This review of Zombie Joe’s Urban Death: Tour of Terror contains very minimal thematic and format spoilers.
A deep ominous drone envelopes us as we sit inches apart in the pitch black. A nervous energy fills the air, and I hold my breath in anticipation of what might appear out of the darkness next. The lights come up to a dim glow, illuminating a nude man standing before us, shaking in discomfort. He barely clings to a spoon with his trembling hand – the spoon which he used to severely wound himself just moments before we peek into his world. A demonic woman dances around his shoulders, preying on his psyche. He struggles to ignore her while she whispers into his ears and sinks her nails into his flesh. His arm shakes in a futile attempt to resist the woman’s influence, as he slowly, excruciatingly, lifts the spoon closer to his face. The scene sinks into blackness once again, just before we witness an unthinkable tragedy.
Every October, Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater rolls out the black garbage bags and gives us URBAN DEATH: TOUR OF TERROR. Now in its 13th year (it opened in 2005, with the “Tour of Terror” being added in 2013), the flagship show at ZJU directed and created by Zombie Joe and Jana Wimer, Urban Death, carries on strong. With 5 nightly performances over the weekends of October and early November, including Halloween night itself, Urban Death is a staple of the Los Angeles haunt scene. In this legendary blackbox theater, the focus is on theatrical performance. Before the show, the ZJU staff even makes a point to say that this is not an immersive experience, differentiating it from the many immersive haunted attractions around town. Although ZJU also puts on immersive productions, this is not one of them; there is no physical contact and, for the majority of its 45-minute runtime, you will be sitting. This is not a detriment whatsoever, since the unique format ZJU has created with Urban Death is incredibly impactful. Although the Halloween edition of Urban Death includes the titular Tour of Terror, a haunt-like maze, it is far from the traditional maze you might expect, much to its advantage.
The signature Tour of Terror maze is a truly unique haunt that completely transforms your perception of what lies beyond an everyday glass door on a strip-mall facade. Your expectations will be dashed, and all of your senses will quickly be on high alert in this disorienting space. Trying to find your way through the narrow, nearly pitch black passageways is an exhilarating challenge. Arrows guide your way, but with only the most useless flashlight you’ve ever used as your source of light, it is hard not to feel hopelessly lost here. With what little light there is, you will see ghastly, often pornographic, sights lurking in the corners. Lasting only a few minutes, it’s a relief to finally escape from this claustrophobic journey into the performance space.
Once the audience is seated for the main attraction, the ZJU performers deliver poignant horror stories in the form of short vignettes. I am always in awe of the emotional depth and story each one of these incredibly short scenes can communicate, which is a testament to the powerful acting chops of the longstanding ZJU cast members and the intense feelings Zombie Joe and Jana Wimer elicit. These are stories that hit very close to home. Each vignette feels like a photograph or a painting come to life, evocative of the suburban horror depicted in a Crewdson tableau. Some might say Lynchian, but these pieces often feel far more rooted in realism than anything magical or surreal. The scenes feel personal and intimate in a most unsettling way; they aim to get under your skin and expel your inner fears. The subject matter is earnest and raw, one degree abstracted from our dystopian realities, verging on looking in a mirror or peering into a microscope at the dark side of our daily lives. When these tales aren’t mining the depths of emotional tragedy, they are digging deep into pitch-black comedy, which often devolves into something almost slapstick. At Zombie Joe’s you will laugh one minute and feel a heavy pit in your stomach the next.
As always, the acting in Urban Death: Tour of Terror is in rare form. Performers here are masters of physical contortions and bodily control. For a show with no dialogue, each performer conveys miles of inner thoughts and messages through their expressions. Limbs bend in demented and crooked ways, eyes scream, and bodies climb any and all surfaces. As the shows backbone, Elif Savas can completely change demeanor from one scene to the next, while Warren Hall gives us a perfect horn-dog caricature straight from a John Waters film filtered through Monty Python sensibilities. With her unique look, Jonica Patella brings a visceral presence to the stage, preying on our fears through every thousand yard stare. This show lives and dies on the strengths of its actors, and it is definitely alive and well in 2018.
I’m most awestruck by what ZJU can accomplish with minimal production means and for a mere $15 ticket, no less. I’ve seen visuals unfold before me that left me stunned. There is hardly a need for a suspension of disbelief; if a body seems to be levitating, it just might be in this magical, black box. The creators and crew know just how to make use of simple practical effects for maximum dramatic impact down to the lighting details and room shaking sound cues.
From the darkness again, the lights slowly lift and the show is over, always too soon. We shuffle around in the theater, all a bit dumbfounded, and shake out our sleeping legs after sitting on the floor for the last 20 minutes. Back through the maze we go, but in a reverse, variation from that which we came in. You aren’t leaving Zombie Joe’s quite so easily, but rest assured, the kindhearted Zombie himself will be waiting on the other side of the Tour of Terror with a far-too-jolly greeting and a big warm hug. I wish next Halloween was right around the corner but, until then, I’ll be looking forward to Blood Alley Christmas for another dose of trademark ZJU vignettes. We can always trust this company to have many more tales of shocking horror to tell.