After the denser and more abstract Lords of Salem divided opinion in 2013, Rob Zombie is back on riotously gory form with 31, the tale of five friends who are kidnapped on Halloween in 1976 to take part in a brutal twelve hour fight for survival. As the group takes on a variety of increasingly unhinged enemies while a trio of high-rolling millionaires bet on their chances of survival, fans of the director’s work up to this point will probably find elements to enjoy here, but there’s not much going on to convince the skeptics, or that constitutes real evidence of any significant growth.
Zombie’s films are always, if nothing else, gleeful love letters to the genre. Boasting a darker heart than the work of his mainstream contemporaries, 31 ticks a lot of the same boxes as The Devil’s Rejects without ever threatening to match it in terms of quality. Everything, particularly in the mysterious bunker where the game takes place, seems to be coated in an extra layer of grime in an attempt to give the content of the film itself a repellent, disquieting feel. The problem is that the film, even at its cannibalistic apex, never really matches its dark intent with anything to truly shock or surprise. Elsewhere, characters rattle off lines that sound eminently quotable but ultimately don’t mean much (“in hell, everybody loves popcorn”, anybody?) and the main characters, though watchable, don’t offer up much to engage with.
That being said, 31 is not without its charms. Some of the challenges and set-pieces the characters are pitted against are entertainingly sadistic, and the film’s staunch adherence to absolutely breathless pacing means that there’s very little time to dwell on the film’s less obvious shortcomings in the moment. At the centre of the film’s success, though, is Richard Brake (Game of Thrones) and his staggering performance as “final boss” villain Doom-Head. Making all the previous foes in the film seem positively tame by comparison, his smeared clown make-up and measured psychosis will make Joker comparisons inevitable, but this is a performance that stands on its own. He inhabits the character with a detached brutality that’s hypnotic to watch, and it’s largely because of him that the film doesn’t derail on its way to its muddled ending.
This will not be the film that wins over Zombie’s many detractors, and it’s evident that was never the intention. He’s evidently having the time of his life here, and there’s a better than average chance that his many fans will too. For the neutral, it’s a sporadically convincing return to the cinematic voice that produced his best work, but at this point, it’s a question of whether that’s really enough, and where there is for him to go from here.