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Theater Review (LA): Zombie Joe’s Urban Death

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The Zombie Joe Theatre Group’s perennial Urban Death has returned to North Hollywood in a new edition to shock and entertain discriminating audiences.

Taking his inspiration from the Parisian Théatre du Grand-Guignol that specialized in naturalistic horror shows beginning in the late 19th century, Urban Death auteur Zombie Joe has reinvented the genre with a fast-moving, 42-scene show combining horror, splatter, jet-black humor, and deviant sex in a seemingly jumbled jigsaw puzzle of scenes that actually forms a coherent singular vision once it’s been witnessed.

And what a dark vision it is – monstrous clowns; grinning, blood-spattered murderers; piles of corpses coming back to moaning life… Believe it or not, there’s also social commentary and ironic humor blended in.

It’s a challenging performance piece, expertly executed by a team of talented artists. Not only is split-second timing (and the ability to see in the dark) essential for the actors, lighting and music cues must also be perfectly synced to seamlessly reveal each startling tableau.

The tiny, black-box ZJU Theater is the perfect stage for this production. Everyone is close together – the audience and the performers – which increases the feeling of unease. Add to that the fact that the theater is plunged into complete darkness between scenes, leaving audience members listening to the rumbling of thunder or the sighing of the undead while they anticipate the horrific visions that will be revealed when the lights rise again. One unfortunate young woman near me literally started whimpering.

Cheering and applause greeted the conclusion of almost every vignette the night I saw the show, which is probably the norm, but I almost wished that attendees had been requested to remain silent until the end to allow the ominous mood to build. On the other hand, the enthusiastic response worked as a tension release.

ZJU’s been doing this show in various forms since 2005 – including an East Coast edition – and the years of experience show in this tightly-paced, uniquely macabre work, directed for maximum effect by ZJ with atmospheric music by Michael Maio.

Zombie Joe’s Urban Death plays Saturday nights at 11 p.m. at ZJU Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Reservations: (818) 202-4120.

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About Kurt Gardner

Writer, critic and marketing expert whose passion for odd culture knows no bounds.