First things first: I’m an old school Rob Zombie fan from way fucking back. My favorite concert going memory of all time is the ersatz White Zombie frontman’s 1998 tour stop at the Great Saltair in Salt Lake during the Hellbilly Deluxe era—which involved (among other kitschy spookshow visuals) a clear Lucite guitar filled with cow blood. So never let it be said that I’m not all-in on Zombie as a purveyor of industrial pop metal mayhem served up in a big bag of Halloween candy.
But Rob Zombie as a film director? Feelings are mixed. Most people prefer its 2005 sequel The Devil’s Rejects, but my favorite Rob Zombie joint is his 2003 feature film debut, House of 1,000 Corpses—in my opinion the most unmediated expression of Zombie’s fetishistic affinity for gloriously low rent monster matinee aesthetics.
Regretably, Zombie’s new flick 31 is a step backwards following 2012’s witchy Lords of Salem, which showed the Zombie brand evolving into something subtler and more atmospheric. By contrast, 31 feels like a retreat to familiar Devil’s Rejects territory—retreading Zombie’s pre-Salem penchant for unlikeable redneck protagonists, mad torturers, and shrill sub-Kevin Smith dialogue.
The plot follows a group of traveling carnies in 1970s America who, stranded in the (I think) California desert, run afoul of a group of effete libertines led by Malcolm McDowell. McDowell and his cadre of posh snuff enthusiasts force our hillbilly heroes to compete in a savage game called “31”, which leads to an episodic series of run-ins with a volleyball team’s worth of high-concept killers, all set against the grimy industrial drip of an abandoned damp pipe factory.
It’s okay, but it definitely feels like lesser Zombie, if it’s even possible for a director of dubious merit to have a film in his or her oeuvre that can be considered “lesser.” It wouldn’t take much for Zombie’s movies to be a whole lot better than they are. Unfortunately, the director seems stubbornly committed to staying in his lane and as such, 31 feels a bit safe and uninspired. Not what you’d hope for or expect from a dude who named himself after an ambulatory corpse.