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