A profile on Zombie Joe of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater Group
“I’ll say it was creepy, funny, silly, occasionally pretty gross- and at points, pretty terrifying.” “Blood, guts, zombies…what’s not to like?” “When the room goes pitch black, you can’t hear anything but your heart racing in anticipation of the next horrifying scene.”
You might assume the above quotes are the thoughts and feelings expressed by frightened moviegoers after watching the latest installment of the Saw franchise, or another Paranormal Activity prequel; I can assure you they are not. No, these are the past testimonies of satisfied, and horrified patrons of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater Group– a brazen, risk-taking theater company captivating audiences from all over Southern California and beyond with their own special variety of horror-based entertainment for the stage.
It was their flagship, original production Urban Death, a one-hour play armed with 43 terrifying vignettes- each ranging from 10 seconds to 2 minutes long, that had audience members flocking to Yelp.com in droves to sing praises and issue warnings. And after finding dozens of tributes and testimonials from Yelpers warning, “Do not go if you’re afraid of the dark,” I decided to meet with Zombie Joe, the visionary Founder of Z.J.U., at his unassuming black box theater during daylight hours.
The space is intimate, accented by black walls and a combined stage / seating area, but Zombie Joe has an especially colorful personality. With more energy than you would expect from a man who is tasked with putting together a production from start to finish, overseeing the casting, costume design and publicity, all in just three weeks- he immediately offers me water, and gives me a little show-and-tell of the posters and pictures lining the walls of the lobby. One painting of 80’s-cartoon-character Rainbow Bright posing cheerfully, blood trickling down her leg from beneath her skirt, particularly captures my attention, setting the tone for our conversation quite appropriately.
“We get a lot of young people and thrill seekers coming in to see our shows.” he shares, “Almost instead of going to Magic Mountain, people will come see Urban Death.” I have no doubts regarding the validity of this statement after meeting two of his most trusted and talented members, Music Composer of Urban Death Michael Maio, and actor and Assistant Composer Shayne Eastin. Both under the age of 25, they credit Urban Death as being the catalyst for what brought them into the company. “After seeing the show, I remember looking at Mike and saying, ‘We have to work with these people all the time,’” Shayne says, “and I think this theater is so unique and exciting because the point of view they take is always provocative.”
And while original productions like Urban Death, and Attack of the Rotting Corpses have done an amazing job branding the company as the premier, go-to place for “provocative,” horror-based theater, translating into ticket sales- it’s their adaptations that have translated into accolades. “We’re up for five LA Weekly Theater Awards for our adaptation of Turbo Tartuffe, which had full-blown 18th century costumes,” Zombie says, “so we’re excited about that.” As they should be, having already previously received an LA Weekly Theater Award honoring their one-act ensemble in the adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque of Red Death.
But awards aren’t everything. “We’re definitely a horror-based company with our own brand of horror,” Zombie says, “and our bloodline is directly connected to our audience, so the second they stop coming, it’s over.” I have a feeling it won’t be “over” for some time as this year is their 20th anniversary, and their most anticipated year yet. And no one could be more excited about the future of Z.J.U. than Zombie Joe. Ironically, however, the inception of this courageous theater company was born out of despair and detachment.
“I’ve always been on stage since I was a kid,” Zombie shares, “but growing up in the theater- there came a point where something I loved so much, I started feeling very separate from.” Born and raised in Northridge, California, and a student at UC Irvine, Zombie started to feel disconnected doing standard, orthodox theater. And craving something a little more cutting-edge, he did something that would change the course of his life. “I was very angry,” he recalls, “and I wrote a play called The Masterpiece; it was abrasive with drugs, sex and half-lizard men. And I submitted it to be produced at UC Irvine, but they said that it was too nuts and they didn’t want me doing that kind of theater there, so I quit school.” Not only did he quit school, he sold everything, raising just enough money to build his own theater… in a garage. It was 1992 and he was only 20 years old, but with passion and determination behind him, Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater Group was born.
“The first few shows were really intense, and almost shock theater,” he remembers, “and it was a very angry, passionate, cathartic, beautiful time.” Zombie eventually left Northridge and upgraded to a space in Reseda, California. But by 2000, after doing well in several high school theater festivals, and with encouragement from two of Southern California’s most innovative business owners- he escaped to the developing community of theaters, galleries and cafes known as the NoHo Arts District. “Ed Gaynes and Nancy Bianconi were building the theater district at the time, and they told me I should move my theater here,” he says, “and that’s all it took; I moved here and there was no going back.”
