Richard Elfman, mastermind of the cult classic Forbidden Zone, is happy to discuss a film he made more than 30 years ago now and one that has its origins roughly a decade before that. Most could have heard a bowling pin drop at the film’s release at the turn of the ’80s but today the underground effort has a sizeable cult following.
And why wouldn’t it? It has everything one could want in a film: a midget acting legend, beautiful women in various states of undress, wafts of gender dysphoria, and the director’s wunderkind brother singing “Minnie The Moocher” as the devil himself.
The hardest part of wrangling this three-ring absurdist circus together? “The madness. The shame. The humiliation,” its director and creator offers. And although he’s surely joking, it is some of what Elfman does best, there are hints that working far from the mainstream brought its fair share of artistic ennui. And maybe it’s fitting that everyone involved in Forbidden Zone would be subject to that listless French dame with the beautiful sounding name.
Although one needn’t be versed in Elfman’s C.V. to understand Forbidden Zone (and its creator might suggest that not even he is fully up to that task), tracking the amazing journey he undertook in the years leading up to the film’s arrival proves fascinating as it places the actor/director/choreographer/musician at the frontlines of important transformations in the American theatre scene — and beyond.
Like many young men, Elfman wandered a bit after high school, selling clothes from his own shops at the fringes of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley. His time in the San Francisco Bay Area included a tenure as conga player in a “hot Afro percussion and jazz ensemble.” The group signed to Capitol Records and was sent to Las Vegas in order to develop its stage show. Elfman impressed with his musical skill but more with his ability to break up a fight between two warring factions during a rehearsal. His ability to keep the show on track after that meltdown somehow convinced a couple of industry types that the young actor/musician could direct. His skills landed him a gig with The Cockettes in San Francisco.
That experimental ensemble came together in 1969, influenced by The Living Theater, Play House of the Ridiculous, and the many other offbeat groups popping up at the time. Elfman was enamored of the performances and, in his words, worked as a “part-time director and fight referee” for the ensemble. He also spent a little bit of time on the stage with the ensemble. “The following was mixed gay and straight,” he recalls. “I reveled in the freedom that the group had, casting off many inhibitions”. He performed as an “ugly puppet monster in a ratty dress” — and his work in San Francisco and another group he was about to discover heavily influenced Forbidden Zone.
A scheduled trip to Toronto with the Cockettes never materialized but Elfman made the trek solo and encountered “a scruffy French theater troupe called the Le Grande Magic Circus and fell in love.” He didn’t join immediately but within six months, at the request of famed Royal Shakespeare Company director Richard Brook, he was on his way to Paris to become a member of the troupe. “Le Grande Magic Circus was a delicious mélange of classically trained actors from the Comédie-Française and avant garde performers. I was 21 or 22 at the time and soaking it all in, especially honing in a sense of theatrical timing. The show sold out its 800 seats for a year and everyone had tons of ancillary work,” he recalls. Also joining him on his journey was his brother Danny.
They now famous composer had shown up on his brother’s doorstep and beat out a classically-trained violinist for a gig with the group. Despite the French-born musician’s pedigree he apparently couldn’t follow director and performer Jérôme Savary’s well-lubricated improvisations. “Danny could follow anything!” the elder Elfman recalls.
Some of that aforementioned ancillary work included modeling. “Bizarre as I look in the U.S., I did fashion modeling for French magazines, lumbering about in Yves St. Laurent blazers doing my le cool Americain look, which could give Zoolander are run for his money. I was also given (would-be) French ‘rock stars’ to take to London and help produce their albums,” he recalls. “You see the French cannot play rock and roll. Something in the DNA. The English can. Particularly on Abbey Road back then.”
His time there also resulted in his first marriage to actress Marie Pascale, who would played Frenchie in Forbidden Zone, and returned to Los Angeles with him after Savary took a post as director of the French National Theatre. Back in the City of Angels, Elfman went about founding The Mystic Knights of The Oingo Boingo, which he describes as “a twelve-member comedia del arte ensemble”. The group booked itself into large theaters and promoted the shows with street performances. “My rule for The Mystic Knights was, ‘Nothing contemporary!'” Elfman recalls. “We either recreated pieces from the past that could not be heard live anymore or featured totally original pieces by Danny.” The younger Elfman brother had taken a detour to Africa after leaving France but by the early days of the Mystic Knights had already found a sturdy voice as a composer and hand an uncanny ability to learn virtually any instrument placed at his feet.
