at the mid-way point. Zombie hints some of the Head people being forced into this as much as the unfortunate carnies. That is not the case with Doom-Head who is seemingly paid a lot of money for his services, and greatly enjoys his work. Zombie re-introduces us to the character in one of his most favorite ways: by having Doom have sex with a big woman. As with all Zombie characters (villain and hero alike) the guy has trashed his home and written all over the walls. For a guy that is seemingly paid well, it be interesting to know where his money goes. After he’s brought back into 31, the film gets a sense of pace as it finally has a primary villain and starts to tell a story instead of showcase set-pieces. But in the end it all falls flat, and anti-climatic — which ties into the nihilistic theme(s) that Zombie uses Doom-Head as a mouthpiece to convey to the audience, instead of being able to tell in an actual story.
31 is a train-wreck. It’s like Rob Zombie took all the criticisms towards his work and decided to double down on every last one of them in order to troll the internet. But the truth is most likely that as he’s aged, his obsessions have gotten the best of him. He’s going down the Charles Band route of film-making where his first films are cult classics, but his later filmography are simply pet projects to indulge his own personal fantasies. Band loves small toys, Zombie loves face-painted psychos, white trash, and gimmicky people that curse a lot. If he could find someone to help him with the writing, or perhaps get a prescription for Ritalin, Zombie could make something another great cult flick.
As a big fan of Zombie’s since the mid-90’s, I get what he was going for in 31. It just doesn’t quite work. With that said, 31 was financed through crowdfunding by his fans, most of whom consider the line “Tutti-fucking Fruity” to be Shakespearian. We can only hope if Zombie does a studio film again, he’ll make something for the rest of us. Enjoy 31 for the visuals, lament it for what it could have been.