Immediately after my 31 screening, Rob Zombie revealed how it only took a matter of seconds for his film’s wicked competition to materialize as an idea. This explains the chewy, undercooked nature of Zombie’s The Most Dangerous Game homage, which delivers buckets of grossness and a story that lacks a single spec of conviction. It’s death for death’s sake if you will, perverted by misogyny and told through rotting teeth. No one is safe, nothing is a sacred and life is belittled by Zombie’s bleakest endeavor yet, which is far from a pulpy-but-still-kinda-fun grindhouse experience. Think characters you don’t care about being hunted by villains you don’t understand – hate both the player and the game, you won’t be the only one.
It all starts when a group of carnies find themselves abducted by a secret society. Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell) addresses his chained prisoners, and informs them that they’ll be playing a rather simple game. If you can survive for 12 hours, you win. If you die – well – you lose. The “players” are introduced to their first challenge – a Nazi-worshiping midget wearing Hitler clown make-up known as Sick-Head (Pancho Moler) – and the game begins. Charley (Sheri Moon Zombie), Venus (Meg Foster), Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) and Levon (Kevin Jackson) just found the Halloween party from hell, and leaving early doesn’t look like an option.
One by one, a host of Whatever-Heads enter Father Murder’s Thunderdome in hopes of finishing off the remaining survivors. Bets are placed on 31’s contestants based on their survival odds, which Father Murder updates whenever a player or murderer is dispatched. Seems simple enough, right? Unfortunately, it’s too simple.
Zombie loves the idea of “killer clowns hunt kidnapped victims” so much that he never establishes motives, or provides depth, or even bothers with bonded investment. Characters are just morbid play things for Zombie to axe in disappointingly uninteresting ways, ushered off-screen to be forgotten almost instantaneously. Nothing matters. It’s evil, vile, twisted shit just for the hell of it, without any attempt to even slap a plot together worth fearing.
Repetition becomes paramount after the first “Head” is killed, as wackier and zanier psychopaths are ushered into Father Death’s maze. You’ve got Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) and Schizo-Head (David Ury) – two redneck sex fiends waving chainsaws – Sex-Head (Elizabeth Daily) and Death-Head (Torsten Voges) – a nympho school girl type and her tutu-wearing, tall-as-an-oak-tree protector – plus Richard Brake’s closer, Doom-Head. It’s a colorfully characterized line-up of grungy, WWE-like assassins, but despite their signature costumes, each “Head” rinses and repeats the same generic cycle.
A killer introduces themselves, the survivors flee, said killer catches up, and he or she is defeated – nothing special. They all shout the same filthy dialogue (flippant usage of c-words, f-words, b-words…f*$k it, all the words) and rattle the same degrading threats, predictable in their ability to slaughter bodies and the English language in only a matter of seconds. No complexity worth dissecting, or provocation worth indulging in – just bad people doing worse things with absolutely zero payoff.
Now you might be saying, “But Matt, what’s wrong with a little hack-and-slash horror?” Nothing, but not when they’re this disgusting. 31 plays like sociopath’s wet dream – masturbatory in a very Antichrist kind of way – but its unholy indulgences are so grotesquely unbalanced. We begin with an excruciating ten minutes of scumbag dialogue (sex, drugs, more sex), cut to an inexplicable kidnapping that offs numerous characters to no affect, and then we’re playing Zombie’s game.
Masked demons wax poetic about embracing a soldier’s courage, or acknowledging death as something euphoric, but you soon realize each character is just spouting the same bullshit. We get it. The world is a dark f$%king place, filled with the worst of the worst – no reason to beat a dead corpse over it in the most despicable fashion. Given a deeper meaning, 31 could have been something dangerous, revolting and badass in its tar-like blackness – not an utterly voiceless mass murder.
Zombie is a man of style, but it’s hard to appreciate Father Murder’s Victorian crow’s nest or the carnival-themed Wet Pussy strip club with Zombie’s camera whipping around so nauseatingly. 31 nails almost every costume and builds sinister locations, but why did every fight sequence have to feel like we’re stuck in a spinning tornado? When pans are steady, we’re plunged into this seriously-fucked-funhouse seediness, yet those calming moments are disappointingly sparse. Practical goriness chops heads and spills guts with genre-challenging glee, so why risk missing any action by achieving the shakiness of a Go-Pro strapped to the back of an anxious puppy?
The worst part is, not everyone shits the bed. Richard Brake’s Doom-Head performance is like staring Satan in the eyes, Malcolm McDowell prances about with delicious deviousness and limbs are separated thanks to gooey, practical ease. When Pancho Moler appears with his little Hilter-stache and a red clown nose, my genre-loving heart skipped a beat – only to realize that Zombie’s lack of development ignores far more than a proper introduction.
Suspense is built on our ability to care about certain characters. Hopefully, we’d want to see Charley or Roscoe live through the night, which means their deaths would be a crushing blow to our psyche. Unfortunately, such is not the case – there’s not a single character worth caring about, and even less artistic licence to appreciate. This is a dirty, depraved love-letter to horror that’s written in a bunch of different colored crayons to mask such simple words with distracting colors. You can rock and me and shock me all you want Mr. Zombie, but only if you’ve got a story worth spitting…and 31 ain’t it.
31 is an exercise in frustration for genre-lovers, never living up to its sideshow-gone-gonzo potential.