As I enter the theater for 2017’s Urban Death: Tour of Terror, I see a slight woman standing in the center of the stage. She looks (surprisingly) rather beautiful: dressed in a gown that is elegant but not gaudy, and lacking the apparent ghoulishness that we expect from characters in most Zombie Joe’s Underground (ZJU) horror productions. The elegance is added by a violin mounted on her shoulder. As she stares blankly into the distance, she drags her bow across it, repeating the same lulling, lovely melody ad infinitum. It’s hardly the first thing one expects to see when they enter a horror show, particularly one marketed specifically for the Halloween season. It’s almost romantic, in fact.
Once I take my seat however, something begins to shift. Her face begins to crack. The blank stare melts away to some kind of distress. Fear? Trauma? Tragedy? The violin bow begins to scrape sour notes. The player finally breaks, takes a minute to compose herself, and attempts to start over, beginning the process anew. This vignette, used simply as pre-show entertainment for the crowd as they file into the tiny theater from the scare maze that precedes it, captures the essence of what I love about Zombie Joe’s Underground perhaps better than anything. It’s a glimpse through a keyhole—a brief depiction of ambiguous trauma that hits all the harder for how little explanation it offers its audience. It is also entirely reliant on the abilities of its performer, the incomparable Elif Savas. For those who have attended ZJU with any regularity, praising Savas’ performance abilities is almost redundant at this point, but it bears repetition here. The amount that Savas is able to communicate in this small segment, without the aid of dialogue or even much in the way of movement, is astounding.
The scene also sets the tone for the rest of a strong set list for 2017’s Urban Death: Tour of Terror. With the Halloween crowd being easily the broadest and biggest that the theater attracts all year, one might expect directors Zombie Joe and Jana Wimer to calibrate or “tone things down” for a more palatable experience overall. And while it is true that this show does not hit the levels of cruelty or depravity found in something like its sister production Blood Alley, it must also be noted that there are more than a few vignettes and segments that are bound to elicit a shocked gasp from even the most seasoned veterans. Cast members Jetta Juriansz, Brandon Slezak, Holly Sokol, Abel Horwitz, and the aforementioned Savas deliver a diverse selection of pieces ranging from the nightmarishly surreal to the horrifyingly realistic, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind upon leaving the theater that there is only one ZJU.
All of this being said, we have yet to even discuss the scare maze element that distinguishes Urban Death: Tour of Terror from its non-Haunt-season counterpart. As we have come to expect from previous years, patrons will enter the pitch-black scare maze in groups of two (three maximum) armed only with a dim flashlight. What defies expectation, for me at least, is just how good the scare maze is this year. As someone who has always prioritized the theater aspect of Urban Death: Tour of Terror over the maze, even I found myself extremely impressed at how much innovation went into constructing this year’s labyrinth of dimly-lit violent, sexual, and simply strange oddities. Elaborate costumes and innovative haunt tactics are found throughout, often putting us face to face with creatures so bizarrely and beautifully constructed that I couldn’t tell if they were being played by one actor or three. ZJU fans may recognize some familiar faces in the maze, including Jonica Patella, Nicole Craig, and Kevin Van Cott, but equally exciting is a crop of fresh faces and talent, including Lester Clark, Benjamin Kramer, Ax Mason, Carly McClellan, Eric Prochnau, and Alikona Bradford (who I later found out was responsible for perhaps the biggest jump scare of my night).
With their 2017 production of Urban Death: Tour of Terror, the folks at ZJU have delivered a show that hits on all levels. From the maze to the theater show, there is bound to be something for everyone in the 30-minute-or-so duration of the experience, and all within the unique, uncompromising voice that the space has come to be known for. In the midst of an increasingly-busy haunt season, Urban Death: Tour of Terror rightfully maintains its place as a must-see, if not simply for how unique it is.
Tickets are currently on sale for Urban Death: Tour of Terror at the ZJU website. While there, you can also purchase tickets for ZJU’s second Halloween offering: veteran ZJU director Brandon Slezak’s horror show “Deviled”, set to premiere on October 18th.