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People may walk down the street in North Hollywood, stroll
past an indistinct storefront on Lankershim Boulevard, glance at the letters
“Z.J.U.” stenciled above the door and wonder what that place sells. They would
likely have no idea that just beyond those walls, unspeakable acts of depravity
are being performed with ferocity and zeal before an eager audience.
“Z.J.U.” stands for Zombie Joe’s Underground, a black-box
theater space that every Los Angeles-based fan of horror and debauchery should
make themselves familiar with. The allure of genre in live theater has been
growing steadily in recent years, thanks to everything from REPO! THE GENETIC
OPERA to RE-ANIMATOR: THE MUSICAL, but the performers at Zombie Joe’s strip the
experience to the scrappy essentials and rub the audience’s nose in their
grimy, sticky offerings. Shrugging off this theatrical experience means missing
the chance to share a room with cannibals, apparitions, sideshow-worthy freaks and
gory scenes so close you can smell the latex. Sure, we love movies, but zombie
attacks take on a whole new energy when they’re 5 feet away from you.
This month, Zombie Joe’s is hosting a pair of terrifically
twisted shows. Friday nights at 11 p.m. showcase the horror/comedy ATTACK OF
THE ROTTING CORPSES, an utterly batshit bloody farce directed by Jana Wimer,
written by Zombie Joe himself and acted by an amped cast of high-octane
lunatics. Taking place entirely in the lobby of a low-rent hotel, CORPSES
introduces us to a pair of desk clerks, Vic (an unlikely hero played by Josh
Ryan with serpentine, oily intensity) and the put-upon Mack (Billy Monogue,
whose aw-shucks charm recalls George Bailey-era Jimmy Stewart), who endure a
parade of grotesques, including fecund nerdy shut-in Doug (David Wynn Harris),
vampy Old Hollywood nutcase Mrs. Ferranello (Tina Preston) and Catarina (Jill
Johnson, who just about steals the show), a heavyset gal clad in spandex and
armed with an unsettling hungry glower.
The show is gross and pitched at a hysterical level long
before the undead show up, but the committed cast never lets the energy dip for
a second. Over the course of an hour (the standard length of shows at Zombie
Joe’s), the actors push the material harder and harder until a cacophonous
finale. With a candy-coated visual palette and a variety of offenses to good
taste, ROTTING CORPSES is a hoot. If your semi-annual Jason-marathon is
starting to get old, ATTACK OF THE ROTTING CORPSES provides a perfect Friday the 13th substitute
with sleazy, silly, surprisingly affecting thrills.
Saturday nights see the return of URBAN DEATH, the
“signature production” of Zombie Joe’s. While CORPSES is very much a play,
URBAN DEATH is more a mood-and-movement piece, a series of vignettes and tableaux
staged by a heroically committed ensemble who go through a dizzying amount of
costume and makeup changes. Those familiar with the show in previous
incarnations know what to expect in the broad sense; the lights come up on
something horrifying, painful, disgusting, hilarious or curious. Then there’s a
hard blackout that, depending on what we’ve seen, arrives just in time or
forces the audience to beg for release. Once witnessed, you’ll find it
difficult to shake such images as a terrifying clown sneaking up behind a
shivering nude woman, or a funeral with an unexpected yet appropriate mourner,
or a party featuring a man (Roger Weiss) with apparently delicious blisters on
Some scenes are gross-out funny, like the one with the giant
baby (Sebastian Munoz). Some are more esoteric or abstract, such as a woman in
1940s-era dress (Jonica Patella) who dances the Charleston more and more
desperately while the sound of bombs falling grows louder, or a man (Richard
Lee) who beats himself while shouting “Vote for me!” This year’s show features
some welcome repeats from 2011, but much of it is transformed by the new cast
and there’s plenty of new material, including a dancer (Corey Zicari) who makes
self-mutilation convincingly sexy, and the scene of a very, very premature
birth. While the current show features a particular emphasis on confrontational
and disturbing sexuality, URBAN DEATH contains great moments for horror fans,
including deceptively simple bits involving lightning flashes and scuttling
sounds in the dark that are truly frightening.
The productions are not particularly sophisticated (a
disemboweling scene in CORPSES features a red rag in place of guts—a wink to
Elizabethan theater, or just what was handy?), but the illusions occasionally
venture into the uncanny; the cast of URBAN DEATH are apparently all
ninjas, moving in and out of blackouts in utter silence, and some of the most
shocking moments involve their sudden appearances when the lights come up. Both
shows also feature elements that really do just go too far, but it will be up
to your personal taste to decide where to draw that line. Wherever your limit
is, the shows at Zombie Joe’s are likely to find it and cross it.
ZJU Theatre group is located at 4850 Lankershim Boulevard in
North Hollywood. Tickets are on sale at the door for $15; go to
www.zombiejoes.com or www.urbandeath.com for details.
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