Review: ‘URBAN DEATH’ at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater is a Frenzied Feast for Horror Fans.

The innovative URBAN DEATH production has roots in Grand Guignol but, like a mutant child, is unique in its own special (and terrifying) way.

Theater-goers enter Zombie Joe’s for¬†a performance of URBAN DEATH. (photo credit ScarePop)

If you would have¬†lived¬†in Paris, France, in the¬†late 19th and early 20th centuries (and who knows, maybe you did), you would have had the opportunity to see some extremely shocking, scary, gory, raunchy, funny and wild theater¬†at Le Th√©√Ętre du Grand-Guignol (The Theatre of the Great Puppet).¬†The Grand Guignol was essentially the birthplace of the modern horror movie, running 5-6¬†plays per night featuring¬†deranged and devious characters, buckets of fake blood and scenes of violence so macabre and brutal that theater-goers¬†would vomit¬†and even faint¬†during the shows. To¬†further arouse the audiences’ range of emotions, the horror plays would be punctuated by bawdy¬†comedy bits. The Grand Guignol theater was a Parisian institution for many years, its impact so great that¬†the term Grand Guignol today remains¬†synonymous with¬†graphic, amoral entertainment – it essentially became its own genre.

Cut to a modern scene where, in a¬†nondescript strip mall in North Hollywood, nestled in-between an H&R Block and a Thai massage parlor, three mysterious letters hang above a plain green awning on a rusty, unlit marquee: “Z.J.U.”

The sign marks¬†the home of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater, where the theatrical tradition of the Grand Guignol is alive and well.

The entrance to Z.J.U.  A crowd enters for a performance of URBAN DEATH (photo credit: ScarePop)

The man known as Zombie Joe (“call me Zombie,” he’ll tell you) founded his eclectic theater company in Northridge in 1992. At the time, he was a 20 year-old student building theater sets and dabbling in alternative, avant-garde theater at UC Irvine. After having had, as he describes it, “an artistic breakdown of sorts,” he wrote a play, sold everything he had and¬†started the underground theater group. Pulling artistic inspiration from¬†a¬†wide range¬†of sources – from¬†the¬†Grand Guignol to¬†Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, to Stanislavsky, Berthold Brecht, Anton Chekhov and George Lucas – “Zombie”¬†and his group have been pushing theatrical boundaries and building up a cult following via the creation and staging of edgy, experimental¬†plays ever since.

Since 2005, however, the show that has raised the highest level of excitement and brought the most attention to Z.J.U. is their¬†signature horror production, URBAN DEATH. And, after seeing a performance of it,¬†it’s not hard to see why.

Creepy props adorn the lobby at Z.J.U. (photo credit: ScarePop)

Directed and created by¬†Zombie Joe and Jana Wimer and featuring a dedicated ensemble cast of 15 players, URBAN DEATH’s unique¬†blend of horror incorporates¬†Grand Guignol-style shocks and humor with eerie French tableaux-style “living pictures” and Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” concept of assaulting the audiences’ senses in an effort to wake up their subconscious mind and emotions. A¬†series of short, freaky vignettes and bizarre moments in time appear and disappear with the fleeting¬†yet visceral terror¬†of a passing¬†nightmare. There is no speaking at all in the show – the actors rely instead on a more visual, physical style of storytelling accompanied by¬†screams, yells, grunts, moaning, laughter and whispers. It is frenzied, raw, nightmarish entertainment. Nudity and blood are on¬†display, along with a deeper, more psychological horror pulled from the darkest corners of a¬†deranged¬†psyche. URBAN DEATH reaches into a twisted grab-bag of our deepest, most disturbing fears and brings a ghastly assortment of them¬†to light for the briefest of moments – the effect of which is scary, funny, at times uncomfortable, and above all – incredibly¬†weird. That all of this occurs in near darkness in a tiny, 40-seat theater adds to the intimacy and the surrealism of the experience.

The cast of URBAN DEATH. (Image via Z.J.U, photo credit: Marti Matulis)

Zombie Joe himself describes URBAN DEATH as a¬†“theatricum of modern horror” that¬†dives into the depths of inexplicable horrors, unfathomable monstrosities, and the disturbed spirits that walk among us.¬†“[It’s about] the things that haunt us and affect us and disturb us as people – we really kind of go deep into the depths of hell and try to excavate the deepest terror and the most personal terror we can. Nothing is too taboo for us.”

A scene from URBAN DEATH. (Image via Z.J.U., photo credit: Marti Matulis)

As scary and disturbing as it all sounds (and is), there is an element of levity in URBAN DEATH as well.¬†“We see life as like, fun and silly too,” he adds, as almost an afterthought. “We try not to take ourselves too seriously.”

A scene from URBAN DEATH. (Image via Z.J.U., photo credit: Marti Matulis)

The entire operation at Z.J.U., while wildly creative, remains bare bones and low budget – Zombie describes¬†it as¬†“blue-collar theater.” “We’re very much a working man’s theater and we want to do working man’s entertainment, that’s why tickets are cheap – it’s $15 bucks to see the show – and that goes for students or celebrities, whoever comes out.”

The working man’s theater, bare bones style¬†of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater¬†lends to the¬†terrifically raw nature¬†of URBAN DEATH and highlights the creativity at work.¬†“We really work with what we’ve got. We don’t ever try to mask what’s important to us, and that’s¬†the performances and the honesty and integrity of the theatrical event itself. We try to really get down to the basics.”

A scene from URBAN DEATH. (Image via Z.J.U., photo credit: Marti Matulis)

For those who may have seen URBAN DEATH before (it runs for several weeks twice a year) it’s important to note that the show is different each time. The current iteration,¬†says Zombie, offers¬†“over half new¬†material, new fodder, new pieces. The energy is a little more aggressive. Every time we do it we try to make it scarier and funnier and we try to go a little deeper.”

As for those who have never been before, he offers a guide of what you can expect.

“[The audience] can run through the gamut of emotions with us ¬†– they can laugh and cry and get scared and freaked out if they’re open to it. We encourage people to have an open mind.¬†It’s like going to a museum and we’ll drive around and you can just sit and watch. It’s almost like looking through a peephole.¬†We’ll take you on that¬†ride if you’re up for it.”

In¬†the way that Grand Guignol became its own genre, perhaps Zombie Joe’s brand of frenzied, nightmarish entertainment will become its own¬†genre in¬†the history books of theater and entertainment. While it draws inspiration from many places, it has a unique style all its own.¬†URBAN DEATH¬†offers a fantastically terrifying¬†lesson in creativity and a refreshingly original, honest exploration of horror that is well worth a visit. (Fainting and vomiting are optional.)

Tickets are $15. For Reservations CALL: (818) 202-4120
Advance Tix Available at:
Official Websites: and





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