The lights come up, and we find ourselves staring at a pile of human bodies with arms outstretched. After a long silence, we hear a labored breath from somewhere among the limbs. The undead creatures rise up, and reach toward something in the distance. Suddenly, one of them catches sight of an audience member and screams. The entire horde is thrown into a panic, and they hurry offstage. Even zombies are afraid sometimes. Urban Death for Kidz
Urban Death for Kidz is, as the name implies, a family-friendly version of Zombie Joe’s flagship production Urban Death. Staged at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater in North Hollywood, Urban Death is a series of short vignettes, each separated by a dramatic blackout. Much of it is horror-themed, but absurd comedy and poignant drama are well-represented in the mix. The show is completely devoid of dialogue, and the performances are physical and precise. It runs about forty minutes, and though the audience is seated in very close proximity to the performers, there is no direct interaction. Zombie Joe and director Jana Wimer encourage children ten and older to attend.
“We’re the only ones doing children’s horror theater,” said Wimer following the show, “so please spread the word.” Even in a city like Los Angeles, the statement is not particularly hard to believe. Adapting Urban Death for children comes with many expected challenges, but the addition of these limitations make Urban Death for Kidz one of the most creative and colorful shows in Urban Death history.
Scenes often center on basic childhood fears – monsters under the bed, trips to the doctor, the social dynamics of gym class, and a bit of stubborn acne. The full-frontal nudity that typically punctuates an Urban Death show is, of course, nowhere to be found. The violence has been scaled back considerably. But this is no less than the full Urban Death experience, and it is a joy to recall that Wimer and her cast were never shock artists to begin with. In remodeling the show for children, the necessary changes are surprisingly few – it only requires a slight shift in focus and substituting one type of gross-out gag for another.
Make no mistake, Urban Death is creepy show, no matter one’s age. But this version is well-suited for ten-year-olds, and aims more for delightful chills and fun than abject terror. There are few, if any, jump scares, and the darker scenes will often produce a greater sense of wonder than fear. While less than half of the scenes could be described as pure horror (much of the rest being straight comedy), the creep factor emerges in short bursts, with increasing intensity, and leads to a delightful climax of spooky and magical scenes. The fear factor of the show could be compared to something like the Haunted Mansion, perhaps heightened by the intimacy of the theater and proximity of the performers.
Wimer treats her young audience with great respect. While sex and violence may be off the menu, the show includes other “adult themes” that feel welcome and necessary for preteen audience members: a boy’s escape from his parents’ fractured relationship, a despairing woman being comforted by a friend, the push-and-pull of young love. Urban Death for Kidz also does not shy away from some of the surreal, high-art elements that elevate the franchise.
The Urban Death for Kidz ensemble is a lineup of ZJU all-stars like Elif Savas, Ian Heath, Jonica Patella, Barry Bishop, and Warren Hall, mixed with newer performers and, notably, the young Anatol Felsen and Zeke Jones. At the age of 14, Felsen is the youngest Urban Death cast member ever, and likely the youngest actor ever to grace the ZJU stage. He provides a wonderful point of connection for young audience members, and instantly meshes with the adult ensemble. Classically-trained dancer Zeke Jones stands out in a beautiful ballet sequence, which plays on the universal fear of aging. With his long limbs and flexibility, he feels like a protégé of the great Ian Heath, and one scene puts both actors’ contortions to great use (during the performance I attended, one audience member shouted, “Oh no, there’s two of them!”). Heath also makes a few hilarious appearances as a clown with a questionable talent for making balloon animals. The clear highlight of the night, though, and perhaps the most perfect scene this author has witnessed at ZJU, stars Warren Hall as the Tooth Fairy and Oriko Ikeda as a young girl apparently strapped for cash.
I briefly spoke to Jana Wimer after the show, who explained her intentions for Urban Death for Kidz. Choosing the cutoff age was a point of discussion. “If they’re too young, there’s not a whole lot you can do in terms of horror…at ten, they’ve probably been exposed to a lot already on the internet, TV, video games, et cetera.” She also spoke about finding a balance in terms of horror for children, and perhaps pushing them just slightly. “I wanted it to be mostly fun,” she said, “but maybe just a little too scary.” Urban Death for Kidz does not aim to traumatize the youth of Los Angeles, but she hopes it’ll get their blood pumping.
After so many recent boundary-pushing experiments, Zombie Joe’s Urban Death for Kidz is a surprising gamble in the opposite direction. Marketing the show will certainly be a challenge, as curious parents may stumble across descriptions of other ZJU shows. But in this case, they should have no fear. Wimer, Zombie and crew are tasteful and trustworthy, and this iteration of Urban Death will be heaven for any youngsters showing an interest in horror, sci-fi, or fantasy. It also serves as a wonderful introduction to modern, underground theater, and will surely shatter their preconceived notions of stuffy old plays where adults stand around talking (at that age, a horror in its own right). And at $15 per ticket, it’s a mercifully cheap night out for the family. It’s a guaranteed ticket to “cool mom” or “cool dad” status, at least until it’s time for chores again.
Urban Death for Kidz is currently running through July 13th at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater in North Hollywood. Tickets are available here.
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