I’m walking through a maze of garbage bags in near-total darkness. I’m waving a dim flashlight around trying to locate anything I might use to guide me. I notice the shape of someone dressed in white – she turns out to be a kind old woman. Finally, someone who doesn’t seem interested in hissing at me. She’s holding a tray and a spatula. “Ooh, cookies?” I ask hopefully. She smiles and offers me a taste, holding the spatula in front of my face. I squint and move my flashlight closer. It’s not a tray, it’s a litter box. I politely decline what I now understand to be cat feces. Urban death tour of terror 2019
Zombie Joe’s Urban Death Tour of Terror 2019 is a two-part Halloween experience that has arguably become the theater’s signature attraction. The meat of the show is a theatrical performance called Urban Death, which typically runs two or three times a year at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater in North Hollywood. Urban Death is a series of very short vignettes, almost always devoid of dialogue, which depict freaky characters in disturbing situations or performing ungodly acts. The scenes, many of which amount to mere seconds, are separated by the blackest of blackouts. As you sit in total darkness, which you will countless times, it is impossible to know what you might see next – be it something scary, funny, gross, or even moving.
Urban Death Tour of Terror 2019 is like a tasting menu for horror fans, offering small bites of violence, sex, monsters, ghosts, and many things that have no name or category. Performed to an audience of about forty (in this case, most are seated on the floor), it is intense, weird, and creepy but, above all, supremely entertaining. This season’s show has an underlying silliness and humor that is not always the focus of Urban Death shows – but here it makes for an incredibly fun (and affordable, at $16 a ticket) night out.
Of course, during Halloween season, guests will notice the subtitle “Tour of Terror” attached to the Urban Death name. The titular “Tour” refers to the second part of the show, a haunted maze that serves as both the entrance and exit to the main performance. The maze is constructed of black garbage bags with crude arrows made of masking tape. Unlike most haunted mazes, where elaborate set design is the main draw, Zombie Joe’s uses these garbage bags to create another type of black box theater, where the focus is completely on the twisted characters that lie within. Each group of guests is given a flashlight to navigate the maze, but these flashlights have been modified to provide as little light (or comfort) as possible. Adding yet another layer of uncertainty, after you complete the maze once and watch the show, you must exit back through the maze which has been repopulated with all-new characters and scares.
The theatrical portion of Urban Death Tour of Terror is a shortened one (compared to the usual Spring production), running somewhere around fifteen minutes. This season’s show features one of the most crowd-pleasing selections of scenes in some time, ditching some of the grittier and more controversial elements in favor of spooky special effects, gross hilarity, and weird encounters with the supernatural. There is a fair amount of full-frontal nudity, making it mostly unsuitable for children. But this Urban Death mostly stays away from highly sensitive topics such as violence against women or children, which are normally fair game for ZJU.
In fact, the Urban Death brand seems to be focusing more on pure entertainment as of late, even resulting in a version for kids earlier this year (in fact, each night of the 2019 Tour of Terror now includes the kids’ version of the show at 7p – check the ticketing page for details). While the show is by no means losing steam, the subject matter is becoming more colorful, more varied, and perhaps slightly less confrontational. Instead, Zombie and the crew seem to be saving the really soul-crushing and violent material for Urban Death’s sister show, Blood Alley. A wise and welcome move – or maybe just a coincidence.
As always, the fearless cast shines, with a number of new faces that have been seamlessly integrated into the company. Brock Birkner makes an immediate impression in a wonderfully chilling yet funny pre-show scene. Jonica Patella is one of the few ZJU veterans in the show portion, but she reprises some of her most memorable scenes and pulls off a number of spectacular physical feats. Many of the best scenes in the show involve characters whose true identities are obscured completely. Notably, some other beloved cast members instead opted to be part of the maze, with this writer’s personal favorite – Warren Hall – playing a very insistent priest, uncomfortably and hilariously speaking in tongues.
The show is directed by Jana Wimer, who as always deserves much praise for her execution of this highly technical and ultra-precise performance. Every scene must be prepared in complete darkness, inches away from the audience, in just seconds. This show in particular has several moments that require immense control from the actors to avoid actual collisions. Still others demand that actors move in complete silence to set up a chilling moment. These are the bare minimum requirements for ZJU actors. It’s astounding that after years of attending countless shows at ZJU, I have yet to witness anything that I could confidently call a mistake.
Urban Death is a must-see for any fan of horror or innovative theater, and is especially recommended to anyone who has never attended before. There’s simply nothing like it, and it is telling that the show has no imitators. When it comes to most art, there is a sort of inevitability. If your favorite great work didn’t exist, someone would create it eventually. Not so in this case. If Urban Death did not exist, it’s hard to imagine it being created in another time, or another place, by anyone other than Zombie Joe.
Find out more about Zombie Joe’s and get tickets for Urban Death Tour of Terror 2019 – running now to November 2nd – on their website, Instagram, or Facebook page. Make sure to subscribe to our Event Calendar for more immersive and horror entertainment throughout the year.
All photography by Jana Wimer.
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