Zombie Joe is the real thing: a genuine outsider artist with an aesthetic so single-minded it approaches madness. In Urban Death, an hour-long anthology of wordless terror tableaux, this North Hollywood–based writer-director carves a gory path somewhere between visionary theater and exploitation, between Richard Foreman and Ed Wood.
Opening with an Abu Ghraib–like pile of bodies that slowly quakes up into staring, stalking zombie life, Urban Death treats us to a nightmare clown, erotic asphyxiation, flashlight-lit creepy-crawlies, and assorted excisions and suppurations. Joe’s ensemble of 10 varies widely in polish but not in commitment—their eyes bugging over thick makeup, they all look like graduates of the George Romero school of commedia dell’arte.
Though the pace and shape of the evening often wavers, Zombie Joe has mastered one thing above all: the unique power of theatrical darkness. Many of these vignettes last less than a minute before they’re swallowed up by chillingly complete blackouts, and the resulting blackness seems to discolor even the show’s most garishly lit images. That sense of encroaching, inescapable gloom is finally the scariest thing about Urban Death. It may not be deathless art, but there’s an unmistakable, undead pulse in Zombie Joe’s black-box theatrics.