Let’s get this out of the way right up front: I am a huge fan of Rob Zombie and Sheri Moon Zombie. My eight-year-old knows all the words to Dragula. I follow Sheri on Instagram and bought shirts from her short-lived Total Skull clothing line. I know they have a young teen daughter, are vegans, and got married on Halloween after thirteen years together. They make an adorable couple, somehow, and together make cool art.
Also, I like all of Rob’s films in some capacity. I dearly love a couple of them. I’m unsure how I feel about Lords of Salem, and yet I own it and have watched it at least ten times. There’s an ambience, an aesthetic to his visual work that can be hypnotic …
Dealing specifically with Rob Zombie’s films, there are certain guarantees: a killer Southern Rock soundtrack, 1970s filters, silent 8mm clips, liberal use of slo-mo, gorgeous and multi-layered sets, and fully realized, totally insane and original characters. There will be dirt, blood, and Sheri Moon.
Guarantees, of course, are a blessing and a curse.
Gearing up for 31—which I have followed from cast announcements, pre-production, crowdfunding, all the way through Sundance, limited theater release (nothing within driving distance) to Video on Demand—I gave a little extra thought to how invested I am in Zombie’s films and process. There are a couple of interesting things that I noticed, and proved true for this new film as well.
The films are mapped, plotted, and created much more like short stories or novels than typical scripts and production.
31 opens with an epigraph by Kafka, before moving into a kick-ass black-and-white opening monologue from Richard Blake (you might know him as the Night King from Game of Thrones), that is nothing if not a prologue. Then comes the opening chapter, or credits, which Zombie always uses quite well to establish setting and give us quick character clues and hint at a plot through-line. To jump back to film, this is almost a lost art that was heavily used in the 1980s (Back to the Future, anyone?), and I hope is making a comeback.
In the next chapter, or next couple of scenes, our cast is more firmly established and a traceable plot is established. Is this pacing, that leaves time to cry or regroup after a fight, and have side conversations that serve no purpose other than to give characters depth, the reason for mid-way lag in some of his films? As well as his love for fluid, ambiguous endings? (I’m getting ahead of myself, but we’ll jump farther into the movie in just a sec, let me get this out while I’m feeling all deep and insightful.) In the House of 1,000 Corpses director commentary, Zombie speaks of all the alternate ending ideas he had during filming: one being that Grandpa turned out to be Dr. Satan all along and it was all an elaborate joke.
This fluidity in the process, the adaptability to character-driven outcomes and exploration during creation, is one of my favorite things about writing. Freedom to arrange reality to better suit the evolving themes and characters. There are no throwaway characters, no dropped threads. Also, Brian Evenson was the co-writer of the Lords of Salem novel. You can’t knock that.
Alright, alright, so now I’ve talked a lot about plotting, character, and adaptability of story, but haven’t mentioned the Spanish-speaking Nazi midget clown even once. And he deserves a mention.
It’s all about the Zombies
Let’s talk 31. Brass tacks, it’s a basic Zombie premise. We’ve got a traveling band of carnival/sideshow workers that is ambushed by a group of clowns on Halloween, taken to a remote warehouse/abandoned building, and told via intercom by a very Rococo Malcolm McDowell and his cronies that they have to survive twelve hours against all the shit that is coming at them. Antoinette Malcolm and friends are placing bets and releasing clowns. Chaos, blood and bad assery ensues.
Essentially, it’s like a dirty Hunger Games (let’s pretend I’ve seen/read that and can say it with authority), or any of those other “We’re playing a game, and it’s to watch you get killed.” A big thing right now, but don’t forget Rob and Sheri were playing it way back in House of 1,000 Corpses to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve, and it is a lot more fun with the Zombies at the helm. So much in the movie made me nostalgic for the Firefly Family, from the van to the costumes to the music to the … well, everything. These days the studio holds the rights to those characters, and you can see why you can’t toss Sid Haig and Bill Moseley into random roles, no matter how well-suited: those three cannot be anywhere near each other without our brains creating a Firefly Family reunion. But this time around, Sheri has a voice nothing like Baby’s. She uses her own voice. She survives and fights as opposed to just playing games.
Bringing me to my second revelation about the possible evolution of Rob Zombie: the shift from identification/perspective from the Killers to the Victims. When we started with Baby and Otis, the victims were downright hatable. We wanted to see them killed, if just so they would shut up. Fishboy forever! In 31, Sheri is a badass, but she’s a runner, trying to outwit armed clowns and escape the increasingly annoying cutaways to Malcolm McDowell’s observance of the game’s progress. The killers are not the most interesting, layered, fun characters. The victims are. Certainly this significant handoff was influenced by the Halloween remake, which explores the making of Michael Myers into a monster, his evolution from victim to killer. There’s an entire spectrum of character development, shaping and change, which was clumsy but real, and might have been the best choice (at least in terms of personal artistic benefit) Zombie could have made when approaching Halloween. Even if it takes a handful more movies, this is where I see potential for real cinematic progress, or at least writing and storytelling progress, from Rob Zombie. Who knows if he’ll continue to make everything look like a White Zombie music video?
As for 31?
It’s got its lows, for sure. Bare bones, it’s Rob Zombie doing a currently-popular movie storyline premise, peppered with influences from his other films. The scenes with Malcolm McDowell are annoying, and there are too many of them.
But the highs far outweigh the lows. I’ve heard Margot Robbie carries a bat around in Suicide Squad, but there’s no way her Harley Quinn could compare to Sheri Moon Zombie’s Charly. Blond afro, tiger handkerchief shirt and bell bottoms covered in blood, she bashes in the skulls of filthy clowns and keeps her shit together, always. Richard Blake is kickass as DoomHead, and really brings something extra dark to the movie. When he speaks, his words are worthwhile. I predict his tattoo will rank highest in all 31-inspired tattoos. The ending is coherent, and not the one I predicted it would be while fifteen minutes into the movie. Plus, it’s a Rob Zombie movie. It’s FUN!
Clowns with chainsaws chase Sheri Moon Zombie around a warehouse on Halloween night, and she and her Scooby-Doo gang of carneys try to kill before they can be killed. Seriously, what more could you want?
More. That’s what I want. Keep playing while you learn, Rob Zombie. I’ll watch every step of the way.