Rob Zombie’s 31 opens with a lengthy, to-camera monologue shot in surprisingly (for this particular filmmaker) arty monochrome. A paint-and-blood splattered miscreant addresses the audience, spitting out some of the divisive filmmaker’s tightest dialogue through stained teeth. “I ain’t no f**king clown” he tells us. And we believe him. The camera whips around to reveal his terrified, soon-to-be victim, a weapon is raised and in that moment, before the credits even roll, a new Horror Icon is born.
Zombie has had previous success with these kinds of lightning-in-a-bottle characters, from Otis Driftwood to Captain Spaulding. Doom-Head (a revelatory Richard Brake) is added to the roster before we even see him in action. With this maniac, Zombie has created another classic, must-watch villain, someone we can root for and fear and love all at once. Far from being the new Otis or Spaulding, though, Doom-Head is a monster all his own creation.
31, Zombie’s sixth feature as writer-director (not including his animated film, various music videos, and a Grindhouse trailer) and the follow up to The Lords Of Salem, widely considered to be his masterpiece, sees the man in the big cowboy hat in rollicking, bloody good form. It’s not going to convince those who turned away back when House Of 1000 Corpses rolled its roadshow into town, but for fans of him in particular, and horror in general, it’s a gleefully gory good time.
The flick follows a gaggle of carnival performers, including Zombie regulars Jeff Daniel Phillips, Meg Foster and wife Sheri-Moon Zombie, who proved she had some serious acting chops in Salem. It’s Halloween, 1976, and the group are en route to their next showcase when they’re kidnapped by a trio of rich lunatics, resplendent in aristocratic accoutrements and led by a villainous, wonderfully hammy Malcolm McDowell.
The carnies are tasked with playing the titular game, which sees them face off against a number of murderous, psychopathic clowns for a terrifying twelve hour stint, after which any (unlikely) survivors will be released. And so begins a night of murder and mayhem that could only really work, or even exist, in a Rob Zombie movie. And it’s the kind of premise that either delights or disgusts you, depending on your predilection for this kind of throwback trash.
Happily, 31 is far more than the sum of its dismembered body parts. Corpses and, to a certain extent, its gruey, masterful sequel The Devil’s Rejects had a kind of grubbiness to them that Zombie all but exterminated for his last movie. It’s back in full force here, but the production values are sharper, colorful, and more in keeping with the career-making Salem. Everything else, mind you, is classic Zombie, the carnie carnage in full force.
Zombie has clearly learned a lot in the thirteen years since his now cult classic debut was released, and it’s heartening to see Zombie grow as a filmmaker, a budding genre auteur even. The editing is sharp, the location grimy and much less funfair than expected, and the comedy jet-black. A tense sequence illuminated only by flickering lights is dynamic, disorientating and brilliant. But Zombie’s real talent, yet again, shines through in his characters.
Sheri’s Charley (more lethal with a bat than Harley) may be the focus, but it’s Brake who’s the real MVP of 31. Zombie has a demonstrable talent for taking character actors such as Bill Moseley and Sid Haig and giving them the space to really show off what they can do. With Brake, who had a bit part in H2, Zombie’s psychedelic sequel to his Halloween remake, the filmmaker has struck serious gold. His Doom-Head is a cold-hearted, cruelly evil man with a punk rock attitude and no remorse whatsoever.
His fellow clown killers blend into the background a little as a result. A couple of chainsaw-wielding psychos are dispensed with a little too easily. Foster and Phillips provide ample backup in their respective roles, and McDowell has a riot as the leader of the bad guys. The supporting players fade in and out but the central group are instantly likeable, and it feels like we know them and could spend more time in their company, in much the same way as the Fireflies.
The violence comes hard and fast, as is Zombie’s wont, but it’s more restrained than the publicity materials and trailers would suggest. 31 is a horror movie through and through, but it’s survivalist, rather than the emphasis being on torture cinema bulls**t. He does lose the run of himself a little bit with some on-the-nose “shock” statements and music cues, but this feels like a seventies shocker and a Rob Zombie statement simultaneously, so more power to him.
As it stands, 31 isn’t going to convince haters that the big Zombie party is worth attending. But for those who are curious enough to take a chance on it, and for fans of the director’s work/horror movies in general, this is relentlessly entertaining, brilliantly bloody, carnie carnage with a career-defining performance from Richard Brake at its heart. If this is the last we see of Doom-Head, it’ll be a damn shame. He’s a Horror Icon in the making. And he’s only appeared once.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Rob Zombie
Writer(s): Rob Zombie
Stars: Richard Brake, Malcolm McDowell, Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster
Release: September 16th
Studio/ Production Co: Bow and Arrow Entertainment
Length: 102 minutes