Urban Death: Tour of Terror - Halloween 2014 review

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A screaming ghost from the Urban Death: Tour of Terror. Photo by Donna Kane.

The Urban Death Haunted Theatre terrified visitors like no other Halloween haunt in 2013. Can they repeat the magic this year? Read on to find out - if you dare!

Unique. Depraved. Disturbing.

These are words that come to mind while experiencing Urban Death: Tour of Terror at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre in North Hollywood. It is easily one of the most horrifying and visceral Halloween attractions in Los Angeles, yet it is not an "extreme haunt," achieving cheap thrills by actually touching and even physically abusing its audience. Urban Death: Tour of Terror reaches out through the darkness and caresses viewers on deeper, psychological level. No visible bruises will be apparent as you leave the theatre, but the mental scars will linger as you head home, haunting your dreams that night - and perhaps forever.

In case you missed our Urban Death Haunted Theatre Review for Halloween 2013, you should know that the event is part haunted maze and part stage presentation. The template remains the same for this season, but with one or two minor exceptions, the vignettes and characters are totally different, creating an entirely new haunt-experience in the same style.

The Maze - There and Back

Upon arrival, you check in and receive a modified flashlight, which emits only a pinpoint of light. Entering the theatre in groups of two or three, you squeeze through narrow corridors (actually black plastic) and encounter uncanny visions, which can never be glimpsed fully; disconnected details flash on your retinas as you wave your puny electric torch back and forth in the darkness, trying to figure out exactly what manner of thing is in your way. Consider yourself lucky that your sense are spared the full realization.

After the stage show, you will return via the same brief pathway, which seem entirely different when you are moving in the opposite direction. New and different terrors await you, or so it seems - it's hard to be sure in the enveloping blackness . The only certainty is that familiarity with the route provides no psychological security; you are just as vulnerable as you were before - perhaps more so, because now that you have had a hint of what lies waiting for you, you will imagine eve worse horrors in your mind than exist in the maze.

Many are the Halloween haunts we have seen over the past ten years that pretend to create suspense with shadows and empty corridors: the theory is that anticipation builds as you move through the spaces, wary of what lies around the next corner; more often than not, however, the emotion generated is boredom as you wait for something to happen. Urban Death: Tour of Terror is the only maze we know in which darkness seems filled with unseen terrors surrounding you on all sides, regardless of what is actually lurking near you. With maniacal laughter and shrieks assaulting your eardrums - not to mention your own screams - it is impossible to know whether the ghoul spotlighted by your tiny flashlight beam is the only thing you need to fear. The very air seems alive with fear, and the only escape is to head for the exit as fast as you can stumble.

The Stage Show

After the maze, you emerge into a stage area, where a masked swine plays a cello while a life-sized mechanical doll (actually an actress) slowly undresses. The juxtaposition of delicate beauty and disgusting bestiality, of artful music and a sleazy striptease, sets the tone for what follows and gives the first arrivals something to watch while waiting for the rest of the audience to show up in twos and threes (an improvement over last year's waiting period).

As before, Urban Death: Tour of Terror consists of a series of blackouts: brief scenes, with neither context nor explanation, flash before our eyes, ending almost as soon as their implications become clear. The lack of exposition creates a vacuum, which each audience member must fill for her- or himself, imagining who these archetypal figures are and how they got into these horrible situations.

Characters run screaming from laughing pursuers, who fall upon their victims with homicidal intent. A woman beneath a sheet moans over the body of her lover - who appears to be dead. A withered bride stands before the crowd and demands (in the show's only spoken line of dialogue): "Love me!" - her voice is a death-rasp of selfish desire guaranteed to send any potential lover running for safety.

There is also a moment or two of comic relief, as when one battered victim (of an assault? a zombie attack?) uses her last ounce of strength to lift her smart phone - not to dial 911 but to take a final selfie before expiring.

If we understand correctly, Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre toned down their usual presentation for Halloween 2013 (there is a longer Urban Death show that runs year-round). We can certainly believe this, because for Halloween 2014 the theatre group seems to be pushing the boundaries farther than before. There was certainly exposed skin and sexual innuendo, but this year the sexuality is more overt - and occasionally mixed with violence that borders on the tasteless, though judging by the enthusiastic applause, the audience found the scene effective rather than offensive.

Like the maze, the Urban Death: Tour of Terror stage show excels at filling physical emptiness with psychological dread. The theatre presents itself as nothing but a blank square box, lacking a stage, a curtain, even seats; a yellow caution tape is the only demarcation because audience and actors. Yet the room seems filled from beginning to end, like a concert hall reverberating with the echos of strange notes - sounded and silenced, but still lingering in the air, like haunting memories. These are memories that avid haunt-goers will cherish for months after the last Jack O'Lantern has been extinguished, memories you do not want to deny yourself.

Conclusion

For repeat viewers, the surprise of the show's unique strategy may have worn off, but the effectiveness of Urban Death: Tour of Terror remains undiminished. If anything, this Halloween's version is even more darkly disturbing than before, once again earning a place among our must-see list of Halloween horror events in Los Angeles.

Urban Death: Tour of Terror runs on Fridays and Saturday through November 1, with five performances a night, starting at 8:30pm and running at 45-minute intervals. Tickets are $12. Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre is located at 4850 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood, California 91601. Call (818) 202 – 4120 for more information, or click here for the official website.

Looking for more ways to enjoy Halloween in Los Angeles? Check out our page of Halloween Haunts!

More in this series: 

  1. Urban Death: Tour of Terror 2014
  2. Urban Death: Tour of Terror - Halloween 2014 review