Every once in a while you see something in the horror world that's so smart, so different, so entertaining that you have to tell everyone about it. Well lucky you because that's what just happened to me this past weekend in North Hollywood at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group. Their new signature horror production, Urban Death, is the most entertaining live show I've seen in years, and single-handedly proves that horror is not only alive but thriving, if you know where to look for it.
When I heard the name of the troupe, I admit I was a little skeptical. Don't get me wrong, I love zombies, but let's face it. When you think about zombies, you think about zombie movies, and frankly when you think about zombie movies you think about bad acting and crappy special effects. Doesn't exactly whet the appetite for live theatre. But my skepticism was quickly dispelled as I took my seat in the 50 seat black box theatre where the audience was immediately plunged into absolute inky black darkness.
Directed by Jana Wimer and starring a gifted group of perfectly cast gothic players, Urban Death plays exactly like a sketch comedy show, only instead of laughs they play for gasps and creep outs, of which there are plenty. In the one hour show, we were treated to 47 mini skits. It's hard to call any of them skits, actually. The whole show is almost entirely wordless, each sketch less a story and more a tableau, a slice of time, a "moment". Yeah, actually that's the perfect word for it. A moment. Horrific, terrible, nightmarish "moments" each time the lights come up.
One of my favorites is called Self Portrait. Standing before us is a crazed young woman, hair askew, clothing ripped, madness in her eyes. On the wall, a drawing of herself. But the picture is drawn in blood, real hair and lunatic scratchmarks. She looks to the audience for approval with raving eyes. Not getting it, she examines the picture and sees what she needs to make it a better likeness. She proceeds to slit her wrist to add more blood to the picture, bites a hunk of skin of her arm to add flesh, and finally yanks out her own bloody fingernail and sticks it to the drawing. Satisfied, she nods and smiles madly. Stage goes black. And just as we're getting over the shock of what we just saw on stage, the lights come up for the next horrible tableau of madness.
And the rest of the show is just as rapid fire. There are wax vampires that come to life, hillbillies preparing to eat a newborn baby, an awkward partier who drinks his own vomit, an axe swinging maniac (yes, the axe is swung at the audience), rapes, abductions, torture, ghosts, and yes even zombies. I found myself simultaneously laughing and cringing at the live cannibal zombie evisceration on stage only five feet away that opens the show.
What I really liked about it all, though, was the lack of sacred cows, the variety of different kinds of scares and creepy sensations, the complete lack of backstory or explanation, and the deeply interpretive, wordless nature of each presentation. These artists know that to answer "why?" is to dispel the very terror they seek to achieve. And believe me, they achieved more horror entertainment in 60 minutes than most Hollywood studio horror divisions do in 10 years. As a writer and director of horror myself, and a founder of the Fewdio horror troupe, as well as the Daywalt Fear Factory, I now find myself chomping at the bit to work with these people. They really REALLY get horror. And that's more rare than you might think.
I thought it was dead, but grand guignol is alive and well. It just doesn't live in 19th Century Paris any more. It dwells in contemporary North Hollywood at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre. They play every Saturday night at 11pm.
Go see it.