Within the first scene of 31, you’d find yourself hard-pressed to not realize you’re watching a Rob Zombie film. In the case of detractors, it’d be easy to see all of the trademarks and completely blacklist it from any of all positives. The “white trash” dialogue, the use of progressive hard rock from the 60s and 70s (in this case, as usual, Zombie makes impeccable use of Aerosmith’s “Dream On”), and then the inevitable quick cutting and shaky pseudo-16mm grain of the image (although, this one has been shot digitally). Those critics who find themselves standing by Zombie – the least being the staff of Slant Magazine, who have labeled him as the “contemporary horror master” with their four-star review of his last film, The Lords of Salem – will see all of these traits on the level of worthy appraisal.
In his own retro-fueled, distinct stamp that gives warranted mention of the auteur theory, Zombie’s latest film is yet another, if lesser tier, shock film that doesn’t take pride in its horror as some kind of quick-fix shock film. Instead, it shocks in how the repercussions are felt once the audience leaves the theater. It’s shocking in how even the good guys are sadistic, violent animals. In one scene, a man is forced to snap the neck of another in suffering. In another, a character keeps violently brutalizing a villain way more than vengeance calls for. And then, in another, the “heroes” are capable of saving another victim, but only one of them wants to help her in a time of frantic survival.
I’ve analyzed Zombie’s work quite thoroughly. I’m not a “Zombiehead” (is that what they call themselves? I don’t know…) when it comes to his music, but even glimpsing his music videos (such as “Living Dead Girl” and its many homages to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) gives way for an idea to Zombie as a patchwork filmmaker. I always bring up Quentin Tarantino when discussing what I see in Zombie’s films. Tarantino can withstand the many homages and outright lifts from grindhouse B-movies and Sergio Leone westerns (a recent video essay can be found on Vimeo, whereas Tarantino’s entire aesthetic is completely illuminated for the patchwork and rework foundation that it is) and go unscathed by the vast majority of cinephiles on both the online forum and film critic spectrums. The latter seem to even be more tolerant of the “patchwork” idea by the recent reassessment of Brian De Palma’s work; which were formally bashed for Hitchcock riffs and rewarded with a few Razzie nominations at the time of their releases.
Zombie seems to be going through a similar, although less destructive, scenario. While the reviews for 31 have been his worst since his 2003 debut House of 1,000 Corpses, the films that these two films bookend have been met with a divisive response. No Razzie nominations, and a bit of scholarly analysis and passionate disapprovals in equal doses. Outside of these groups, some just overall avoid Zombie’s films altogether, his “redneck/metal horror” niche just never appealing to their Oscar-influenced sensibilities (this isn’t a criticism, but a sincere, pacifist understanding on why they wouldn’t have a single care).
But I have to ask why in the common grounds do folks like Tarantino (with his lofty dialogue) and De Palma (with his visual mania) get such a clean pass? The former has even borrowed heavily from the latter (using the score from De Palma’s Blow Out in Death Proof), for a multilayered folding of homage on top of homage. Meanwhile, someone like Zombie is left to the side. Is it because Zombie is so passionate about the kind of genre pictures that has already been buried as a worthless enterprise of the film medium? Or is it simply that his dark-natured sympathy for literal monsters (of which he humanizes without even an inch of shame) just something taboo when it comes to structuring a screenplay? Like Tarantino and De Palma, Zombie has authored a brand of dialogue that, while very much different (and sometimes worthy of eye-rolling), is as stylized as the former, and a visual language that is as manic as the latter. His use of the grainy, unstable image is often met with just as much adoration for static, colorful frames full of visually effective mise en scéne.
In 31’s case, just analyze the long take that the film begins with: a murderous psychopath looking directly at the audience with a monologue about his sadistic impulses. It lasts a few minutes before a first cut is made. You can also just look at the first time Malcolm McDowell’s character comes on screen dressed like he walked off the set of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon while surrounded by occultic nude women like the ones in Eyes Wide Shut. He delivers his cheeky, corny dialogue in an operatic room that recalls Zombie’s version of hell in The Lords of Salem. It makes us wonder if there is cross-reference. If not, I have to question if Zombie finds opera houses the equivalent to other’s variation of hell as being stabbed with pitchforks (in flames) by dancing demons.
31 is more about what constitutes (or creates) violent behavior than most of Zombie’s films (although the concept of revenge was more effective in The Devil’s Rejects), which are usually accompanied by the sort of thematic substance associated with the horror genre. There isn’t anything to connect emotionally to like in The Lords of Salem, where the protagonist is haunted by a centuries-old coven of witches with hallucinations, causing concerning behavior toward her friends who worry she may be abusing drugs again. Or in Halloween II, where Zombie decided not to remake the sequel, but completely invent a new continuation of the classic tale by showing the film’s heroine as someone who has become depressed with her cocktail of post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt. There isn’t even a familial unit like The Devil’s Rejects, where we find ourselves feeling for the murderous psychopaths its story centers on – not because we forgive them for their gruesome actions, but because we are well aware that there was something there that a benevolent person will just never fully understand.
The movie is closer to House of 1,000 Corpses than his others (narratively, not aesthetically), which explains the critical response. It’s a gorefest focusing on images – and in this case, it’s often avant-garde in how much the camera shakes. It’s a visceral experience of terror, rather than an emotional one. And yet again, there’s something freakishly terrifying about Zombie’s humanizing of the serial killers that makes cause for the violence. The film opens with a quote by Franz Kafka, and then ends with one from a Marxist philosopher. There’s still some interesting subtext to the characters – even if the majority are archetypes – but this seems to be more like Zombie’s break from his character work, and more of a focus on his rabid obsession with violence and the lack of sensationalism in the brutality.
There are echoes of horror films of yore: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Zombie’s favorite film, for example – in how the film begins with a van full of pot-smoking, foul-mouthed folks sitting on conservative flags. But the initial plot of 31 is similar to that of The Running Man and The Hunger Games; something that has been tried to death. But this sets up Zombie for his own take on it. On paper, that’s familiar. In execution, it’s far from so. There’s nobody doing visuals (backlighting through fog and smoke), editing (a gross sex scene inter-spliced out of chronology with other characters speaking and images of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu), and aural landscapes (when people are stabbed, it sounds like a melon being punched) the way Zombie does so consistently.
Zombie’s latest isn’t going to make new fans. It might even cause some to tread even further away from what he promised in the more restrained (and accessible) insinuations of The Lords of Salem. This is Zombie reaching back to the obnoxious, aggressive roots that he first stepped onto the film scene with back in 2003. But there isn’t a lack of emotion. It’s slight and sporadic, but it’s there. He’s still a humanist director underneath all of his hyperactive trademarks. Call the man what you will, but he embraces violence as something ugly in nature. That’s rare in horror. It always has been. 31’s no different, even if it is a lesser tier Zombie film, it’s still another reminder that he’s one of the great contemporary auteurs.