Part walk down memory lane and part exploration of art – we’ll sit down with the creators of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre to discuss their past 30 years.
Part walk down memory lane and part exploration of art – we’ll sit down with the creators of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre to discuss their past 30 years. This panel, “30 years of Zombie Joe’s Underground,” took place on Sunday, July 31st, at Midsummer Scream and was moderated by Norm from Horrorbuzz.
We're continuing our Midsummer Scream coverage with another panel recorded live from this year's show. This panel, 30 years of Zombie Joe's Underground, took place on Sunday, July 31st, and was moderated by Norm from Horror Buzz.
Norm: Let's get these people up on the stage. Let's start off with Denise Devin. Jonica, I forgot your last name. I had my notes and they were right here.
Audience: Jonica Patella.
Norm: Sorry. Jonica Patella. Then, Jana Wimer. And, of course, I don't know if you guys notice when he walked in, Zombie Joe. Oh, and where's Jorge?
Audience: And Jorge Lozano!
Norm: What? Jorge Lozano. This started as raggedy as anything I've ever done. So, thank you for being here. Well, first off, as you know, as you might have known, Zombie Joe's Underground Theater's flagship show is Urban Death, and they've been performing it all weekend downstairs. I do have to say that it was easily one of the more nauseating shows you've done. I say that with the absolute most praise. But Urban Death, isn't the only thing that Zombie Joe's does, they do a lot of other things, they do a lot of other shows, and they've been doing those shows for 30 years. Zombie Joe's Urban Death, that only came into existence around what? '95?
Norm: Yeah, 2005. So we've got a lot to cover here. So, I guess, my first question is who, and this is to you Zombie, who's Zombie Joe? And why did he need a theater?
Zombie Joe: Good question. I mean, I'm not sure there was ever an opening or a need for... But, you know, as a child actor, and been in the theater and doing all these shows all those years. So, at 20 years old, I had a, I like to call it like romantically, like an epiphany, but I think it was more of a nervous breakdown, a self hating, self-loathing pit of hell for that led to our first plays, and basically sold everything. By the way, I don't recommend anybody do this. Not very glamorous at the time, but I kind of sold everything, I sold my car, anything I had a value, and leased a space in Northridge. I had no credit history, so had to put down six months advance on an industrial space in Northridge, a garage. That was the beginning. I quit school and had this sort of, just like a breakdown of sorts, change of heart and how dark it was before the dawn. But you know, when you come and see the shows, you could really get a taste of sort of those early years. The early productions were, well, I don't think they were very good and you weren't necessarily safe, as an audience member, to come to see them. So, our beginnings are very much in like Theater of Cruelty, like Caucasian Chalk Circle, we're really into Neo from the Matrix, our style. Anyway, that's just a little bit, yeah.
Zombie Joe: You know, these panels, people are up here talking, I mean, they're important, and this is what this is about. Hey, what's up, what's up theme park? So, you know, it's really important to talk about like, "oh, blah, blah, whoa, I did this. We did this, you know?" Like, we're so used to just doing shows and there's barely enough time to get the shows together. So it's like, whoa, you did this? So anyway, but the fact that... Norman Gidney , everybody, the moderator.
Norm: I'm not the subject here, Zombie, let's stick to the point.
Zombie Joe: Oh, by the way, we have gold coins for everybody before we leave.
Norm: Does anybody want spaghetti? Spaghetti? Nothing. Okay. Now, where did this name come from? Zombie Joe.
Zombie Joe: So, I was a drug addict and smoking the chronic. Bunch of kids here, you guys know the chronic, what the chronic is right? "Here, light me up, dude, light me up. Go ahead." Like fucking 12 foot. So, anyway, I'd smoked the chronic weed... By the way, I'm going to be 25 years sober. But, earliest beginnings, so I smoked the chronic, I'd get all like, couldn't talk. I don’t know, if you guys get that, get that way, like, "uh, oh." I'm named after somebody named Joe, my grandfather, so my friends started calling me Zombie Joe in my comatose state. Normally we don't ever talk about this, but I knew the question was coming, so yeah, a little bit embarrassing.
Norm: Well, yeah, I mean, honesty's the best policy after all. Let's jump around a bit and when did you all get involved with Zombie Joe's Underground Theater? Let's start here.
Denise Devin: Ah, 22 years ago, I painted some of the original green on the Zombie Joe at 4850 Lankershim Boulevard North Hollywood. So, I am Zombies significant other.
Zombie Joe: How did I do guys? Did I do good? Yeah.
