Zombie Joe's Underground, North Hollywood, CA
Today’s update and review takes us to a familiar old haunting ground—Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater. Perhaps best known (at least within the content of this blog) for its Urban Death series, Zombie Joe’s is a beloved Westcoaster favorite thanks to its intimate, chilling, gripping avant garde productions that explore the dark underbelly of the human condition.
Normally, we’d be posting about a new Zombie Joe’s production and urging people to go see it, but today, we’re not going to actually do that. That’s because in today’s case, you won’t be able to. Zombie Joe’s latest masterpiece, Dark Dark Ride Ride, finished its run this past Sunday after two extensions due to overwhelming popular demand, and it won’t be returning in any foreseeable future, due to all the other productions forthcoming for the rest of this year.
But that doesn’t matter. Last Friday, at the end of its run (but better late than never), I had the opportunity to experience Dark Dark Ride Ride, and the encounter was so wonderfully loony and spooky and shocking and memorable that I feel compelled to write about it anyway, even though it won’t be able to serve any promotional purpose for the show. Instead, I’m banking on Zombie Joe bringing this incredible production back next year (especially since its very name is so damn fun to say out loud). And when that comes, I’ll be able to link back to this review here and reiterate what a unique and unforgettable attraction it is.
So sit back, relax, tap into your inner freak side, and enjoy this after-the-fact review of Dark Dark Ride Ride—the most compelling and exquisite Zombie Joe spectacle that I have ever witnessed!
How many people have ever attended a Zombie Joe’s theater performance, taken in the grippingly lingering horror, intimately visceral discomfort, raggedly jolting shock, and bravely daring passion and thought, “How can I get in the middle of that, but without the pesky being a talented and intensely committed actor part?” How many guests have sat through a Zombie Joe’s production, imbibed the darkly twisted humor, perversely inane fun, and buzzing pulse of collective crowd energy and pondered, “What if this vibe and stimulus was somehow packaged into a full fledged moving carnival ride?
Well, for the confluence of those two hypothetical audience members, Dark Dark Ride Ride answers the call. An innovative artistic endeavor that literally combines a carefully choreographed theatrical production with a dynamic literal moving amusement park attraction, Dark Dark Ride Ride represents arguably the most imaginative efforts ever brought forth from Zombie Joe’s.
Never have I seen something like this at this modest North Hollywood collective, or, really, any other attraction! Each Dark Dark Ride Ride show is designed for only two people at most, providing the most cozy of adventures. Running every 15 minutes, Dark Dark Ride Ride takes guest across the impressively packed spaces of the Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater lobby, black box theater area, and backstage, winding and twirling and twisting around various points in each space for the various pulses of each scene. The storyline of the show in short? Take a psychedelic, rambling journey through hell as experienced through the lens of a maniacal carnival come to bring nightmares to life in saturated, blacklit, irradiated color.
The whole presentation is a theatrical affair, but don’t call it traditional theater. The audience does not sit idly by, watching a performance through a separated plane. It’s not really interactive theater either. Though the cast does engage the audience members, there isn’t the sustained back and forth between cast and participants that interactive theater productions like Delusion or Creep L.A. might have. And it’s not immersive theater either, because the ambiance is every bit as cerebral as it is physically staged, and its transportive effects rely much more on one’s own imaginations and mental wanderings than on an enveloping manufactured environment.
Instead, Dark Dark Ride Ride is an impressively synchronized dance between each audience of one or two and an overall cast of eight to ten actors that revolve around each other, changing positions as the ride vehicle makes it way forwards, backwards, turning, cycling through the various nooks of the performance space. It’s a windswept fever dream interfacing horror and amusement, delivered with tender love and care, and also irreverent whimsy, foolish freakiness, and psychotic absurdity. Pop-out scares take on a warm and tender embrace. Slow, disturbing scenes are offset by sardonic commentary. Sensuous, wanton displays are offset by dark ironies. All the while, everything is constantly in motion, leaving hardly any time to process the previous scene before the next is unloaded. It’s bizarre and eerie and sensational and addictive and outlandish and silly—all at the same time.
Dark Dark Ride Ride exceeds any show I have ever witnessed at Zombie Joe’s. And while I don’t have to chance to see nearly as many shows at this excellent NoHo establishment as I would like to, my enamor with this show is far from unique. The show was originally scheduled for a one week, two weekend run started at the end of January, but its popularity resulted in the show being extended twice—ultimately through this past weekend. The low capacity enhanced the show’s air of exclusivity—there were only a limited amount of spots each night to engage this one-of-a-kind, interactive pageant. It all added up to a gleefully spectral ordeal, and one helluva hit.
All of this speaks to the tremendous job that Zombie Joe and his theater actors have done over the years, producing a staggering amount of thrilling and entertaining shows, covering a gamut of subject matters and emotional tone. Urban Death might be the most well known in the haunt community, but it’s far from the only offering on Zombie Joe’s plate. In fact, next up is another exercise in horror: a presentation called Cemetery of Tortured Shows running three times a night, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, from March 1 - 10.
While the only escape from The Great Depression were the movies, there was no escape for those entrapped by the glitter of Tinseltown: These restless spirits of stars and villains from yesteryear rise from their forgotten graves - to wander their final resting place and re-live their final moments in eternal damnation!
So even if the opportunity to check out Dark Dark Ride Ride is gone (at least for this year), I encourage spooky theater lovers to check out a Zombie Joe show regardless. The creativity, intimacy, and fervor of the cast ensures a memorable evening, and there is always something devilish happening. At $15 a ticket for any show, it remains one of the best steals in L.A., so go check it out this weekend!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.