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Theater Review: Once Upon a Nightmare, the latest Urban Death Extravaganza from Zombie Joe's Underground

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Only two weekends left for Zombie Joe's Underground Theater Group's Once Upon a Nightmare


Only two weekends left for Zombie Joe's Underground Theater Group's Once Upon a Nightmare

by Lyle Zimskind for LAistYou’ll definitely know right away whether you’re about to love the Zombie Joe’s Underground theater group's Once Upon a Nightmare or whether you’d rather be somewhere - anywhere - else once its first shocking image assaults your senses mere moments after the house lights dim.

But either way, by that point it will be too late to escape. Because before each performance of this super-fun and very cool, but genuinely no-kidding scary production begins, director Jana Wimer conspicuously pulls a large wooden slab in front of the black box theater space's exit door, thereby locking the audience in the room for the next 60 or so minutes. It’s like a haunted house ride: once you’re strapped in, there’s no way to get out until it’s all over.

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Actually the whole show unfolds rather like an extended haunted house tour for mature audiences only - a Disneyland ride for deviants - as one brief, creepy wordless mini-scene relentlessly follows another, all separated by blackouts that envelop not just the stage area but the entire room in absolute darkness. (If you’re really afraid of the dark, this might not be the show for you. Unless you want to be really afraid.) During these seconds in the void, you feel like you’re moving from one domain to another, perhaps still trembling from the last horror even as you wait for the next tableau or other-worldly noise to startle or unsettle you.

Once Upon a Nightmare is the seventh installment in ZJU’s ongoing Urban Death series of theatrical frights (past production titles include Valentine's Massacre, Blood Transfusion, Tortured Abyss, and A New Darkness.) The evening’s 42 scenes of torture, murder, twisted sexual fantasy, childhood fears come to life, paranormal catastrophe, and monsters previously unknown to man are generally linked by the thematic implication of a foreboding dreamscape, although each is self-contained and culminates in its own individual payoff. Several moments of comic relief break up the tension, but even these are macabre and charismatically cringe-inducing (you may never want to wait in a rest room line again, just saying).

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Once Upon a Nightmare
All eight members of the “Kick Ass Urban Death Ensemble” have their standout moments. And no less a star of the show than any of the performers, sound-and-lights man Adam Neubauer mines director Wimer’s staging for maximum shock value and chills. Seriously, you will scream, you will gasp, you will squirm. Children, the faint of heart, pregnant women, anyone about to attend a funeral: this might not be your best bet right now. On the other hand, if you’ve ever thought that Marilyn Manson’s act or vampire movies represent the cutting edge of theatrical horror, you really shouldn’t miss the chance to take in some considerably more disturbing fare in this very adult Addams Family milieu.The unfortunate catch, though, is that there are only foursix more performances of “Once Upon a Nightmare” in its current run, playing at 8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Which is actually kind of unbelievable. Because this show is seriously good enough to be a permanent attraction for armchair Goths, theatrical thrill-seekers, and anyone with an appreciation for bleeding ears, bitter amputees, biohazards and all manner of excellent old-fashioned bump-in-the-night entertainment.

Urban Death: Once Upon a Nightmare
Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group
4850 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 pm through March 6
Tickets $15, reserve by phone at (818) 202-4120