Theatre Review: Urban Death resurrected for Halloween 2021

After a year off because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Urban Death: Tour of Terror is back at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre for Halloween 2021. That’s reason enough for fans to rush out and see it, but even if you’re sitting on the fence post, you should know that the ZJU Theatre Group has found ways to squeeze some new blood-and-guts out of their signature immersive production. As always, the results are strange, shocking, discomforting, and disturbing – and often exuberant in their audacity, wowing audiences with incredible effects that seem impossible to achieve on a simple black stage.

The format, once novel, has become familiar: Urban Death: Tour of Terror offers a half-hour series of rapid-fire vignettes presented without context or narrative, like fragments of nightmares erupting from the depths of the subconscious. These are bookended by a walk through a narrow, twisting maze of tarp, inhabited by strange, perverse creatures glimpsed in a dim beam from a small flashlight provided to audience members by the theatre – hence the “tour of terror” added to the title of the Halloween production, to distinguish it rom versions produced at other times of year.

When the Tour of Terror made its debut in 2013, the more extreme explorations of sexuality and perversity were toned down to suit an unexpecting Halloween audience expecting less unconventional thrills, but since then the gloves have come off – along with everything else. The good news, however, is that this Halloween, Urban Death: Tour of Terror eschews the sexual violence seen in some past iterations, though there is still enough nudity to send prudes screaming. The best example of this is a Devil Woman with moving batwings, whose exposed abdomen redefines breast augmentation (thanks to some impressive prosthetic makeup). There’s also some stuff involving oral sex and entrails and a disgusting pimple-popping scene guaranteed to provoke a loud response from the audience.

What stands out for us, however, is a series of suggestively intriguing images, some familiar, some new (or perhaps simply forgotten like a bad dream until they return). The show begins with a man in a raincoat holding a lantern and starring into the crashing waves of the ocean (suggested by colored light patterns flitting on the walls) while the audience arrives through the maze and takes their seat. This old-school, atmospheric approach to horror will soon be blown to pieces, but its moody tone offers an interesting contrast to the bizarre scenes that follow.

Some of the best bits push visual perception to its limits, dropping the light to almost invisible levels that allow only dim glimpses that seem almost like figments of the imagination. There’s a face that emerges through a curtain before revealing its body is not where one would expect; a figure dances like cool, liquid flame, apparently defying gravity; and a giant, spectral figure briefly looms above the audience.

Urban Death Tour of Terror Halloween 2021 ReviewOur favorite bits included an unfortunate woman whose foot seems stuck on a train track, a pet owner whose flashlight flickers off while she searches outside for her cat (leading to a surprise!), and a young black man cowering in terror while he stares at some unseen threat and reaches behind his back to reveal something…innocuous but nonetheless deadly. This last bit is atypical. Urban Death usually leaves viewers wondering, “What the hell was that about?” In this case, however, real-life context provides dreadful understanding of the situation’s lethal outcome. The fact that we understand all too well – with so little information to guide us – makes the scene that much more horrible.

This Halloween’s Tour of Terror through the winding maze leading into and out of the theatre is as creepy as ever, but the experience is much improved by slightly better lights which insure that guests can find their way in the dark and get at least a glimpse of the horrors hiding there. The stage show also rocks perceptions in outrageous ways that nevertheless earns audience approval, though for us the show is still slightly unbalanced on the side of perversity. Our only other quibble is that the opening seaside scene is so evocative we wish the show had wrapped by going full circle and returning to it for some creepy climax. Still, the familiar final blackout – with creepy-crawly scratching sounds heard first in front and then behind the audiences – provides a satisfying conclusion to this Halloween’s resurrection of Urban Death: Tour of Terror.

Urban Death Tour of Terror 2021 Ratings
  • Maze
  • Stage
4.8

Bottom Line

Though the novelty of Urban Death: Tour of Terror‘s format has worn off, the show nevertheless manages to shock and amaze with its frightful collage of horror and perversity, proving it still has new tricks up its sleeves.

Urban Death: Tour of Terror continues at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre on Fridays & Saturdays through October, with performances at 8pm, 9pm, 10pm, 10:45pm & 11:30pm. Tix are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. The address is  4850 Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. For more information, visit urbandeath.com.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.