“Murder school is now in session.” That clumsy line from his latest horror flick, 31, more or less summarizes Rob Zombie’s artistic sensibility. Each of the films he writes and directs demonstrate a litany of the genre’s most macabre and garishly gory tropes, pulled from decades-old sources and presented with a passion for his niche that bleeds through on every frame. He’s had some success using this formula (The Devil’s Rejects) and also utter misfires (House of 1000 Corpses), but his approach to melding his ‘70s grindhouse influences with 21st century splatterporn has remained steadfast to a fault.

With that in mind, most audiences should know what they’re getting into with Zombie’s latest low-budget sideshow bloodletting. Partially crowdfunded, 31 visually makes the most of Zombie’s bag of makeshift tricks, but it offers precious little beneath its tacky, blood-drenched surface. This is especially disappointing given that Zombie opens the film so audaciously. Shot in stark black and white, the prologue immediately unsettles the viewer as the murderous Doom-Head (Richard Brake) stalks down a long, dripping corridor toward the camera. Axe in hand, this gaunt, grimy figure is about to do some killing, but before he does so he launches into a menacing monologue of Tarantino-esque verbosity. In a protracted close-up, he stares directly into the camera and calmly intones through rotting teeth that, despite his white greasepaint, he is not to be mistaken for a clown, because he is not there to bring amusement.

Sadly, Zombie can’t sustain much tension beyond this opening sequence. Soon, we’re thrust into a montage brimming with washed-out road-trip images of confederate flags, greasy spoons and dime stores as the southern rock soundtrack takes hold. We’re introduced to a ragtag band of aging carnies and nude dancers who, in true ‘70s horror-homage fashion, tool around the countryside in a kitsch-strewn party van. Their moral fiber appears only a tick or two above that of the deranged Firefly family from past Zombie films, a sense that’s driven home by the director’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, once again embodying a scantily-clad central role. This group of horror movie archetypes (with a Jamaican guy thrown in for good measure, because why not?) are soon ambushed by killer clowns who dump them into a labyrinthine industrial complex where they are forced to play a survival game called “31” for the entertainment of a goblet-sipping, powdered-wig-adorned trio of elites led by Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell).

The rules of “31” are simple: Survive 12 hours within a murderdome occupied by a series of outlandish killers, and you win. These murderous opponents vary from a little person in full Nazi regalia (Pancho Moler) to a pair of psycho clowns wielding chainsaws (David Ury and Lew Temple) to an Aryan giant and diminutive sexpot (Torsten Voges and Elizabeth Daily, respectively). They’re all far too cartoonish to frighten and feel too haphazardly sketched to legitimately shock. For that matter, none of the increasingly dwindling victims are worth rooting for, as Zombie uses them as a means to an end rather than as characters possessing any recognizable trace of humanity, his sole focus instead on over-stylizing his contrived scenario.

Zombie’s woeful script doesn’t give his actors much to work with (“How can a nightmare be any worse than this reality?”) and Moon Zombie is particularly wooden throughout as our final girl. Brake remains the film’s only compelling figure, even if his minimal subsequent involvement never reaches the chilling heights of that opening scene. The manner in which each preposterous baddie is trotted out like a video game boss makes the action sequences feel telegraphed, and without anyone to actually care about, 31 quickly collapses under the weight of its own heavy-handed premise. Zombie has said he wanted to make this film his “most brutal,” but instead, an exercise in fetishized depravity has never seemed so silly.

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