“Now, let’s get one thing straight between us,” declares the first character (Richard Brake) seen in Rob Zombie’s 31 – and the very last character that many of his fellow players will ever see. Made up in smudgy, blood-flecked grease paint, he has just walked in dragging an axe and introduced himself by his working name, ‘Doom-Head’, in close-up direct to camera – which is also the POV of his next victim, Pastor Victor (Daniel Roebuck). “I ain’t”, he continues, “no fucking clown!”
This statement, in the beautifully lit black-and-white opening of Zombie’s film, represents an important piece of self-positioning. The prologue may be unfolding in October 31, 1975, two full years before the events of Zombie’s debut House of 1000 Corpses (2003), and the October date which gives this film its title may correspond to the calendar carnage of his 2007 remake of Halloween (1978), but here you will find no clownish Captain Spaulding from the former, and none of the childhood trauma of the latter, but rather just the nightmarish confrontation between the still living and their destined doom – a doom embodied by a series of grotesquely guised performers with murder on their mind.
Cut to Halloween one year after the hapless Victor has got the chop, and a vanload of free-spirited sideshow entertainers are on the road, and headed through the South to their next smalltown engagement. There is a strong sense that this ensemble’s time has already passed. It is not just that Levon (Kevin Jackson) and Venus Virgo (Meg Foster) have seen better years, or that Charlie (Zombie’s wife and regular star Sheri Moon Zombie) has “had enough friends for a lifetime”; nor just that Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips) is aware that the ‘yokels’ whom they entertain burnt out on his old routine “10 years ago”; nor is it just that, being denizens of the Seventies, they are already marked as bygone figures of nostalgia. The fact that their van is running on empty, and that they pass a sign reading, “Prepare to meet thy God”, figures these travellers’ mortality along a road that is also a metaphor for a life headed gradually towards its end. As these four and their Rastafarian friend Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) drive sleepily into the night, they stop at a roadblock decorated with scarecrows, where they are attacked and abducted by masked strangers who also instantly kill their driver and two younger members of the traveling troupe.
The five survivors wake up in a factory-like complex, where three figures dressed as powdered gentry (Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson, Jane Carr) inform them that for the next 12 hours they are to play the game ’31’. The object of the game is to endure, even outlive, attacks from a series of costumed killers, with (explicitly stated) odds stacked against them – and so begins a long, dark night of cat and mouse in a literal ‘deathtrap’ (the very word Roscoe had earlier used for the fairground rides that he was constantly fixing) whose stylised sets have been designed as macabre theatres of mortal terror. 31 delivers endless tropes familiar from horror – not that a blade-wielding Mexican midget Hitler (Pancho Moter) or a club-bearing Teutonic giant dressed in women’s suspenders (Torsten Voges) is exactly a cliché – but at the same time its overtly theatricalised nature transforms its infernal actions into a rite of passage, like a ghost train (or a horror movie). It is a masque – and allegory – of death from which we (unlike the film’s players) emerge unscathed, if nonetheless brought that little bit closer, however vicariously, to the nightmare of our own impermanence and impending doom.
In the monochrome prologue, before Doom-Head brings the Pastor’s life to an end, he shares with him with an ‘interesting fact’: “Did you know that a cockroach can live up to 168 hours without a head? I find this fascinating, but what really blows my fucking marbles, like a 50-cent skank, I mean the real mindfucker, is that for several hours this same decapitated head will keep on trucking for Jesus – if properly nourished, of course.” Elements from this story of post-mortem twitching will recur in the death struggles of Charlie and co.: all of their deadly assailants come with nicknames containing the word ‘head’ (Sick-Head, Psycho-Head, Schizo-Head, Sex-Head, Death-Head); one of the assailants, despite having been graphically decapitated with a chainsaw, later appears still to be alive and kicking; and Panda even states that he and his friends are all just “running around with our heads cut off.” Panda might be right about their cockroach-like throes – for it is entirely possible to regard this film as akin to Carnival of Souls (1962), Dead End (2003) or Reeker (2005), with its hellish scenarios the last nightmarish thoughts going through (and fucking with) the minds of mere roadkill, caught asleep at the wheel. The more this film resembles a mesmerising car wreck, the more its metaphorical subtext can come to the fore.
Anyway you read it, 31 becomes a numbers game, suffering from the bludgeoning repetitiveness in its middle game section, where 12 hours, though greatly compressed, still feel drawn out – and as is always the case with Zombie’s films, it is very difficult to like, engage with or even care about the characters for whom we suspect we are supposed to be rooting. Still, part of the point here is the indiscriminateness of death. Meanwhile, the intense performance of Brake (who actually starred in 2005’s Doom) alone suffices to make this a ride worth taking, and a memento mori worth having.
© Anton Bitel