One of the last outgrowths of the great run of cult movies that packed midnight screenings from the end of the '60s until VCRs started keeping everyone home at night, Richard Elfman's 1980 film Forbidden Zone takes the anything-goes spirit of after-hours moviegoing to its absurd extreme. Essentially 73 minutes of madness, it recklessly throws together musical numbers (some lifted from Josephine Baker and Cab Calloway), Fleischer-brothers-inspired animation, expressionistic sets, Hervé Villechaize, campy sexuality, and a man wearing a frog mask and a butler's uniform. It makes little sense. It doesn't even really try to make sense. Elfman now refers to it as an act of "unrestrained creativity," which seems about right. Made with no audience in mind, Forbidden Zone attempted to translate to film the stage show of the Mystic Knights Of The Oingo Boingo, the weirdness-loving revue that, under the leadership of Elfman's brother Danny, would soon morph into Oingo Boingo, an oddball rock group that looked conventional by comparison. Forbidden Zone found its biggest audience among movie fans trolling for video weirdness in the early '80s, then disappeared from circulation for years, leaving those viewers wondering if the film existed only in their heads.
This new special-edition DVD confirms that Forbidden Zone actually exists and reconfirms it as a truly odd piece of filmmaking, and not just for scenes in which Villechaize makes love to statuesque actress (and his real-life girlfriend) Susan Tyrrell. A kind of perverse Narnia, the titular "forbidden zone" can only be accessed through the basement of the grotesque Hercules family's home. Below, Villechaize rules with an iron hand and a squeaky French accent. Above, the family and their friends live in an equally bizarre approximation of Venice, California. In both realms, characters from the pop-culture public domain mingle together, among them a jazz-loving Satan (played by Danny Elfman), ancient vaudevillians doing juvenile routines, half-hearted drag queens, and antiquated racial stereotypes that once got the film kicked off some college campuses.
Forbidden Zone never really jells as a movie. But as a tuneful spectacle of weirdness, it doesn't really have an equivalent, and it's easy to see the influence of its free use of pop-culture relics in everything from Tim Burton's films to The Powerpuff Girls. There's something undeniably charming about its handmade quality, too. The sharp black-and-white cinematography clashes with the low-budget sets, everyone sometimes seems to be acting in a different movie, and it's never clear whether the randomness occurs by design or because no one quite knew what to do next. An elaborate going-to-work musical number follows a scene in which an old man beats a gorilla to death, and for some reason, most of the cast members perform in their underwear. But, whether on DVD or in theaters, it all somehow makes just enough sense after midnight.