Friday, April 4, 2014

Urban Death 2014 (review)

Spoilers ahoy! (kinda)

For some years now Urban Death--a performance art/variety show about death and horror--proudly served as the signature piece of Zombie Joe's Underground Theater Group in North Hollywood. The current incarnation marks my third exposure. Writing about it remains tricky, not least because it really does depend upon surprise for maximum impact. Spoiler warnings to the contrary, my job as a reviewer is in no way to to "spoil" an audience member's experience!

So what follows is an attempt to give you some idea of what the show is like, without ruining it should you elect to go.

For the record, if you enjoy the gothic and the macabre, or enjoy horror that disturbs rather than grosses out, methinks this might be for you.

If you're among those who've seen previous entries of Urban Death, a little bit of a head's up. Quite a bit less gore this time. The show previously often focused on stuff meant to turn the stomach or make you flinch. Case in point--the pile of half-decomposed corpses that began to slowly, disjointedly stand up, then turn and devour an innocent looking young girl who wanders by. Well, the pile of corpses is nowhere to be seen. Neither are the kind of in-your-face stuff about serial killers, necrophilia and the like.

Jana Wimer directed this edition (she recently did another of the show in Cape Town, South Africa) and for this one the focus is less on blood or even flesh (decomposing, dead, about to die, etc.). Rather here we end up seeing more about faces--faces that show horror, fear, vanity, grief, lust and (sometimes) absolutely nothing at all. A quick glimpse of something horrible, then another of someone seeing it for the first time. A seemingly happy family (Karen N. Kahler, Mark Hein, Lauren Velasco) portrait that subtly but vividly changes as we watch. A woman in a straightjacket (Denise Devin) looking directly at you, a range of powerful emotions you don't understand rippling across her face--emotions you ultimately don't want to understand.

As before, we see one tiny vignette after another, an increasingly odd and nerve-wracking series of mini-scenes. Some are frankly hilarious as well as disturbing. One involves only what one hears in the dark. Another shows a flapper dancing, a seemingly innocent enough thing to watch yet which makes one recoil while never looking away for one second!

No small feat, any of this! In fact, the whole cast including Gloria Galvan, Wyn Harris, Abel Horwitz, John Lewandowski and Tina Preston (who makes brushing her teeth somehow chilling) all accomplish a great deal. The final result is much as if one had gone through a psychological haunted house for Halloween. This is less Saw and more Portrait of a Serial Killer. Layers of the psyche rather than of the flesh peel back, and bleed. And we watch.

It is not for the squeamish. Nor for the overly sensitive. Nor frankly for those seeking nothing but thrills a la torture porn. If anything I'd compare this show (in terms of cinema, anyway) to Dario Argento at his height, rather than George Romero. Not judging either one, just noting the differences. Don't think anyone in this Urban Death eats human flesh for example. Not literally. But without actually seeing the act, one knows a fair number of these characters have been raped. Or are going to rape. Or both.

Urban Death runs at 8:30pm on Saturday nights thorough April 26, 2014. The venue is Zombie Joe's at 4850 Lankershim, North Hollywood CA 91601 (north of Carmarillo & 101/135 Freeways, across from KFC). Tickets are $15. Reservations available at (818) 202-4120 or at

Disclaimer: I myself recently directed a show at ZJU, titled Carmilla. And I in fact personally know nearly all the cast and crew of this show.

1 comment:

Zombie Joe said...

HALLOWEEN in April? Only at ZombieJoe's Underground Theatre Group!