Rob Zombie can do better than 31. For proof, just watch any other Rob Zombie movie. The musician-turned-filmmaker's body of onscreen work is as nasty and brutal as you'd expect of a metal singer whose first band took its name from a pre-Code horror film, but it's also been marked by stylistic flourishes a cut above his genre contemporaries. The Devil's Rejects and his Halloween remake in particular put to bed any notions of dilettantism, and Zombie has shown much promise in his second act as a writer-director. He also has yet to fully live up to that promise.
His latest opens with a dire Kafka quote (“A first sign of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die”) followed by a scene in which a ghoulish psychopath addresses a soon-to-be victim. His face covered in white paint and blood, the makeshift clown delivers a chilling monologue before landing the death blow in the murderous game that lends this film its title. These first moments, all black-and-white cinematography and carefully chosen words, are more than a little reminiscent of Kill Bill's prologue — Zombie has always been Tarantino-adjacent, and here the connection feels more overt than ever.
For all that style, though, there’s little sense of forward movement. 31 at first seems a kind of road-trip movie, but Zombie starts spinning his wheels once his doomed victims-in-waiting reach their final destination. Those who’ve come to appreciate the director’s vibe will be unsurprised that this new film once again displays his flair for matching grisly imagery with disarmingly lighthearted rock ballads from the ’60s and ’70s. His banter remains easy to listen to as well: Zombie's characters are actual characters, and they can bullshit with the best of them.
Few other directors trading in over-the-top violence are patient (or skilled) enough to let their cannon fodder say anything of interest in between the killings. Here, as Zombie's van full of foulmouthed travelers hurtles along, you get the sense that the filmmaker doesn't want this experience to be as punishing for us as it's about to be for the poor bastards onscreen.
That torture comes in the form of 31 itself, a sadistic game enacted by two powdered wig–wearing sociopaths (one of them played by Malcolm McDowell) who pass the time by trapping unsuspecting victims and challenging them to survive for 12 hours within the confines of a vast estate. Complicating matters are the roving psychos whose eccentricities are matched only by their bloodlust. It's too Purge-like a concept to feel distinguished, but originality has never been Zombie's strong suit — instead, it’s filtering familiar tropes through his bawdy, bloody aesthetic.
There are evil little people, Nazi shrines and animal masks, because how could there not be, but amid all the controlled chaos there never emerges a sense that Zombie is inclined to challenge himself or try something new. We already know the dude who made House of 1,000 Corpses likes the grindhouse movies of yore and is wholly capable of producing worthwhile tributes to them. Why not attempt something that other filmmakers might try imitating 30 years from now?