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Urban Death: Trail of Torment (Theatre Review)

Those familiar with any past iteration of Urban Death will anticipate the tenor if not the exact form of Urban Death: Trail of Torment, which repackages the brand’s patented creep factor into a walk-through theatrical event that’s a bit like a dark ride without the ride: you maneuver you way through the pitch-black environs of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre, following a dim trail of lights on the floor, which lead to a series of grotesque encounters that spring to life like sudden nightmares before disappearing back into the void. Those easily shocked and disturbed by a queasy combo of nudity and horror should avoid at all costs, bur more daring seekers after bizarre horror will find the experience…suitably strange and bordering on the extreme.

Urban Death: Trail of Torment Review
Urban Death: Trail of Torment at ZJU Theatre in North Hollywood

Urban Death: Trail of Torment feels like a synthesis of elements from ZJU’s annual Halloween presentation, Urban Death: Tour of Terror, which includes a short walk-through maze with a half-hour performance in the theatre. For Trail of Torment the theatrical element has been incorporated into the maze itself. Instead of sitting inside a darkened performance space watching a series of blackout vignettes flash onto your retinas, you encounter them up close and personal – sometimes too close! – the distance between performer and audience all but erased.

The effect is a bit like a walk-through Halloween attraction, but instead of jump scares, Urban Death: Trail of Torment presents short performances: a back-alley birth, a Betty Crocker housewife gone over the edge, a witchdoctor dance ritual, a striptease artist whose full-body hazmat suit and mask conceal the horrors that he or she may reveal.

The format allows for a few simple but nicely realized settings of the sort not seen in other Urban Death presentations, which tend to place performers in an unadorned space. By the light of day they may not look like much, but in the shadowy realm of ZJU Theatre they are convincing, creating a further sense of immersion in the ghastly events on view. There’s even a relatively traditional haunted house sort of scene set in a spooky bedroom with something sinister lurking under or behind the bed.

Besides the set pieces, Urban Death: Trail of Torment is also notable for some effective makeup, including some prosthetic pieces played like trump cards – held back until revealed at just the right time to achieve maximum effect.

ZJU Urban Death Trail of Torment Review
We caught the balloon.

On press preview night, there were a couple of glitches. The instructions for following the lighted trail on the floor led to some momentary confusion in the darkened theatre, and the timing of one or two surprise appearances was off. Overall, however, the impact of the presentation was strong, and we expect these preview jitters to be fixed on opening night.

Our only real quibble with Urban Death: Trail of Torment is that it works on a scene-by-scene basis, with no narrative through-line to tie the pieces together. The result is less like a concept album than collection of singles. Consequently, it doesn’t really build to a climax, and you may find yourself feeling that your favorite song came somewhere in the middle of the playlist.

On the other hand, we snagged a souvenir balloon from a suicidal clown, which is almost like retrieving the game-winning home run from a world series game, so it’s all good.

Urban Death Trail of Torment Rating

Bottom Line

ZJU Urban Death Trail of Torment 2021 Review
Face masks are required.

If you have experienced any version of Urban Death in the past, you basically know what you’re in for, but there is a difference: instead of watching from a distance, you encounter the horrors up close and personal while walking through a darkened labyrinth, amplifying the creepy factor.

Urban Death: Trail of Torment runs at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre from May 27 through June 12. Performances are on Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays from 7:15pm to 11:15pm. Advance reservations only; no walkup admission. Face masks are required. Ages 16 and up. The address is 4850 Lankershim Blvd North Hollywood, CA 91601. For ticket information visit: zombiejoes.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.