When I was a wee lad, I went with a group of friends to see the movie Night of the Living Dead at a drive-in in Trenton, New Jersey. The drive-in was almost deserted, which meant there were rows upon rows of posts holding speakers, many of which seemed to be moving toward our car. The discomfort was exacerbated by the fact that the sober one among us sat in the back seat making munching noises. It was all a bit much, and it scared the bejeezus out of me; I’ve never been a fan of fright-fests since.
Which sort of explains why I approached Zombie Joe’s Urban Death at 11:00 PM on a Saturday night with a sense of… dread. Life is scary enough without people in zombie makeup screaming at me, I thought – but what the hey, I’ll brave it out.
Well, it turns out I didn’t have to be brave, because Urban Death isn’t scary. At least not in the someone-popping-up-next-to-you-and-yelling-boo! sense I was afraid of.
No, what Zombie Joe does is much more sophisticated and subversive. Taking the various definitions of “horror” to heart, he produces a series of images onstage that play on an audience’s primal fears, induce feelings of repulsion and loathing, and vividly reflect our nightmares, hidden fears, and terror of the unknown.
The show actually starts about 7 or 8 minutes before the lights go out. As the audience is being seated, the black velvet curtains leading backstage part, and a woman – barefoot, bare-breasted, and with hollow, dead eyes, shuffles onto the stage and stands, staring into the distance. That’s it. She just stands there, doing nothing but staring.
After a few minutes, a second figure emerges: this time it’s a clown, tall, evil-looking, with burning eyes. He stands a few feet from the woman, reaches for his crotch, and slowly, very slowly, begins to pull something red out of his pants. Relax, it’s a scarf – which is tied to a second scarf, which is tied to a third, and so on. It’s a run-of-the-mill trick, but rendered ominous and threatening by this particular clown who, unlike the woman, seems to be staring, directly and malevolently, at every single person in the house.
By this time, the audience is hushed. And uncomfortable. Has the show started? Should we keep on talking? Can we look away?
It’s a brilliantly shrewd opening, because before the real “show” even starts, the audience is made uncomfortable – a prelude to horror. And what we’re about to see is truly horrible, in the sense of being profoundly disturbing.
There’s no dialogue in Urban Death, though there’s lot of sound: music, effects, screams – of pain, agony, fear, and fury. The show is a series of visual vignettes, some lasting just a few seconds, the longest maybe a minute or so. One might be tempted to call them tableaux vivants, although here many of the participants aren’t very vivant.
We’re shown a gamut of fright from – yes – zombie-like creatures desperately reaching out to us with silent screams, to more earthbound visions: a doctor and nurse squeezing boils on a patient’s back… a baby being born… a man dancing frenetically… another man stumbling wildly around the stage, perilously close to falling in the laps of the audience.
Some of the images recall historic atrocities: as a Horst Wessel-like song plays loudly, two naked women huddle together. An imposing figure in a Nazi uniform, a gas mask for a face, enters and removes one of the women, leaving the other trembling. Lights out.
Some are funny: two men, naked from the waist down, masturbate face-to-face, taking turns slapping each other with wads of cash. Lights out.
Some approach the level of snuff porn: a man pins a woman against a wall, evidently raping her. He pulls a knife, plunges it in and pulls out a section of her entrails, then what looks like a fetus, before continuing to assault her now-limp body. Lights out.
Lest you think this is exploitative, however, the wonderful thing about the show is that Zombie Joe and his co-creator and co-director Jana Wimer don’t dwell on anything. They present a horrific image, allow it to register – sometimes barely – then lights out! It’s the audience’s own imagination which chooses – or not – to take the image further.
What’s even more impressive is the economy and discipline of the pieces. The members of the ensemble play multiple parts, so it’s impossible to single anyone out. But many of the vignettes require great physical dexterity, and the choreography of the group scenes is remarkable.
What’s also remarkable was the makeup of the audience. In the almost-full house, I’d guess there were only two or three people over the age of 25. Who says theatre is dying?
Urban Death is truly transgressive theatre, daring the audience to face itself and what goes on in its individual and collective minds. Depending on the level of darkness in your mind, you may very well have nightmares after seeing Urban Death. Me, I slept like a baby. Which, I’m sure, will be profoundly troubling to some people…
Directed and Created by Zombie Joe and Jana Wimer
With Vanessa Cate, Jahel Corban Caldera, Shayne Eastin, Gloria Galvan, Brett Gustafson, David Wyn Harris, Ian Heath, Kevin Pollard, Jr., Elif Savas, Danny Whitehead, and Melissa Whitman
Saturdays at 11:00 PM through June 27
Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group
4850 Lankershim Boulevard
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Tickets: 818-202-4120 or http://zombiejoes.tix.com/