To say that Urban Death: Tour of Terror Haunted Theatre, now in its seventh year of Halloween haunting, is up to its old tricks this year is tempting but also misleading. The template remains: enter through a maze, watch the stage show, exit back through the maze. However, the content filling that template is mostly new to our eyes, projecting even more strange images onto our cerebral cortex. Entering the blank, featureless confines of the ZJU Theatre stage is akin to entering a sort of group unconscious mind, where nightmares flash at random, jolting your REM sleep like lightening summoned by malevolent alchemists. And what is seen cannot be unseen, embedding itself in the dark recesses of each viewer's own dark inner dreamscape - a haunting that lasts long after the event itself is over.
This year, the highlights of Urban Death: Tour of Terror include a woman whose deranged laughter ebbs and flows before the show but never stops, shifting focus from the room at large to individual audience members, who squirm beneath the onslaught of manic chuckling. Two naked women move across the stage like lifeless mannequins propelled by unseen forces, their tiny footsteps rendered invisible by a quickly flashing strobe light; the stroboscopic look of their carefully choreographed movements suggest puppets filmed with stop-motion. A naked maniac leaps from an overhead window and charges the audience, who scream as the lights black out.
In the Tour of Terror maze, a shrouded female form, supine on a slab, writhes in orgasmic ecstasy - a scene at once erotic and ethereal, thanks to the spectral appearance of her white sheet, lit from beneath. A human-scorpion lurks in the corners, ready to attack. And briefly, you become the haunter, when a crazed priest tries to fend you off with a cross and prayers before he retreats from your inevitable advance. The maze has always been dreadful (in the literal sense of the word), but now it feels more suspenseful, eliciting not only silent frisson but also audible shrieks, almost like jump-scares.
Like a deadly stream of unconsciousness, many other random vignettes leap through the darkness: some funny, some creepy, some transgressive. There are disturbing scenes of sexuality and violence against women (a head-crushing bit seen in previous shows). One way or another all of them add to the cumulative if inchoate effect of the shared nightmare, until the wake-up call comes in the form of one of Urban Death's best bits: the final blackout, filled only with the sounds of creepy-crawling fingertips scratching the walls and floors around the audience, is sliced open by a lightning flash, revealing a hooded figure wielding an axe and ready to strike. Her unexpected appearance, underlined by a clap of thunder that segues into audience screams, provides the perfect exclamation point for the evening's outre entertainment.
Urban Death: Tour of Terror’s combination of maze, wordless vignettes, and demented performances continues to distrurb and intrigue.
Cast: Brock Birkner, Eileen Chase, Brittany DeWeese, Daisy Donahue, Warren Hall, Avalon Kerr, Tommy Lee Kirby, Jonica Patella, Jessica Sabine, Brandon Slezak, Laura Van Yck. Stage Managers & Support Crew: Amanda McKenna, Jorge Lozano, Denise Devin & Ayleene Boydell. Tech Guru: Brandon Slezak. Publicity: Lacey Rae Pawlowicz, Randy “Kernel” Long, Zombie Joe, Brandon Slezak, Barry Bishop and Eric Boguslavsky. Original Musical Score by Christopher Reiner. Created & Directed by Zombie Joe & Jana Wimer. Produced by Zombie Joe.
Urban Death: Tour of Terror Haunted Theatre continues at ZJU Theatre through November 2 on Friday & Saturday evenings, plus Halloween Night (Thursday, October 31), starting at 8pm, 9pm, 10pm, 10:45pm, and 11:30pm. Admission is limited to ages 16 and over because of graphic content and nudity. Tickets are $16 in advance, $20 at door. The address is 4850 Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. The website is: zombiejoes.com.