The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Does Rob Zombie have an original bone left in his body? For over a decade, the rock ‘n’ roll filmmaker has plumbed the depths of ’70s horror, coming out on top only once with 2005’s brilliantly subversive The Devil’s Rejects. Save for that countrified B-movie epic, he’s left a bloody trail of formulaic misfires, whether it was trying on Tobe Hooper (House of 1000 Corpses), fumbling John Carpenter (Halloween, Halloween II), or mething up Dario Argento (The Lords of Salem). And although there were arguable gasps of genius in each entry, they all suffered from his insufferable vices at the typewriter, specifically his incessant desire to make each and every one of his characters sound like a hyper-sexualized yokel (or: fucking idiot) who’s overdosed on Viagra and China White. There’s also the exhausting nepotism of having his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, as the main protagonist.
His latest foray, 31, keeps all those unwieldy hallmarks fresh and irritating. It’s an unnecessary, monotonous, 102-minute scrapbook of better horror films that fails to muster even a spark of originality. Why Zombie felt the need to mask this pile of garbage is unfathomable, though perhaps he knew it was a blatant regurgitation of everything he’s done before, which means everything he’s aped previously. As such, his desensitizing brand of horror wears thin remarkably fast — a record five minutes — before you start mumbling, “Ugh, here we go again.” It’s a shame, too, because for all its faults, The Lords of Salem seemed to suggest that Zombie was up for something new, something wildly different, something that for the love of god doesn’t have to involve another crop of tawdry roadside horrors and predictable carnival fare. Alas, any assumptions were just that.
The film opens in black and white as Richard Brake’s manic Doom-Head speaks directly to us. Of course, he’s not actually speaking to us, though; he’s verbally breaking down his latest victim — The Fugitive’s Daniel Roebuck, no less — to whom he warns, “What I do? Unfortunately for you, I do real well.” So, you can imagine what happens next. (Spoiler alert: He’s a homicidal maniac.) Following a chummy credits sequence set to James Gang’s “Walk Away”, which feels more like an attempt to rekindle the magic of Rejects’ own Allman Brothers-powered opening, we meet another band of straggly hooligans led by Sheri Moon’s Charly. Now, at this point, everything’s fine and dandy; that is, until one of them opens their mouth. Within seconds, Zombie ensures that his motley crew of paper-thin protagonists are just as incorrigible as any slack-jawed moron he’s written before.
That’s what makes the ensuing story that much more frustrating. Because, naturally, we’re supposed to feel inclined to care about what happens to any of them, especially as the film devolves from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre into a garish mix of The Running Man, Saw, Death Race, and The Funhouse. Yes, as expected, the gang’s RV is overtaken by a band of roadside carny psychopaths, who kidnap Charly and her foulmouthed pals, all to play a little game called 31. (Oh, by the way, it’s all set on October 31, 1976.) Led by Malcolm McDowell’s Father Murder, the premise is simple: For 12 hours, each of them will have to survive multiple rounds in the mansion’s many death chambers, where murderous, uninteresting villains like Sex-Head (Elizabeth Daily), Death-Head (Torsten Voges), and Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) plan to torture them with chainsaws, axes, and knives.
The whole thing’s as pedestrian as it sounds, all made even worse by the simple fact that Zombie still can’t write a proper protagonist to save his life, which is becoming more disturbing nowadays than unfortunate. What’s more, any attempts to instill some kind of commentary also falls flat, spitting out an empty wealthy-be-evil theme toward the end. And so, what we’re left with is a meaningless chunk of survival horror that plays out like a rapist’s fantasies. Seriously, there isn’t a single situation with the female protagonists that doesn’t resort to some kind of ugly sexual threat, which turns needlessly excessive and ultimately redundant. Then again, this is a Rob Zombie film, where his calling card is bludgeoning his audiences, but eventually you have to wonder, “What the hell’s the point to all of this?” Truth be told, there isn’t one, outside of satiating his hungry gore hounds.
Even so, Zombie surprisingly keeps most of the blood and guts offscreen, thanks to his ADHD editing and Creepshow-esque transitions that spoil any sense of rugged naturalism. Christ, even from a technical standpoint, this is hands down his weakest film, from the cheap set designs to the incongruent shots to the unimaginative costumes for each villain. It’s as if he didn’t even try this time around. Not even the film’s main event — the return of Doom-Head — can draw any interest. Any hype Zombie built around this crass fool vanishes when he starts treating everyone to his share of nut-job mumbo jumbo. There are multiple attempts to wire his soliloquies with the thunderous urgency of Tarantino, but they fall flat every time, and the guy comes across as a pale imitation of the Joker — which is funny, in hindsight, since Brake is best known as Joe Chill from Batman Begins.
No, by the time Aerosmith’s “Dream On” starts blaring at the end, Zombie couldn’t appear more desperate, trying way too hard to reach some kind of rousing resolution. He doesn’t get it. Instead, he leaves us on the side of the road, tired and miserable and angry — or maybe that’s how he feels. Rarely does a film feel so transparent in its creative bankruptcy. There isn’t a single second of originality to the whole production, from robbing Carpenter’s score for The Fog all the way to the surprise ending ripped straight out of The Purge. Once the credits roll, the only reassuring notion is knowing that Zombie can’t possibly make another movie like this, that he has to try something else, that he has to find a new way to scare his audiences. Sure, it’s an ugly place to be in, but it’s no more despicable than the mess that’s 31. You’d be better off thumbing through r/wtf.
To quote Steven Tyler, “It’s the same old story, same old song and dance, my friend.”