31 is Rob Zombie’s The Running Man and it works. A group of touring performers (Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, Jeff Daniel Phillips and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) is captured by game makers led by Malcolm McDowell who send their stable of killers after them. It’s fast-paced, violent and fun.
This is the same aesthetic Zombie has been employing in all his films. Everything is grimy and crusty, even the characters. The fact that the traveling show is a girlie show may be Zombie challenging us to root for sideshow hustlers and pornographers but probably not. It’s just the usual type of underbelly characters he likes to write about.
The violence is up to Zombie’s standards and you’ve got to respect that it all looks like real squibs and blood packs. These are actors rigged to spew blood like it’s supposed to be, not lazy CGI blood added later. There is also more than one occasion of naked women bloodied and brutalized. That’s a conversation that’s already been had regarding most of Zombie’s other films, so at this point I no longer engage with it. Whether it’s sexualized or confrontational, it’s just something I expect in a Rob Zombie movie.
Most of the movie is shot in shakeycam handheld cinematography, which I am fundamentally against. However Zombie gave me a strange appreciation of the technique in 31. There are two reasons it could be appropriate. One is that the events are so unpleasant we don’t want to see them clearly anyway, but I don’t buy that because Zombie wants us to see them. What I think is that Zombie’s is all about grime and handheld is the cinematic equivalent of grimy photography. It matched. I could follow the kills.
The game makers only ever appear in their master room so they probably shot them out in a day or two. “And Malcolm McDowell” indeed. There’s enough sense of history and unlimited resources there that you feel the players are f***ed. I can’t say the killers are as memorable as Buzzsaw and Captain Freedom but they’re not supposed to be fun. A Nazi little person is creepy as hell, and we get to meet the big bad (Richard Brake) in his downtime, being a vile misogynist in the most articulate way possible.
Some of the gags are a little obvious. Like when the game makers leave the players a meal, how did anyone not see the next thing coming? I mean, did it really taste like chicken?
It is a harrowing ordeal and you know that anyone who even survives will be traumatized for life. It’s not hard to get behind a desperate fight for your life. Set on Halloween 1976, a classic rock soundtrack propels a lot of the violence. It seems Zombie found the sweet spot between his punishing aesthetic and letting the audience have a rewarding catharsis by the end.