Zombie Joe's Urban Death Tour of Terror: 2018 Review

Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre, North Hollywood, CA

For a few years, now, our Halloween season has included a visit to Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre, an avant garde, black box performance space that puts on a variety of intimate shows, ranging from modern takes on old classics to originally created stories. Although ZJU tackles the macabre in its theater throughout the year, during October, the dark and sinister really come to the forefront in the form of Zombie Joe's Urban Death: Tour of Terror. Combining a haunted house maze with a condensed version of its regular, full-length Urban Death show, the Tour of Terror is an investigation of the disturbing, unnerving, and shocking facets that pervade our everyday life. Yes, there are supernatural and monstrous creatures present. But through Zombie Joe's lens on the horror of humanity, we can see that sometimes, the monsters come from within. 

 Photo courtesy of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group.

Photo courtesy of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group.

We stopped by Zombie Joe's understated, North Hollywood theater last Thursday night to preview this year's iteration of the now-six-year-running event. We weren't alone. A legion of fans and fellow haunters were also present, eager to take in what Zombie Joe's fearless troupe had in store. 

 Photo courtesy of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group.

Photo courtesy of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group.

As usual for the Tour of Terror edition, the experience begins by going through a dark, winding labyrinth filled with dimly lit, grotesque scenes. Before we entered on Thursday night, we were warned that this year's maze was twistier than ever, and they weren't kidding. Somehow, crinkled into the same, small lobby space of the theater, the Tour of Terror's first act seems to snake twice as long as in previous years. Guests are armed with only a faint flashlight--bright enough only to illuminate the black tarp forming the "walls" of the maze and white, painted series that mark the direction of the passage. 

The darkness creates a smothering atmosphere from which the cast (a separate set of actors from the show itself) can horrify its captive, nerve-wracked audience. The same light that guides the path also provides the only way to spotlight a scene that reveals itself around a corner, which means plenty of uncertainty of what is being encountered in the compressed space. Is this a clown, or a diaper-clad man-child wearing a bonnet? What is that nude man doing with that skull? Why is that victim covered in...who knows what? 

 Photo courtesy of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group.

Photo courtesy of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group.

Guests who make it through find themselves in the black box theater, where a black shrouded figure writhes around a cauldron. She manifests an occult dance and seems to conjure a potion of sorts, as guests file in. It's not as shocking as some prologue scenes in previous Urban Deaths, but it's certainly moody and mysterious. And when all the guests funnel in and find a seat along the floor or theater risers, filling the space (minus a caution tape marked off area for the state), the figure casts off her veil and stands straight, surveying the crowd before the lights turn off, and she vanishes. 

As the other Urban Death performances have gone, what follows is a series of disconnected vignettes--each unrelated to each other, without any underlying storyline plot--pulsing through scenes of horror, dark comedy, and morbid suspense.  The action starts off at level 100 immediately with a scene I'll just call "sex doll" to minimize spoilers.  It is less horror than most of the rest of the show, but it sets a jarringly shocking and in-your-face tone for the nature of the rest of the show. 

For the next twenty minutes or so, Urban Death runs through scenes with unrelenting vigor.  They vary in time and subject matter.  Some prey on real life anxieties and perceived personal threats.  Others entertain more fantastical fears, bringing moments of supernatural impact.  A few are horrific from a specific point of view--think Get Out as a horror movie for certain minorities while simply being a suspense for other racial groups.  And still others focus on simple, visceral unease.  The classic skittering fingernails, for example, returns and is still as effective as ever in generating uncomfortable responses and panicked shuffles.  

 Photo courtesy of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group.

Photo courtesy of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group.

There is also surprising humor within this October Urban Death, though they tend to be out the ironic sort.  Situations gone exaggeratedly wrong, misdirection or turned tables gags, and horror to an over the top degree mark some of the vignettes, showcasing the show's maniacal comedy.  

The show finishes on a high note with a differently but exquisitely executed version of a familiar climactic moment from past Urban Deaths, and then it's back through the maze, only in reverse direction.  Furthermore, the scenes have been reconfigured to provide a different experience when exiting!  There are more episodes of the macabre and bizarre, and plenty of screams to go around.  And then, finally, escape to the outside streets of North Hollywood!

 Photo courtesy of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group.

Photo courtesy of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group.

Urban Death: Tour of Terror culminates Zombie Joe's "Year of Urban Death" by once again delivering an experience that will shock guests, and frighten them, and perhaps even horrify them.  The cast and crew perform with remarkable precision (I still have no idea how they all move around to their positions in next total darkness) and a reckless abandon that fully commits to their roles, no matter how literally exposed and vulnerable or may leave them.  The emotional tinge they portray is striking and haunting.  And guests will certainly leave with ghoulish imprint on their minds of what they have witnessed.

The one-hour experience runs multiple times a night on weekend evenings this month. Urban Death: Tour of Terror also contains adult themes and explicit, full frontal nudity, and is not recommended for minors.  However, grown-up haunt enthusiasts looking for more than the typical boo scares and polished environments from their spooky destinations--who want something more cerebral and intimate--should make sure to swing by.

 Poster courtesy of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group.

Poster courtesy of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group.

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