It was during the Mystic Knights era that Forbidden Zone first took shape. Elfman was already a veteran of screen work, including the Roger Corman-produced 1977 feature I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, which also featured an appearance from the Mystic Knights. The budding director shot a 16mm film titled “The Hercules Family” (portions of that can now be seen on the bonus materials on the new Forbidden Zone DVD).
The initial 60-minute film was good enough that friends encouraged him to expand the film to feature length. He shot new parts in 35mm and blending the two didn’t exactly work, to say the least, so he set about reshooting the entire thing.
In an era well before crowd funding for pictures and at a time when independent film making was very much a fly-by-night pursuit, Elfman painstakingly sought out funding for the project. Aided by Gene Cunningham (Pa in the film and an original Mystic Knight who was also known as Ugh Fudge Bwana), he earned enough money to shoot off and on over the course of three years.
As is often the case with independent films Elfman found himself working with friends, family, and pure amateurs. Mystic Knight Matthew Bright (Squeezit/Rene) had gone to high school with Danny Elfman and was rooming with Herve Villechaize; Villechaize had been romantically involved with co-star Susan Tyrell and in that one fell swoop two of the major roles were cast. Villechaize was already established as an actor, having scored a role in the 1974 James Bond feature The Man With The Golden Gun. By 1978 he was a household name thanks to his role on the ABC series Fantasy Island where he played Tattoo.
Elfman describes the late actor as “a little man with big charisma” who funneled his paychecks back into the production, painted sets on the weekends, and ignored his agent who apparently did everything possible to block his client from the production. Villechaize’s charisma is evident from his first appearance in the film and despite that charisma his presence doesn’t overshadow the work of the other actors in the film.
Released in 1980, the film wasn’t well received, despite some midnight shows and the odd screening on college campuses it was dead by 1983. Not that it hadn’t left its mark. Showings were accompanied by threats, including one of arson at a New Beverly Theater screening, and cries of racism and anti-Semitism. Elfman balks at both accusations — and with good reason.
“I did find it amusing, as a Jew, to be accused of anti-Semitism over the old Jewish money-changer in the film,” Elfman says. “That was my actual grandfather, Hermen Bernstein — and he wasn’t acting! I grew up my whole life with diversity, I thrive in it. I was always in the minority; they called me ‘The Red Man’ at mostly African-American Dorsey High School in south-central L.A. We were able to laugh and joke about our differences. Political correctness is just an insidious form of speech and art censorship where anything can be taken out of context and misconstrued regardless of actual intent. My intent was and is simply to make people laugh: everyone. Fuck political correctness!”
In subsequent years audiences have come to remark that some of the racial stereotypes portrayed in the film are more often critiques of the way that Hollywood treated Jews and African-Americans than they are a reflection of Elfman’s attitudes. And the time for the audience to form these opinions has been considerable. In the ’80s bootleg VHS copies of the film circulated from fan to fan to fan. Doubtless aided by the status that Oingo Boingo held during that decade (Richard Elfman passed the OB torch to his brother in 1979), Forbidden Zone took on legendary status.
When Elfman secured an Internet home for the film some years later he was astounded by the number of hits his website received and by the various corners of the planet those hits came from. That interest eventually resulted in a 2004 DVD edition of the film and, in 2008, a colorized edition. MVD, stalwart supporters of the obscure, have taken care to deliver a new edition of the film that allows fans to compare the original and the colorized version side by side as well as to take a deep look inside the making of what some have called “The Citizen Kane of underground movies”.
The film looks especially fresh today, perhaps remarkable given its budget and age. Some of that freshness may also be accounted for by the films that seem to have been influenced by it — take the work, especially the early work, of Tim Burton, for instance. Elfman is a fan of Burton’s work and acknowledges that his brother and the filmmaker have certainly had a lucrative relationship but stops short of delving any deeper into the connection, saying only, “There may be some overlap of influences. Maybe some of his income will overlap onto me with Forbidden Zone 2,” he says.
Shooting for that sequel begins early in the new year and Elfman has taken great care in preparations for its arrival, joking that the three decades since the release of the original have found him “finally rested.”
Asked if there’s a through-line to the work that he’s done before Forbidden Zone and since, he adds, “My head is filled with crazy ideas. They spill out in many ways. I can’t say I’m ‘influenced’ by Forbidden Zone so much as wanting to not only want match it but to out-do it in terms of entertainment and insanity. It will be bigger, bolder and badder. So get ready to laugh, to cry, to wet your pants!”