Inside the L.A. horror theater show where no subject is taboo
The sleepy North Hollywood corner didn’t come alive until dark on Friday as people lined up outside the blood-red storefront theater simply labeled Z.J.U.
They had come to experience the annual Halloween production “Urban Death: Tour of Terror” by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, running through Saturday.
The show is not for the faint of heart. It has violence, nudity and graphic depictions of rape, suicide, addiction and other more abstract horrors. But the show has built a cult-like following over the last 14 years.
As the line quickly stretched down the block, the company’s founding artistic director, Zombie Joe, or Zombie as he’s called by friends and his troupe, stood out front eagerly greeting dedicated fans as well as first-timers — people like Alex Davison and James Flanagan, who said they knew nothing about the show, just that it was “performance-arty.”
“Urban Death” draws people from the “haunt community,” those who seek out the thrills of fear.
“Nothing is too taboo for us as a theater group, and for ‘Urban Death’ and all our shows, we have no opinion on anything.”
Rio Brown ticked off the haunted attractions she’s been to recently, including one where attendees were subjected to intense shocks and simulated suffocation. She said she had been coming to “Urban Death” since 2014. She enjoyed leaving with the feeling of “always trying to figure out what the hell I just saw.”
Sitting in his Lankershim Boulevard theater before a dress rehearsal Friday, the space painted entirely black — the walls, the ceiling, even the front counter — Zombie described the early days of his company.
Born J. Cole in 1971, Zombie created the company 27 years ago after dropping out of UC Irvine and leasing a warehouse space in Northridge. He was inspired by Antonin Artaud, a 20th century French dramatist who conceptualized a theater of cruelty.
“We were doing real violence, real sex. It was real hardcore theater,” Zombie said. “You can still see traces of it in our shows now, but the shows are definitely a lot better.”
The company moved from garage to garage — Reseda, Oakland, New York — before settling in North Hollywood in 2000. Zombie, who described himself as a Christian and a former funeral director, teaches theater and poetry at a state hospital in addition to running the company.
The troupe has produced more than 400 productions and performs year-round, and Zombie attributes much of the success of the tight-knit company to his sobriety, saying “that’s when things really started to flourish for the group.”
After receiving instructions for the show, the 70 or so people attending Friday were given flashlights and ushered into the theater in small groups. Inside the pitch-black space, the flashlights didn’t help much as audience members navigated a tight maze of small arrows on a black tarp.
As with most haunted attractions, the darkness provided opportunities for costumed characters to pop out and provide jump scares.
After completing the maze, audience members crammed into a small space behind yellow caution tape marking off the stage, no larger than 15 feet by 15 feet, as an actor laughed maniacally.
Then the show began.
Over a span of 15 minutes, the group reacted with howls of laughter, gasps and screams to wordless 30-second vignettes that blended seamlessly into one another. The vignettes ranged from comical (after proposing, a man shoves his new fiancé over to a zombie) to the bizarre (in a crowd favorite, a partygoer uses a bloody tampon as lipstick).
Others were more terrifying.
Viewers were left to fill in the details while watching a woman fail to escape the clutches of an attacker. In a real-life scare, a woman tries to resist the temptation of injecting drugs, but her hand is forced by another, seemingly demonic, presence.
Zombie created the show with codirector Jana Wimer in 2005. Wimer said she was inspired by the theater’s lack of light. “One of the things that struck me was how dark the blackouts were,” she said. “The shell of ‘Urban Death’ was born from the blackness, that fear.”
Wimer performed in the first iterations of the show, which lasted about an hour. She recalled one of her favorite scenes: “a vagina made out of naked women, then a man comes out of it.”
Six years ago, they added the “Tour of Terror” maze and shortened the vignettes. In recent years, the company has staged the show in Cape Town, South Africa, and Edinburgh, Scotland, and wants to continue touring the work.
It takes about two or three weeks to conceptualize and create a show. This year, the cast of about a dozen actors worked in the maze and onstage. Wimer also directed the first family-friendly version of the show, which features some kid-friendly nightmarish scenes, like a child watching parents dance.
Out of the nearly 600 vignettes created for “Urban Death” over the years — some depicting abortion, rape or suicide — Wimer recalls complaints about only two: a scene depicting a sniper in a schoolyard and another about a Holocaust concentration camp.
“Nothing is too taboo for us as a theater group, and for ‘Urban Death’ and all our shows, we have no opinion on anything,” Zombie said, relating the philosophy to one in Alcoholics Anonymous. “It’s all entertainment for us. We cross all the lines — if there even are lines.”
After watching about 20 vignettes, the crowd headed back through the maze toward the exit, energy buzzing (and expletives flying) as people streamed outside and another group began lining up for the next show.
Davison and Flanagan struggled to form complete sentences about what they experienced as they stepped out into the night.
“It’s proper theater, visually unsettling,” Flanagan said, adding that some of the imagery in the show was “going to pop up in my dreams.”
Davison rated “Urban Death” a “10 out of 10,” saying she would return next year. “I’m on an adrenaline high.”
'Urban Death: Tour of Terror'
Where: Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood
When: 8, 9, 10, 10:45 and 11:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; family-friendly version 7 p.m. Thursday and Saturday
Tickets: $16 in advance, $20 at the door
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