The Forbidden Zone was made simultaneously to David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and they indicate, even from the fringes of California filmmaking, a coming zeitgeist, soundings of something that wed the violence and transgression of avant-garde film with a cinematic self-consciousness more attentive to the proscenium fantasies and magic tricks of the silent era. It was too antique to be punk, too mannered, and yet it was too thematized to be avant-garde.
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In Stephen Foster’s song “Beautiful Dreamer” (1864), the everyday rush of an oncoming modernity is described as “the rude world”: “Sounds of the rude world heard in the day/lull’d by the moonlight have all passed away.”
Through the passage of dreams, the dreamer enters Shangri-La. To dream is to depart from a rude world – fast, loud, crude of habit, corporeal – and to enter a dream world – a symbolic shelter of archetypes, distorting scales, time-values, distances, and mythic quests. It is this same division that would, decades later, see Little Nemo riding his bed into Dreamland.
Through the course of the 1970s, Richard Elfman led the avant-garde surrealist street theatre troupe and band the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. In 1978, Elfman would make The Forbidden Zone, a feature-length musical fantasy that sought to translate the band’s stage show into a movie. The result is an absurdist, vulgar, “pataphysical cabaret.” The Forbidden Zone begins in minstrelsy; its world is one of hallucination and perversity and transgression. This rude world is a literal one; so too will be its dreamland. The forbidden zone of the title is an alternate dimension, the sixth dimension, ruled by decadent, kinky, despotic monarchs. The reality from which characters venture into this forbidden zone is just as transgressive and artificial, with painted sets, cross-generational casting, cartoonish violence, and musical interludes. There is no guiding paradigm: one doesn’t represent order to the other’s chaos. The day-world outside of the forbidden zone, briefly identified as Venice, California, is a place of violence, cruelty, perversity, addiction; the night-world within is no different. As a critique of contemporary life on earth, the title song gives a suggestion to what the filmmakers are demonstrating: that we are “moving in the wrong direction.” At the same time, those who made it are not in search of redemption: it is, like Gargantua and Pantagruel or Ubu Roi, a farcical work of vulgar joy, a schoolyard jape festering in the ugliest parts of the subconscious, breaking through as a declaration against a mannered ruling order. The Forbidden Zone contests rule and order by showing two realities, both of which feature compromised, hypocritical, impotent, and abusive law. The law within the forbidden zone is rape, bestiality, vanity, against a backdrop of flatulence and cavernous torture chambers, all coming at the behest of a predatory royal couple and their servants, notably, an anthropomorphic frog; what law is seen beyond the forbidden zone is the law of family: hypocritical, petty, vulgar and abusive; and the law of the classroom, a war zone of race-baiting stereotypes, favoritism, and homophobia. To search for order, restoration, and redemption amid this atmosphere of torture is the most impotent gesture, a laugh sounding out from a hole in the wall.
The Hercules family lives on top of the entrance to the sixth dimension, an area of the house the family calls the forbidden zone; Frenchy, their sexually mature daughter, tries to peek into the forbidden zone and falls in. Travelling into the sixth dimension, she experiences a series of grotesque episodes that introduce the sex slaves and monstrous enforcers of Fausto’s kingdom. In the throne room, King Fausto and Queen Doris flirt, debate their devotions, and exposit the violent nature of their dimension. Fausto takes Frenchy as a sex slave, provoking the queen’s wrath, and when Frenchy’s brother Flash and colossal ogre-like grandfather enter to rescue her, this provokes a confrontation between the interlopers and the realm, and between Queen Doris and her predecessor, Fausto’s former queen. In the day-world, scenes from Flash and Frenchy’s school portray a twisted, violent, racially divided world where students take turns singing antique songs. In the sixth dimension, even the Devil makes an appearance to sing antique songs, those of Cab Calloway with their haunting, menacing vamps, another point of commonality between the settings.
