- Urban Death by Zombie Joe
Before the show began, the audience sat in the space looking at an empty stage. The lights suddenly cut out and ten seconds later illuminated a pile of eleven corpses. No sound was heard, no cast members were seen getting into position under dim light; the stage was empty, then it was not. The corpses then began to rise, separate, and move. They noticed the audience and began moving towards them. The lights blacked out again. This moment set the stage for the rest of the evening, which consisted of forty-two vignettes, all lasting between ten seconds and three minutes.
Other moments included a sequence in which the small pieces of glow tape on the stage began to move and approach the audience. It began very subtly as the audience waited for the next depiction, and one slowly realized one’s understanding of the space itself was being challenged. The audience began laughing when it realized what was happening, but there was also an element of Freud’s unheimlich to the experience—that the theatre and the theatrical event itself were suddenly unfamiliar in a threatening way. This moment summarizes the experience of Urban Death: at a time when horror cinema is almost uniformly not frightening, Zombie Joe’s Underground (ZJU) Theatre was able to make the familiar unfamiliar while simultaneously amusing.
The ZJU Theatre is a small black-box theatre in the NoHo Arts District of North Hollywood offering postmodern Grand Guignol catering to hipster gothic tastes and named after its founder and artistic director Zombie Joe. Featuring productions like Attack of the Rotting Corpses and Hamlet, Prince of Darkness that embody Poor Theatre (in a Grotowskian sense), ZJU, as it is known, is currently celebrating its twentieth year in Los Angeles. Urban Death, ZJU’s “signature production,” originated almost a decade ago and is revived in new versions around the same themes with a different cast every few years. Despite a superficial appearance of exploitive gore, horror, and violence, Urban Death explores the idea of death and its constant presence in our lives through images, sound, and brief episodes, both funny and disquieting, that transcend the individual moments of sex and violence and speak to genuine daily fears.
The pieces were deceptively simple, employing minimal props, costumes (and a good deal more makeup) to create scenes that were ominous, disconcerting, phantasmagorical, and nightmarish, yet also puckishly amusing. Some pieces seemed to exist only to shock, such as when a frightening clown (Sebastian Munoz) took two minutes to cross the stage and strangle a terrified naked woman (Jonica Patella), although the sequence was also a masterpiece of disturbing anticipation as a result. Other pieces, however, brilliantly captured an aspect of our culture or society in a single image. For example, the lights rose on a man (Richard Lee) naked to the waist who began brutally slapping and punching himself. The blows were audible and forceful, his face a mask of pain. After several clouts he began screaming repeatedly, “Vote for me.” The audience, somewhat unsettled by the self-abuse up to that point, laughed loudly at this literalization of a metaphor about the American political process.
None of the fragments lasted particularly long nor ran particularly deep in terms of narrative or character, but there was something genuinely Aristotelian happening. The audience genuinely felt pity and terror and emerged from the production laughing. In a sense, the purpose of the entire event (as well as the individual vignettes) was to have an immediate emotional effect on the audience and then move to the next image or sequence. Nevertheless, many of the images were quite effective, both on their own and in the larger context. The panoply of images formed an almost medieval tapestry or living Bosch painting of death, torture, and suffering, all highly theatricalized.
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Especially effective were bits in which a dead bride in a husky voice repeated the words “Love...