Dare You Enter The Musical Madhouse Of FORBIDDEN ZONE?

Featuring Danny Elfman’s film debut as Satan.


Huckleberry P. Jones, local pimp, narcotics peddler, and slum-lord, was seen entering a vacant house that he owned. While stashing some heroin in the basement, he stumbled upon a mysterious door.

Naturally he entered…

Yeah, Star Wars’ title crawl ain’t got nothing on Forbidden Zone’s.

Most cinema fans know Danny Elfman as the composer of scores to films like Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and some not directed by Tim Burton. But Elfman was also a founding member of the new-wave band Oingo Boingo, itself probably best known for providing the theme song to Weird Science. But Oingo Boingo had a rich, unique career, and nothing was more unique than Forbidden Zone (1980), an utterly deranged musical that completely embodied the spirit of punk rock without quite fitting into it musically.

Directed by Danny Elfman’s brother Richard, who co-founded the group’s precursor The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, Forbidden Zone is one of the most indescribably weird musicals I’ve seen (up there with The Apple and Lisztomania). It was an attempt to migrate the live antics of the Mystic Knights onto the screen, while also supplying Richard Elfman with a film school of sorts. Given that the group was known for 15-piece performances featuring garish makeup, odd performance artists, and raging musical eclecticism, the film is suitably scattershot.

The story, such that it is, involves several plotlines that sometimes intersect but more frequently bounce off each other at odd angles. There’s the Hercules family, who move into a house perched on a portal to the Sixth Dimension and have their lives flip turned upside down. Then there’s hypersexed dwarven King Fausto, furious Queen Doris, and their frog servang Bust Rod. Seemingly dozens of minor characters - a topless princess; a thousand-year-old former queen; Satan - burst in at the margins, weaving everything together into a near-incomprehensible mess. But who cares? Forbidden Zone is nonstop entertainment. Ain't nothing can stop entertainment.

Forbidden Zone wears its influences on its sleeves, but its shirt has, like, a hundred sleeves. It out-Burtons Burton for kookiness, but without a shred of the self-consciousness Burton’s become known for. Among the contents of Elfman’s palette are expressionism; Fleischer cartoons; Three Stooges slapstick; vaudeville; performance art; John Waters films; burlesque; sci-fi and fantasy; fairy tales; and a slew of musical genres. Some of the songs are original numbers, but most are lip-synced to '20s Latin, jazz, and swing recordings. It’s messy, but it’s consistently messy, and the mash-up/remix approach really works.

The film’s most famous scene, in which Danny Elfman dons a white suit and horns as the Devil performing a Cab Calloway riff, is probably also its most restrained. The film employs a ton of editing tricks to create its unique, fast-paced lunacy: undercranking, stop-motion, cel animation, bizarre transitions, and superimposition all add to the flavour. It's a weird flavour.

Much of Forbidden Zone is played in supremely bad taste. Amongst the musical numbers, you’ll find a cavalcade of offensive and disgusting imagery, played with the same chaotic glee as the rest of the film. Blackfaced minstrels, torture, weird sex stuff, cartoonish transgender imagery, gratuitous nudity, stereotypes of all kinds - it’s all here, folks. It shouldn’t work - I mean, it really shouldn't - but thanks to the film's topsy-turvy style and cast of weirdos, it does. The aesthetic is firmly planted in early 20th century entertainment, from music hall to formative jazz, so it makes sense that the era’s less-savoury elements would pop up as well.

In some ways, Forbidden Zone is the crazed nexus of many bizarre careers. Matthew Bright, who under the pseudonym Toshiro Boloney plays a pair of twins who could be considered protagonists, went on to direct the Freeway films and notorious “Gary Oldman as a little person” rom-com Tiptoes. Herve Villechaize, here the king of the underworld, was best known for his role in Fantasy Island, but also appeared in The Man With The Golden Gun and worked for years helping abuse victims before shooting himself. Joe Spinell was legendary, appearing in everything from The Godfather to Rocky to Maniac. Viva (the Ex-Queen) collaborated with Andy Warhol on his notorious Blue Movie, and would later give birth to actress Gaby Hoffmann. Susan Tyrell, who tears up Forbidden Zone as Doris, was nominated for an Oscar in John Huston’s Fat City before appearing in classic exploitation like Night Warning and Angel. And the Kipper Kids, who make an impression as gibberish-singing boxers in Forbidden Zone, had a successful experimental performance art career.

But the most punk-rock aspect of Forbidden Zone is the cheapo aesthetic in which it revels. Most of the sets are painted cardboard, their wobbliness only adding to the unhinged atmosphere. The cast put their fees back into the movie, and Herve Villechaize reportedly helped paint the sets on the weekends. The costumes range from well-made to cheap as shit; suffice it to say there was probably papier mache involved. Actors are dual-cast, sets are re-used, makeup is smeared on, and continuity errors are shrugged off not from carelessness, but because they simply do not matter in this film. Most tellingly of all, Forbidden Zone was shot entirely in black and white. There’s a colourised version available, but the film was so clearly designed for monochrome that it feels like sacrilege - and like all colourised movies, the colour is shitty anyhow. 

Finally: Oingo Boingo themselves deserve more time in the sun, dammit. The band emanates all the weird energy of Danny Elfman’s scores, run through a new-wave/ska/art-punk filter. Elfman’s lyrics are clever and often disturbing: “Little Girls,” which somehow got released as a single, is the perfect karaoke jam/dance-floor clearer. Even after the performance-arty Mystic Knights era, Oingo Boingo was bursting with musical ideas and hooks. Go listen, fools. Start with Only a Lad or Dead Man's Party. Go!

Nowadays, Forbidden Zone enjoys a cult following similar to (though smaller than) that of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was adapted into a stage musical in 2010, thirty years after its initial release. As for Richard Elfman, his post-Zone directing mostly consisted of low-budget or TV movies, while he also appeared in several films as a percussionist. In 2014, heran a successful IndieGoGo campaign to fund a sequel to Forbidden Zone. The world awaits to see whether the rambunctious magic of this singular film can ever be recaptured.