The Forbidden Zone was made simultaneously to David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and they indicate, even from the fringes of California filmmaking, a coming zeitgeist, soundings of something that wed the violence and transgression of avant-garde film with a cinematic self-consciousness more attentive to the proscenium fantasies and magic tricks of the silent era. It was too antique to be punk, too mannered, and yet it was too thematized to be avant-garde. As a culture, we move in the wrong direction: to reference a contemporary of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, the rude world is experiencing a de-evolution, civilization is in retreat. The members of Devo came to this conclusion in the face of the Kent State massacre, and, like Oingo Boingo, coolly articulated their outrage and fear into theatrical, absurdist music. The concept of moving backwards is made literal in the songs of The Forbidden Zone: Elfman and company use antiquated music for surreal effect, as when Frenchy lip-synchs to Josephine Baker’s “La Petite Tonkinoise,” or later, when she encounters the princess’s silent golem-consort, miming a distorted version of the Afro-Cuban dance song “Bim Bam Boom” through a mouth superimposed on top of his own, the song’s pulsing rhythms punctuated with farts. The lip-synch is a bridge, and along it, we’re shuttled back in time, dreaming in the wrong direction. The beautiful things of the past, summoned into this rude world, are being made stupider.
While Elfman and company embrace a surreal horror, The Forbidden Zone also suggests a slightly older order, a proto surrealism: the palace intrigue, disembodied heads, and anthropomorphic beasts of the fantastical nineteenth-century imagination. The mise-en-scène has broad debts as well: to epic theatre, in its artificiality, the self-consciousness of its players; to the elastic, cheerful cartoons of the Fleischer brothers; to German Expressionism, in the sharp angles of its doors and windows and its evocative, unnatural makeup; and to underground comix, its spirit of self-conscious transgression and juvenile violence following in the tradition of R. Crumb. The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo had emerged out of a combination of absurdist avant-garde theatre and comic pop culture; parallels could be made to the androgynous, Baudelairean projects of Jack Smith, steeped in allusions to a slightly older mass culture, or the cartoonish surrealism of Red Grooms, whose film Fat Feet anticipates some of the mise-en-scène of The Forbidden Zone; and yet at the same time there is also earnest influence, from the taildragging rhythms of Cab Calloway, to the cherubic world of the Fleischers, to the popping, zipping comedy of Spike Jones. The film’s slurs and minstrelsy, its eager vulgarity, its scenes of spousal and child abuse and rape and torture and bestiality support Elfman’s agenda, which is not so much to make ground chuck of sacred cows, but to locate, in this sixth dimension, an absurd mirror on our own rude world.
“Man bites dog, then bites self.” This joke, an absurd parody of a tragic headline, summarizes Elfman’s version of Venice, California. The Hercules family live in an Alfred E. Neuman world. Its disposition is murder-suicide, but its response is merry laughter. When the Devil appears as a Cab Calloway-esque crooner, leading a band of ghouls in a cover of “Minnie the Moocher,” he is an unusual creature, not for his minstrelsy but for his mastery. He’ll show them how to kick the gong around. On both sides of the interdimensional portal, Elfman offers leaders in crisis, from the schoolteacher, to Ma and Pa Hercules, to Fausto and Doris. The Devil’s role is brief, but he is not compromised, rather, he is empowered: to perpetuate cruelty in this cruel world is a cakewalk. When The Forbidden Zone was first shot, it was intended that it be hand-tinted, a prospect that became unfeasible. When it was restored in 2019, Elfman approved a digital colorization, another formal gesture to associate the film with the oldest order of cinema, akin to the films of Georges Méliès and Segundo De Chomón. In doing this, Elfman made one significant change: he transformed the film’s opening blackface sequence so that the heroin dealer and pimp, Huckleberry P. Jones, appears in whiteface. His name and occupations intact, there is no escaping the racist archetype underlying the character. Elfman’s explanation, that he revised the film thanks to a change of heart over the offensive nature of the sequence, does not lessen the impact of the change, which, if anything, amplifies the minstrelsy and further compels the audience to recognize its absurdity. With this simple change, the artifice deepens. The blackface minstrel becomes the most haunted of clowns. It foregrounds the role of illusion in this caustic masquerade.
The Forbidden Zone is a tour of taboos. Its form reflects the ambitions of epic theatre, to alienate its audience from the world of the players by rendering that world and those players artificial, to see in them a reflection of reality but not reality itself. Its transgressions, while joyously vulgar and bluntly cruel, are never tragic because this cartoon world is elastic and resilient and, in this way, utterly removed from our own. It takes as its punchlines the most nightmarish evils of humankind and dares us to laugh along with it.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.