Denise Devin: We opened 48, 50, 22 years ago, just shortly after I met Zombie. I've been there ever since, and my position has morphed. I was an actress and did 10 years on Urban Death, actually.
Norm: And she was so fierce, she was hardcore.
Denise Devin: Now I do a lot of directing, but I do not touch Urban Death that belongs to Jana and Zombie.
Norm: Jonica, when did you get involved with ZJU?
Jonica Patella: I came in in 2006, 16 years.
Jonica Patella: Urban Death is one of the first shows that I saw, and I just thought, "that's something new under the sun. I got to be involved there."
Norm: Indeed. And Jana?
Jana Wimer: 2003. Yeah. I too saw a show and I was like, "well, I got to be part of this."
Zombie Joe: Quick, quick, funny story. Guys, this is the genius of me seeing of beautiful genius of Jana Wimer. She paints, she's extremely artistic, she does everything, extremely artistic. She sews stuff, makes her own costumes.
Jana Wimer: I hate it though.
Zombie Joe: But she came, she was painting our wall at the theater, and our Fred Paris Themmen from Willie Wonka was with us and he's like, "yeah, well, you know, you give her a partner show and she's yours for life." And like, it's totally true here we all are all these years later. That's what, that's what Paris Themmen said.
Norm: We know about you Zombie, but Jorge, when did you get involved?
Jorge Lozano: I got involved about six years ago. [inaudible] and now I'm directing and doing a bunch of crazy stuff.
Zombie Joe: Jorge is our general manager, by the way, and he's directing me in my one man show opening next Friday. Make sure you're all there.
Norm: Oh, he's directing that one?
Zombie Joe: You betcha.
Norm: Oh. plug it, plug it. Hurry.
Jorge Lozano: So, Zombie Joe, 20 minutes of nonstop madness.
Zombie Joe: It's immersive, experiential.
Norm: Immersive that word. So, here we go, let's talk about what the first shows at Zombie Joe's were like. Obviously, you can lead with that Zombie.
Zombie Joe: So, not really sure. We know, I guess, a little bit more about theater now, but at the time it was, so we're like theater cruelty, we're really into Artaud Theater and it's double, The Cenci, Jet of Blood. So, we were really trying to kind of duplicate that theater of cruelty. So, like real sex, real violence, real drugs, everything was as possible on stage in the early days. We were talking about this earlier, you can really feel that that kind of vehemence, the idea for us, like whenever we're performing, whether it's Urban Death or whatever show that we're working on, we really try to come from the viewpoint that this is like the last time we'll ever be on stage. Like every moment counts, every beat counts up there. We don't want to have an off night, even though it does happen, we got to really make it count, especially these weird, strange times we're in, got to really make it count. Does it feel that way seeing Urban Death, like really making it here?
Norm: I guess the first show that you did was called The Masterpiece, can you talk to us about that show?
Zombie Joe: Yeah, so I was at UC Irvine. I was in a fraternity, and I was doing theater, and I was having like a drug problem. I kind of had this weird, lonely, terrified meltdown and so I wrote this play called Masterpiece. It's about an artist in his last days, the relationships with the people in his life. So, there were like lizard men, seven foot Twinkies, and it was kind of a take on what art is and the value of art. So, that was like the first play. I brought the play to the faculty at UC Irvine, and I'd been building sets. This is like really personal stuff, you know, and these shows that we do are the sands of our lives, you know? So, anyway, I brought this play that I wrote, so excited about it, I kind of wrote it over the course of...
Zombie Joe: David, thanks for being here, guys, David Markland, producer of Midsummer Scream. My God, you guys, David came out to Urban Death, and he bought the whole cast dinner afterwards, guys. This is kind of go like, just like bring us to tears. So, I brought this play, The Masterpiece, to the faculty, and their like, "we don't like your play," you know, just trying to get a space. "We don't like the play. We don't really like you, and we're not really sure where we stand." So, I quit. I don't recommend anybody do this. I quit school, flipped them the bird, I sold everything I had, put this money down on a space in Northridge, and was sleeping on the cement. Those were the early days, eventually Denise Devin became my wife, I got moved out of the theater, got domesticated, hot showers.
Norm: So, you took a feral Zombie and turned into what we see before us?
Denise Devin: I have no idea.
Zombie Joe: The first days are the hardest days, like Grateful Dead say. But I will encourage everyone. I don't know shit, of course, obviously, I don't know shit. But I would really encourage everyone that if you have a dream in your heart, if you have a song in your heart, if you have something that's pulling you towards something, and it's really hard to tune into that, like it's hard for me, it's hard for anyone. But if you have a pulling and longing in your heart, let it pull you toward your dream and your destiny.