It Takes a Village
Yes, Zombie was happy to be in North Hollywood, and quickly got to work building his all-star team, which included Denise Devin, an actor and choreographer he had collaborated with a few months prior to his move. With her sharp acting abilities and effective dance background, and Zombie’s draw to physically-demanding theater, Denise was the obvious choice to perform in Z.J.U. productions like sexually-charged Astroglyde 2002 and character-study The Masterpiece. Today, Denise has added director and choreographer to her role- her many talents securing her the position of lead Director at Z.J.U., and her early contributions making her one of the original Founders of the theater’s North Hollywood location. “We’re both working hard and doing a lot,” Zombie says, “so even though I’m at the top, it really is a collaborative effort between Denise and I, and a lot of other creative minds here.”
And the creative minds are bountiful with 4 tiers of 75 members strong, including General Manager Adam Neubauer, Actor/Director Jana Wimer (Urban Death, Attack of the Rotting Corpses) and Actor/Director Sebastian Munoz (Urban Death, Devils Love at Midnight, The Grimm World). The Grimm World, written by Adam Neubauer & Samantha Levenshus, will bring in a new, even younger audience of children to Z.J.U. as Director Sebastian Munoz explains during our phone interview, “It’s an original Grimm Brother’s fairy tale, all mixed up, with Snow White, Cinderella, the Frog Prince and Hänsel & Grethel in one.” For Sebastian, a long-time friend of Zombie Joe’s, this is a passion project for which he’s set up a KickStarter where fans are encouraged to donate $10 or more to raise money for production value purposes. Committed to delivering only the best in authenticity to his patrons, Sebastian credits Zombie’s lead-by-example management style with facilitating his return to theater. “Zombie is so passionate and driven,” Sebastian says, “and he helped me appreciate theater because of his keen eye for getting the best performances from his actors. He knows how to put together a great show.” But in recent, putting on a great show has proven slightly challenging for Zombie.
A master of horror-infused theater, Zombie decided to challenge himself with something a little less familiar, taking on the mission of directing his first romantic-comedy by playwright Robert Riemer titled REDHEADS. “It’s a story about loneliness, and finding that perfect person,” Zombie says, “and it’s a more normal play- so I think people were a little surprised, but for me, normal is experimental.” But all experiments, however mainstream in nature, hold lessons that eventually shape the way we think, and the same can be said for Zombie. “Directing REDHEADS showed me what my weakness are,” he confesses. “I learned that I need to get more connected with my work because I’m all about the final performance, but I can still go a little deeper and extract more from the inside.”
Regardless of what Zombie might think of his own abilities or weaknesses, he has a legions of fans, friends and members of his beloved theater consistently singing his praises. “I feel really lucky to be able to utilize this space,” Shayne says, “and as a performer, it’s great to have someone like Zombie allow you to get as extreme as you want.”
A Corner of Your Own
Now, in its 20th year with several new plays on the horizon, including the rebirth of Urban Death, to say that Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater Group is in good standing would be an understatement. And with their fan base constantly growing, they’re highly likely to start stealing audiences away from more conventional theater companies. “A lot of theater companies don’t equate horror with theater,” Zombie shares, “they equate it more wit Death of a Salesman or Miss Julie. And a lot of what’s already being produced here in the District is more for middle-aged baby boomers- an audience that’s getting older- but for young people, they may not sit through Miss Julie. So it definitely gives us a niche in the market.” And with that niche comes a growing demand for more. Just look on Z.J.U.’s Fabebook page, and witness the sheer excitement over the return of Urban Death. “It’s definitely a play our company loves doing, but we love it all,” he says, “we all have day jobs, we all work for free, everybody pulls together their resources- and for us, it’s really a labor of love. The only hard part is when we have to decide what to do next.”
Well, with the bar being set extremely high with every new production, my advice would be to choose carefully.
Urban Death runs every Saturday night at 11pm in the NoHo Arts District, while Attack of the Rotting Corpses will run Fridays at 11pm beginning April 6-27th, followed by The Grimm World Fridays, April 20th – June 8th.
For reservations, please call 818-202-4120- and for more information, please visit www.ZombieJoes.com