|“They won’t stay dead!”
If you recognize the tagline to this classic zombie film, then you’re the perfect
victim viewer for Zombie Joe’s Underground inurbane “Urban Death” back by popular demand. Macabre fans and lovers of all things dark and disturbing can’t get enough of the horror-centric company whose humble beginnings inside a Northridge garage in 1992 has seen them to their own home in NoHo, earning several nods and awards (most recently Jonica Patella of “Turbo Tartuffe” for Best Female Comedy Performance at the 2012 LA Weekly’s Awards). This ghoulish production puts the MORE in morbid with its rapidly paced one-act of 42 vignettes featuring the oddest assortment of visceral scenes ranging from the creepy crawly to the shockingly sinister.
Whatever the phobia, be it a fear of the dark, clowns, blood, rats, ghosts, or a broken condom, every conceivable nightmare is exploited to good measure. The intimate black box space adds a slightly claustrophobic/voyeuristic atmosphere and ensures no easy escape for its audience once the show starts. Pregnant women and those suffering from heart conditions should probably pass on this immersive sensory experience as total darkness precedes each scene. For everyone else who enjoys things that go bump in the night, you won’t be disappointed here.
Those who’ve already seen one of the earlier productions of “Urban Death” should return like the Living Dead and get ready to party because Zombie Joe has added more to his repertoire. The tried and true terrors like listening to the scuttling of rats in total darkness or seeing a baby eat his excrement are all still there for your twisted viewing pleasure. There’s vomit, drugs, semen, rape and other garden-variety misfortunes as well as the outright freakish and strange.
The real brilliance to this theatrical funhouse of terrors is in the brevity of the spectacle itself. Each scene lasts no more than a couple of minutes, much like a Guignol-esque peep show. The audience is treated to a mere glimpse of the bizarre, the imminently dangerous or the profane. In this, spectacle in turn creates spectators who become as much a part of the show as the dedicated cast who contort themselves in a frenzy of vampy lust, shiver nude or beat on their chests with enough conviction to make one wince. And that’s the secret ingredient in this brew.
It takes a very special cast to create this type of gooseflesh inspiring show without being corny. While a few of the scenes are funnier than they are scary, the total commitment to, at the very least, unnerve is more than evident. These cast members want to see you squirm in your seat. And they go to great lengths to achieve the spine-tingling effect with sudden appearances, heavy breathing, rigor facial expressions and screams. Granted no one when seeing it live considers the breathless pace requiring quick set/dress changes, instantaneous poses in total darkness between scenes, and immediate ensemble tableaus, but on reflection, the coordinated efforts and stealthy ability to move around without being audible is extraordinary.
The one unifying story to all these white-knuckling vignettes is that a majority of us want to see something so fantastically horrible or frightening that it leaves us a little more prepared for the real horrors of our day. Or maybe it scars us for life. Who knows? Like any self-respecting zombie, “Urban Death” just won’t die and keeps grabbing more victims. I know I’m a goner.
UPDATED FOR 2014
Runs through April 26
Saturdays @ 8:30 pm
ZJU Theatre Group
4850 Lankershim Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91604
Reservations are strongly recommended. It’s a sell-out!
--M.R. Hunter (eyespylareviews[at]gmail.com)
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