Urban Death at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre

Reviewed by Hoyt Hilsman

Theme park horror nights are all the rage around Halloween. From Universal Studios to Knotts Berry Farm, the big corporate theme parks spare no expense to scare their customers, who flock to the events at this time of year. However, an underground theater company in North Hollywood has re-interpreted the “horror night” genre into an anti-theme park performance piece that has resonance far beyond simple scare tactics.

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Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater presents an annual Halloween show, Urban Death, which plumbs the depths of the horror genre for its deeper psychological, political and mythological dimensions. Urban Death examines horror shows as performance pieces, following a long theatrical tradition of Gothic drama and court tableaux. The performance treats horror as a legitimate and profound drama, which aims not simply to frighten audiences, but to explore the horrors hidden in our own subconscious.

Director/creators Zombie Joe and Jana Wimer are fully respectful of the theatrical/theme park genre that they are re-interpreting. The production begins with the obligatory maze, in which audience members travel two-by-two through a chamber of living horrors — dimly lit creatures engaged in terrifying and/or taboo-busting acts. But there is nothing slickly produced about this maze — it is a roundabout polyethylene pathway that the neighbor kids might have created using garbage bags to line their basement, replete with hand-painted arrows to guide your way.

And that’s exactly the point of Urban Death, and of most of the productions at ZJU, which is without a doubt the most accomplished avant-garde theater company in Los Angeles. For decades, ZJU, under the leadership of Zombie Joe, has brought a uniquely creative vision to the LA theater scene, lifting a bootstrap theatrical sensibility to the heights of excellence across a number of genres. Urban Death is simply one more of this theater company’s extraordinary accomplishments.

Once audience members have made it through the maze, they are seated — in many cases on the floor — in the small black box theater. An actress, dressed in a black lacey costume, sits in a meditative position on the floor until all the audience has arrived. The show begins, of course, in darkness, and what follows is a series of a dozen or more tableaux in which cast members silently perform all manner of horrors, temptations and rituals.

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These short scenes are reminiscent of the “court tableaux” performed in the royal courts of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and continue today in venues like the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach. The tableaux were also performed in Victorian England to satisfy prurient tastes when women were only permitted to appear nude on stage if they were motionless. These exhibitions were touted as recreations of famous art works, but were nothing more than barely disguised nudie shows.

Zombie Joe and Wimer employ the tableaux technique to great effect, although their performers are almost always in motion. A nude woman stands virtually motionless while a lecherous man salivates over every inch of her body. A woman in a nightgown sleeps as an intruder creeps into her bedroom. A woman rushes onto stage, only to be jerked back by a noose around her neck. Another woman struggles to escape out an open window, only to be hauled back with a silent scream. And, in total blackout, the sounds of scurrying rats’ feet seem to surround the audience.

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All these scenes — presented in rapid-fire order with blackout breaks in between — underscore the terrors that haunt us all. The fear of sudden attack, of the unknown sound or intruder or of the cruel injustice. These are primitive fears, lodged in the primal brain, and unearthed with a shot of adrenaline or disgust. The brilliance of Urban Death is that it plumbs the theatrical dimensions of these fears, going beyond mere scare tactics to mine the fears that really scare us — those that live in our own minds.

The cast of Steve Alloway, Michelle Danyn, Zack Dillinger, Warren Hall, Anes Hasi, Abel Horwitz, Katie Lee, Jonica Patella, Tina Preston, Elif Savas, Alex Schetter, Brandon Slezak, Kevin Van Cott and Laura Van Yck, who perform five exhausting shows a night, deserve special recognition, as does sound designer Schetter, whose design richly heightens the horror experience.

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