Forbidden Zone (1980)

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Imagine Crumb’s artwork brought to life by John Waters and that’s the realm that Richard Elfman’s gleefully, irritatingly grotesque Forbidden Zone occupies. Shot in black and white among painted cardboard backdrops for sets and featuring a merry band of misfits for a cast, this midnight-movie musical certainly tries real hard to infiltrate your subconscious but never really gets beneath the surface. Though it might leave you with a bit of a headache.

Boasting original music and songs by Danny Elfman (he is writer/director Richard’s younger brother) and loopy performances from cult favourite Hervé Villechaize and Oscar nominated Fat City actress Susan Tyrell, at times the film resembles a shrieking tour of the “freak show” section in a second-rate carnival, at others it’s like being sat in a loony bin watching a smiley-face made of shit slowly drying on the wall . Of-course this sort of uninhibited dose of leftfield, gonzo filmmaking has its charms but mostly in small doses. Even the film’s mercifully brief running time of 75 minutes felt overlong and punishing. Luckily, Danny Elfman shows up as Satan to sing a Cab Calloway number near the end to reward your patience, so stick with it.

All that being said, there’s certainly a vision at work here. The monochrome photography works well with the rest of the film which is mostly held together by spit, sweat and tape (a good thing) and the Gilliam-esque animated interludes are charming. There’s an overall sense of mania that feels grating but is no doubt intentional on Elfman’s part. It’s the kind of movie that looks like it was designed to be a cult film and given that it does have its own loyal band of followers, it certainly had the desired effect. The whole movie is a vaudeville of drag queens, scantily clad beauties, camp humour, grotesqueries and gutterball weirdos so I’m not surprised that it was embraced in some form. It exists within its own plane of existence and for that it deserves mild celebration. I also skim-tested Elfman’s preferred colorised version which was completed years later, and while the aesthetic works well, I still prefer this silly nightmare in B&W.

Watched on Arrow blu-ray.

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