Zombie Joe's Underground, North Hollywood, CA
It's early/mid-May, and if you're a fan of theater of the macabre in Southern California, you know what time it is--the annual cleansing rebirth of Zombie Joe's "Urban Death," the recurring dive into horror theater that has developed quite the cult following among fans of vanguard theater and haunted attractions. We've covered Urban Death before--both in its springtime full show iteration and in its hybrid Halloween season manifestation--and last Friday evening, we were back at this little black box theater in the heart of the North Hollywood Arts District to see what Zombie Joe, Jana Wimer Abel Horwitz, and the twisted fiends at Zombie Joe's Underground had cooked up.
Urban Death is a one-hour show conducted in the style of Theatre of Cruelty, Butoh, and Grand Guignol. For non-theater buffs, that means a show that provides a sensory assault on the audience, relentlessly dragging them through a gamut of emotions, using imagery and motions that are at times playful and at times grotesque, touching upon topics both taboo and arousing--all to incite a flurry of emotions that press upon discomfort and evoke an ethereal expression of fright. This is not pop culture horror. There is no graphic violence or overt horrid monster or explicit blood and gore. Instead, Urban Death works to unnerve and dismay... to wrought a lingering unease... to subvert expectations with primal performances that leave viewers fearful, titillated, and aghast at what they've witnessed.
This year's show begins with a menagerie of committed patients wandering about in catatonic creepiness, staring soullessly into the abyss of the theater as guests filter into the exceptionally intimate theater space. All the while, a warbled and slightly distressing version of "Close to You," by The Carpenters plays overhead. The juxtaposition between the bewildering scene and the idyllic music underscores a constant subversion of expectations that runs throughout the show.
The play itself is episodic without any unifying plot or even dialogue. As with previous years, vignettes pulse from one to each other. Some last a few dozen seconds. Other continue a minute or two. Each is shepherded by a fade to black, allowing members of the intimate cast of eight to shuttle on and off stage and usher the following scene. There is no rhyme or reason across the segments--no underlying theme, at least not outwardly. The only commonality is a penchant for the unexpected and a direction toward dark humor and cruel despondence.
The cast--Barry Bishop, Gina Bishop, Warren Hall, Abel Horwitz, Ian Heath, Jonica Patella, Elif Savas, Kelly McMinn, and Michaela Slezak--is flanked by a combination of newcomers and veterans, but like every Urban Death ensemble, it is absolutely fearless. The actors bare their raw emotions for all to process, thrusting them upon the audience with reckless abandon. They bare other things too. Nudity is openly on display in many scenes, including the full frontal variety from both male and female. So needless to say, Urban Death is intended for mature audiences. But the show of skin serves different purposes depending on the scene. Sometimes, it is for shock value. Sometimes, it is meant to promote a sense of arousal. And sometimes, it is part of a hauntingly beautiful artistic expression.
Veteran fans of Urban Death will find this show largely original, with a few moments that call back to previous years. A gothic soul ballroom dances with a lifeless, prone woman--until she turns the tables on him in a role reversal from a previous year's scene where the dancer vampirically plunges his fangs into his unconscious victim. An axe murderer strikes a sudden and uncomfortably close appearance during a stormy night. A swarm of bodies writhes across the stage in a cacophony of guttural moans and amorphous motion.
There are moments that make the audience collectively squirm with dread, or erupt with twisted laughter, or gasp with sudden startle. But the overall tone this year feels less barbarically dark and more sardonically cynical, with some segments seemingly making social commentary on the horrors of reality. Ultimately, though, the experience turns out as Urban Death typically is--tensely cathartic, with a general parting effect of "what the **** did I just watch?" imparted upon the audience. It is horror delivered in an acute, avant garde form, and the show continues to outdo itself.
Zombie Joe is making 2018 the Year of Urban Death. On Friday and Saturday evenings at 11:00pm from now through June 9th, patrons can see "Urban Death: Spring." A special "early evening" performance has also been added for 8:30 on Monday, May 21. Meanwhile, come end of July, "Urban Death: Midsummer Scream" will take over the largest Halloween convention in Southern California. Most excitingly, Zombie Joe is taking the show on the road in August when the troupe brings Urban Death to the 71st Annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest art festival in the world. A GoFundMe fundraiser has been set up to assist the company in its travel expenses. You can donate to support the cast if you are a fan of ZJU. Finally, "Urban Death: Tour of Terror" will once again make the rounds this fall's Halloween season.
Tickets to this show are only $15 and can be purchased at Zombie Joe's ticketing site. If you're looking for an alternative to the regular glamor theater and seek something gritty and passionate and deeply striking, take a visit out to NoHo these next few weekends. It is an experience unlike any other, and it will haunt you in all the most profound ways.
...To the Death.
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.