Zombie Joe's Urban Death Tour of Terror: 2016 Review

Zombie Joe's Underground, North Hollywood, CA

And now, for something a little different.

Last Saturday, on account of word of mouth and idle curiosity, I attended a performance of Zombie Joe's Underground Theater's Halloween-time production of Urban Death Tour of Terror: Haunted House Attraction, a part haunted maze and part abstract and macabre theater show that was intriguing, uncomfortable, shocking, thrilling, occasionally comedic, raw, and sometimes sexually tinged. 

Guests line up before showtime outside Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre.

In its fourth year, Zombie Joe's Urban Death Tour of Terror has grown to become a bit of a cult hit sensation that attracts Halloween event fans looking for something a little different and more adult, curious Angelinos searching for something new and hip, and open-minded patrons of performance art in a theater setting.  The event is partially a truncated version of Zombie Joe's hour-long Urban Death performance that runs during the normal year.  Housed inside a relatively nondescript strip mall facade on Lakershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, Tour of Terror starts with a haunted house style sheet maze, contains a 15 minute black box theater performance, and ends with guests going back out the same maze, which has been reconfigured with different scenes.  The whole experience takes about half an hour, but it is truly unlike any haunted attraction I have ever experienced.

The facade is about as ordinary as you can get for a theater, but it's what's inside that counts.

The fun (and confusion?) starts with guests lining up on the sidewalk outside to enter the venue.  At the scheduled time, guests are shuttled one or two at a time into the building.  Equipped with a dim black light, guests slowly and uncertainly navigate a winding corridor surrounded by black plastic almost entirely in the dark.  Scattered about within this maze are several scenes that are difficult to describe--not the least because the ambiance is so dark that, even with the flashlight, it is darn near impossible to see something directly in front. 

A cute little display outside the theater.

The flow through this maze component feels surreal and weaves like a dream, playing out with each scene fading into the next in a disorienting and unexpected way.  I might have seen a clown, or maybe a police officer, or maybe a disrobed player wrapped in clear plastic?  Then again, they might not have actually been those things.  But in the dark recesses of Zombie Joe's Underground, there is only the brief flash of a scene and faintly illuminated arrows and the jittery laughs and surprised screams of other guests to guide the way.

(Image courtesy of Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre.)

Eventually, guests come upon an attendant who collects the blacklight flashlights, and then proceed into an intimate black box with tiered stepped seats along one side, sprung flooring across the other half, and caution tape in front.  Guests can sit wherever they please--so long as they do not cross the caution tape, which marks the dividing line of the "stage" between the actors and the audience. 

Zombie Joe greets each guest like a treasured longtime friend, be it first-timer strangers or haunt community bigwigs returning for another year's viewing.

As guests finish filtering in, we receive our first indication of the adult nature of the show, as the attendant who collected the flashlights is revealed to be wearing a backless smock--and nothing else.  He slowly, methodically, solemnly paces off from the entrance toward the back corner of the stage and onto the backstage area, and yes, naughty bits are visible in plain view.

(Image courtesy of Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre.)

What follows is a fifteen minute main performance that contains a series of non-linear performance art vignettes, pulsed into one other, divided by quick fades to black, shaped by light, the absence of light, the trace of sound, and the reactions of the audience. 

The scenes are often awkward, and they can be disturbing.  Some even become violent, while others are designed to startle or creep.  Visually, they feel like moving paintings, each stroke creating a dreamlike progression of the scene.  The pure and simple acts of each scene convey raw emotion.  The content matter delves into items that are controversial.  The visuals can generate visceral reactions.  At times, there was anxious laughter, shocked gasps, panicked screams, moaning disbelief, and serious whispers.  The characters are sometimes human, sometimes monstrous, and sometimes humans with monstrous hearts.  Each beat is played out with exacting precision, as though a master puppeteer was conducting an entranced cast and positioning them to each scene's whims.  It is an exceedingly interesting and mind-touching experience.

(Image courtesy of Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre.)

(Image courtesy of Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre.)

And then, the haunted play (if you will) is over, and audience members are invited back to their feet and given blacklight flashlights to navigate the maze again.  Though the layout is the same, the experience is not, as the scenes have changed and the actors altered their appearances and actions.  Details are fleeting, and once again, the nooks surprise guests with random displays that startle and possibly dismay.  And suddenly, guests are stumbling outside toward the harsh streetlights, probably not quite sure what exactly happened.

(Image courtesy of Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre.)

Zombie Joe's Urban Death Tour of Terror is most definitely not an attraction meant for everyone.  Although tickets can be purchased by any person, the show is highly recommended to be adults only, due to scenes of sexuality, nudity, violence, abuse, and severe stress.  This is unbridled abstract theater, and the tightly focused cast of a dozen (which includes both the show and the maze--about half conduct each) have their positions and roles slotted to a T.  It is impressive to see this group hit their marks within this compressed show and perform five shows each night.  Clearly, the entire crew is a highly dedicated team that has made something special germinate and slowly grow.

Creators and directors Zombie Joe and Jana Wilmer pose for a photo outside the theater.

For those who have attended past years' shows, this year is unique.  Elements and concepts may overlap previous years, but the show itself is definitely new.  Visitors may purchase tickets online for $15 + fees, or buy on site with cash or credit card.  Parking is available in the back for free after 8pm.  Shows run Fridays and Saturdays plus Halloween night, through November 5th.  For haunt fans who crave something more unique and won't be easily offended by, well, anything, Zombie Joe's Urban Death Tour of Terror is a high recommendation. 

Go see what hordes of people in the haunt community are talking about.  You won't be able to unsee it, but really, although it may seem to be a case to wary about, in this case, it's actually a good thing.

(Image courtesy of Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre.)

Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.