In an AV Club interview released shortly after the release of The Lords of Salem, Zombie spoke about his love of silent cinema: ‘That [The Lords of Salem] could almost play as a silent movie. A lot of it is one character by herself. I just find movies so obnoxiously loud sometimes that I can’t even stand sitting there. I’m like, “Really?” I get that an explosion is loud, but every time someone lights a match, does it have to sound like an explosion? It’s because they get crazy in post-production, mixing sound, looping, Foley, and ADR. It becomes ridiculous. Every time I make a movie, I drive the sound mixers crazy, because I’m always muting things. The Foley guys want to Foley everything, every footstep. I go, “First thing: get rid of all the Foley steps. All that creak-creak sound? Get rid of it!” Especially on The Lords Of Salem, I was like, “Get rid of everything!” If it wasn’t on the actual production sound, I don’t fucking want to use it. It’s so over-the-top. I like silence. People are so bombarded that silence is what unnerves them’.
The influence of the era on 31 is evident from the beginning. In the central group awake in a deserted farmhouse that has been re-figured as an amusement park of terrors. Zombie frames the room from a strange high angle, the off-kilter framing dominated by proscenium arches, candlesticks and lens flares. When he cuts from this master to a reverse angle, we see Malcolm MacDowell’s Father Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder emerge on a balcony, a large chunk of the composition’s centre obscured by a deliberately placed golden lens flare. It gives a sense of theatre and the sacred. The building resembles the politically charged enclosed spaces of Von Sternberg, excessive images of layers on layers on layers.
Like his silent heroes, Zombie has a vividness in portraying people whom we see for only few seconds; as with Murnau, the characters are deliberately flat, defined by a few tics and gestures that can be summed up in a single reaction shot. The gang of mannered psychopaths who preside over 31 are parodies of aristocratic antiquity. Whereas, in his earlier films, Zombie set his grotesqueries against real-world backdrops, 31 sees him moving towards a new level of artificiality only before present in the last half of The Lords of Salem. Monstrous architecture dominates the mise-en-scène, becoming literally and emotionally oppressive. 31’s bizarrely intricate industrial landscape forms a constant grid of rigorous lines, the grace of bodies entrapped within them. Shadows loom tall above them, mythologising them in the tradition of the ancient libertines Zombie’s men like to envision themselves; once again their posturing is subsumed by burnout by violence, by oppression, by force. Nauseous surfaces give way to overwhelming melancholy, as the vulgar abhorrence the characters once clung to as a way of asserting their individuality gradually gives way to fatigue and apathy.
As Zombie’s characters dissolve into madness and hysteria, his style becomes more erratic in turn. Hyper-sensory colour pallets turn characters into abstracted figures, monstrous aberrations, hedonistic vampires shrouded in pools of Giallo lighting. They push forward, propelled by force, motivated by the prospect of ecstasy provided by erotic pleasure or impulsive violence. There is no clear-cut system of good and evil in Zombie’s universe, only various shades of moral grey. 31 is explicitly concerned with hell imagery. On one of the walls of the warehouse is scrawled “There ain’t no God in here”. The obscure prologue sees a priest being murdered in the building, a character who is never referenced again, while the murder mocks his fear of death in light of his alleged allegiance to God. As Zombie’s lighting schemes grow even more highly stylized, the drama becomes heightened; the actions of his characters move away from psychological realism and closer to pure allegory. Emotions are intensified; fear, hatred, lust and envy fill the air, but these feelings rarely lead to any satisfactory catharsis. Unfulfilled desire becomes torture. Sadism is interconnected so closely to masochism that the two become inseparable. The more intensely Zombie visualizes the headspaces of his unabashedly cartoonish characters, the more deeply they develop an emotional dimension.