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The Forbidden Zone

Director: Richard Elfman

(US DVD: 29 Jul 2008)

Welcome to Crazytown. In the 1980 cult musical The Forbidden Zone, a family discovers that a door in their basement leads to the 6th Dimension. Naturally, they each wind up going through the door, sliding through a rope of intestines and out of a cartoon asshole.  Then getting into trouble with the evil Queen and her horny King, running afoul of Satan and his spooky dance troupe, and raising the ire of a perpetually topless princess with distractingly pointed nipples. A love triangle ensues, rescue missions go awry, at least one person is (willingly) raped to death, and the Queen’s breasts keep popping out of her too-tight dress. This is, sort of, the plot.


Originally shot on black and white film, and conceived as a series of musical numbers held together by a paper-thin (and deliberately nonsensical) riff about a “Forbidden Zone”, Richard Elfman’s opus remains today as much zany fun as it was when first screened to no doubt befuddled audiences in Reagan-era midnight showings. Except now, due to the magic of digital technology, the film is in vibrant, living colour. This might piss off the purists, but it seems to me to have done nothing but improve the experience. Indeed, Elfman had always intended to release the film in colour, but hadn’t the resources back in the day to send the film to China to be painted by hand (his original, and borderline insane, plan).


Elfman and his traveling musical theatre troupe The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo wanted to re-create their eclectic – I want to say psychotropic – stage show on film. On that score, The Forbidden Zone is said to be an unqualified success. The thing is that for most people, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo was about as palatable as a glue smoothie. Their curious brand of sexed up faux-vaudeville is aggressively weird, campy, and nonsensical – imagine the Mothers of Invention puking out Pee Wee Herman (who was no doubt deeply influenced by this film) while surrounded by a bunch of random, topless women, all of them dancing in unison. Oh, and the sets are made of construction paper and crayon drawings, the King is played by Tattoo from Fantasy Island, and the guy pretending to be the youngest son is easily 65-years-old. Not your average crowd pleaser.


There is almost no way to critique a film such as this. It is, in every way, critic-proof. It is designed to be irrational, bizarre, and unfathomable. Its musical numbers are (most of them) lip-synched Cab Calloway and Josephine Baker songs. The characters are so thinly drawn that they do things seemingly at random. Even the copious humping seems little more than a lazy gesture, an automatic response (they always keep their underwear on).


The plot is so vague as to be in every way a secondary concern (finding a plot hole here is like fishing for homophobes at a Republican Convention). This film simply relies on the desire of its audience to let go of their minds, and drift along on the whims of the Oingo Boingos. Therefore, any attempt to discuss the relative merits of the film would require taking it at all seriously – which would be a fundamental mistake.


At the very least it would require the critic to think deeply on the possible meanings of, say: a bunch of gun-wielding black pimps terrorizing a classroom (in which they are students); a cage full of rape-happy Masons; a Rabbi as St. Peter for the 6th Dimension; a nervous wimp who actually acts like a chicken (and to whom chickens speak); and a beautiful young princess who doesn’t seem to own clothes (apart from some terrifically oversized panties). Thinking too hard about this would be a stupid thing to do. Funny, but stupid.


So, instead, I’ll just mention a few more things of interest about the film. The odds are if you haven’t seen this already, you’ll see it after reading this review because you’re interested in something this demented. But, if you’re still on the fence, consider this: Oingo Boingo, after dropping the Mystic Knights stuff, went on to be a semi-popular synth pop band in the ‘80s, and provided the theme song for Weird Science, among the weirdest mainstream teen comedies of the era. One of the key members of the band, Richard Elfman’s little brother Danny, would go on to become among the two or three most important scorers of Hollywood pictures of the past 30 years. (Danny, by the way, plays Satan in The Forbidden Zone.)


The film’s only paid actor, Hervé Villechaize (Tattoo), has an accent so impenetrable that I almost turned on the subtitles (not that it would have made anything any clearer). Finally, “gratuitous” seems an insufficient way of describing the boob-friendliness of this flick – I have to admit that the topless princess (Gisele Lindley) kind of offended me. But not as much as the blackface stuff (!) or the use of murderous black pimps as a punchline (twice).

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Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu


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The Forbidden Zone (original) - Trailer
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