Directed by Rob Zombie
Now on VOD; opens October 21 at the AMC Empire 25
“I ain’t no fuckin’ clown!” hisses the bloodied, maniacal Doom-Head (a spectacular Richard Brake) at the start of Rob Zombie’s 1970s-set, epically nihilistic 31 (basically the version of The Hateful Eight that this reviewer can get behind). He says this just a few long-monologuing minutes before driving an axe into the side of a terrified priest, who quickly departs this mortal coil. There’s no room for holiness here—just all-consuming vileness and depravity.
And gutbusting humor. It wouldn’t be a Zombie movie, after all, without his kooky yet complicated adulation of redneck culture (e.g. the Stars-and-Bars as the prime decoration in a van full of multiracial cornpones) and his pie-eyed love of B-to-Z grade cinema icons like Meg Foster, with her Lauren Bacall rasp and incomparable baby blues. But as in the writer-director’s previous feature, The Lords of Salem, it’s Sheri Moon Zombie (the bumpkin Marlene Dietrich to her husband’s hillbilly-trolling Josef von Sternberg) who gets the spotlight.
She’s Charly, a drawling gal in a lion-print bustier who is kidnapped along with her carny worker friends and forced to play the titular game—basically a survive-the-night competition overseen by a trio of garishly wardrobed one-percenters (Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson and Jane Carr). The angels of possible death include, among others, a Spanish-speaking dwarf Nazi (so rarely do I get to use that descriptor in a sentence) and two chainsaw-wielding pranksters who keep an imprisoned woman as a living sex doll.
Horror piles on horror, absurdity on absurdity, all of it treated by Zombie with carnivalesque abstraction. A dream sequence in which Charly is used as the comatose straight-man to a jaw-dropper of a joke (the setup: “What’s sicker than fucking a pregnant bitch?”) is the movie in miniature. You can’t extricate yourself from the nightmare because you’re irrevocably a part of it. That 31 is dropping at the tail end of an especially volatile election season is either no accident or unconscious kismet. Zombie’s approach, unlike QT in his monotonous Hateful harangue, is harder to get a grip on. Is he just goofing, or is the goof the gateway to something deeper? ‘Murica as a grindhouse on its last legs—if they haven’t already been lopped off by an unsharpened meat cleaver.
There surely has to be some method to the madness in a film that features Brake’s killer harlequin referencing Che Guevara. At the very least, it’s hard to shake a climactic image in which a lone survivor and an ostensible villain have a loaded staredown that could alternately lead to a grisly mano-a-mano or a waltz into the sun-dappled unknown.