I open the glass door to Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre on a cool Monday evening, cooler than most during springtime in North Hollywood. For once, it’s deathly quiet inside the tiny black box. There are no deafening screams to be heard, nor the moody bassline of an improvised soundtrack. There is just one man, high atop a ladder, working in silence. Clad in his signature ensemble of blue jeans and an “Urban Death” t-shirt, Zombie Joe takes a break from fussing with the lights overhead to greet me with a smile, eager to talk about the show’s upcoming spring iteration, opening May 4.
Before I get a chance to realize there’s something missing, he steps behind a counter and lights some incense, providing the familiar smell that accompanies the vast majority of productions here.
“Lighting some dragon’s magic here, to set us on our way for happiness and success.”
Since 2005, “Urban Death” has become the signature piece for Zombie Joe’s, an oft-wordless collection of horrific scenes ranging from uncomfortably dark to hilarious. But to the man known affectionately to his friends as Zombie, it’s rooted in much more than just spookshows.
“Our company is founded on [concepts like] Theatre of Cruelty, Antonin Artaud, Theatre and Its Double,” he says–these being fitting inspirations given the violent nature of nearly everything that goes on between these walls. He almost loses himself as he continues rattling off a laundry list of dramatic influences, name-dropping shows like Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle.”
Inspired by everything from the Russian Masters to the German Expressionists, Zombie Joe and co-director Jana Wimer have by now curated over five hundred pieces for “Urban Death” alone, with only about 20% of each show consisting of returning segments. And as horrific as some of the scenes are, punctuated by blood-curdling shrieks or victims speaking in tongues, the pitch-black pauses between the scenes of “Urban Death” are almost as important as the vignettes themselves. Silence plays a massive part in the show, something that Zombie Joe suggests enhances its relatability.
“We’d been experimenting a little bit with wordless theatre, using our bodies and our energy and our emotion, which is really prevalent and big in the ‘Urban Death’ style,” he says, noting that much of the “Urban Death” audience consists of non-English speakers. “We have a lot of them coming to see the show, and they don’t even go to regular plays but they come to ‘Urban Death,’ because they can understand it, because we’re not speaking English. They can understand the language of the heart, of the theatre, that we’re sending out.”
Even though “Urban Death” has been taken everywhere from New York to Cape Town, to say nothing of its upcoming run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the darkness of L.A. is still its home. And being a horror-based attraction in Los Angeles, it makes a certain amount of sense that “Urban Death” would eventually be absorbed, in a way, into the haunted attraction community.
In 2013, sensing growing trends towards immersive theatre, Zombie Joe began a twist on “Urban Death” called “Tour of Terror,” in which guests are given tiny flashlights with which to navigate their way through a maze of disturbing vignettes before and after their experience.
“I think the flashlights have gotten dimmer and dimmer as time goes on, you can barely see shit anymore,” Zombie says, flashing the ear-to-ear smile that rarely leaves his face. “It’s instantly terrifying, the second they walk in, they’ve got to feel their way around.”
“Urban Death” carries countless arrows in its quiver, whether it’s heart or empathy or fear or the shock of occasional full-frontal nudity, creating a unique dichotomy of the heartfelt and the forbidden. It’s rare that such a show runs for nearly a decade and a half in the ruthless world of Los Angeles theatre, but outside of getting bigger and bolder with its choices, Zombie explains that it remains largely the same show that first shocked audiences in 2005.
“There’s a lot of similarities from the first show to now. I think we just expanded sideways on it to try to make it scarier, [to have] better acting, to connect with the imaginations of our audience. We’ve really been focusing on that.”
“Partnering with the darkness,” he adds, nonchalantly. “The darkness is a character in itself in “Urban Death”.”
The show may shock and titillate, but Zombie is quick to point out that there is no political agenda at work here, emphasizing that the idea is not to preach or to offend, but simply to entertain.
“We see ‘Urban Death’ for its pure entertainment value. We remove any stigmas or any reservations. We cross all lines, so in the show, there’s no color, race, religion. Even though we might do religious-based pieces, for us, it’s all entertainment. We have no opinion on it. We leave it up to our audiences to form their thoughts.”
Zombie remains gleefully tight-lipped about the brand new show, as at this point, the cast is still in the process of whittling the set-list down to what audiences will actually see come May 4. Even mere days out, the cast is hard at work perfecting the show, their charismatic leader unsure of what they might collectively choose to perform or discard.
As performers file into the theatre for last-minute rehearsals, Zombie greets every one of them with the exact same level of enthusiasm. Effusive as ever, he asks if he can count on seeing me on opening night, to which I reply in the affirmative, noting the convenience of running unopposed at the ungodly hour of 11PM.
He chuckles with a wry grin.
“That’s when the freaks come out, man.”
The spring iteration of “Urban Death” begins Friday, May 4. For more information on ZJU’s trip to Edinburgh, their appearance at Midsummer Scream, or this Halloween’s Tour of Terror, visit www.zombiejoes.com