Norm: Remember that one. Let's talk about ticket prices. So, 30 years, how much did the first ticket cost to Zombie Joe's?
Zombie Joe: Well, we, we're kind of being smart-aleckey a little bit, first tickets were $7.50 for the early show and $8.50 cents for the late show.
Norm: How was that?
Zombie Joe: Well, nobody came, so making change wasn't really a problem. But, you know, we were a little strung out, a little unhinged at the time.
Norm: And then they went up to $10, right?
Zombie Joe: They were $10 for like 10 years. Eventually we made the leap to $12.
Norm: That was a pretty big leap.
Zombie Joe: Then, you know, Jana’s like, "oh, Urban Death, it's got to be $20. Come on, people pay it, people pay it." I'm like, "no, no, no, let's make it $15, $16." Dude, $20 is a lot of money. Isn't it?
Norm: Your show is worth it. I'm just saying, your show's entire worth it. Guys, is it worth $20?
Audience: [Clapping and Cheering]
Jana Wimer: Thank you.
Norm: Do I hear 30? So, Denise, you joined, you said 18 years ago.
Denise Devin: No, 22.
Norm: Sorry, 22. Sorry, I can't math.
Denise Devin: That's alright.
Norm: So, Jana was 18 years ago.
Jana Wimer: Yes? No, 19 years ago.
Norm: I got to change my... Math, right guys? I mean, geez. So, let's talk about Denise. You came on, you started painting the walls, did you go on to... You acted, what are some of the more memorable things you did on the ZJU stage?
Denise Devin: All of them. Do we have kids in the here? We did, well, in my early days, it wasn't his, can I tell that funny story about how we looked for TVs to break?
Zombie Joe: Oh yeah, yeah, totally.
Denise Devin: So, this shows you how we progressed, or not, really. Zombie used to break TVs.
Zombie Joe: With a baseball bat.
Denise Devin: In Northridge. So, we got our legitimate place at 4850, and we were calling in a theater, and he wanted to break TVs and I had never actually done that, but cool. We went through all these things, trying to figure out plexiglass and how you put it up, because at the garage it was a little different, you kind of knew what you were getting into, but at 4850 we wanted to legit up a bit. So, we were going to break TVs, and how do we find the plexiglass and rescue the audience, and make sure no one got hurt and all this stuff. We finally gave up on the TV.
Denise Devin: His first show was The Box, I was in it. It was an Avantgarde piece, not much dialogue. People loved it and I'd never done that kind of theater before. So, for those of you who don't know or aren't in theater, the man puts a show up in three weeks. Done. We're done. I just looked at him like, "I mean he must be BSing, right?" But no, we got the box up in three weeks from beginning to end. That includes the collaborative "let's create this" part. I have never turned back. I have no idea what other theaters do, what they're doing with all that time, I don't want to know I want to be here because there's an immersive and exciting quality to it that I tell you can't be beat. And yes, I'm a little biased, but it can't be beat.
Norm: So, what is it about that accelerated creation process that, that is so attractive, enticing?
Denise Devin: You know, it makes you think. There's a show business axiom, no matter how much time you get on dress rehearsal, you're still trying to figure it out. So, time becomes a different thing. I mean I edit a full Shakespeare two weeks before we go in down to an hour format, and then we do it in three weeks done, including costumes. Jonica has been the lead in many of my shows. It gets your creative juices flowing. You don't have time to worry about things, the unimportant things go away. And most of it is unimportant, as it turns out. You need your actors up there, they need to be connecting with each other, they got to be wearing something, or not, depending, and then you go, then you just go. It works creatively. I mean, I've worked with a lot of artists over the years at Zombies, you know, in 22 years when we do them in three weeks, we've gone through a lot of shows, and no one complains. I mean, they get nervous, especially the first time, but they don't complain. You get moving, you get going, it's good for the soul.
Zombie Joe: Let me just say real quick, Denise Devin is directing Attack of The Rotting Corpses at Zombie Joe's opening August 19th. So, be sure to come on out for that.
Norm: So, speaking of corpses, let's talk about the signature show, Urban Death and how that came about. So, first of all, where did the idea of Urban Death come from? And this is open to Jana and Zombie.
Jana Wimer: It was the summer of 2005.
Norm: Let's go back, shall we?
Jana Wimer: We had just done so like street performing for the NOMA arts thing and Zombie came up to me and was like, "you should create a horror show." I've been watching horror my whole, like literally since I was like five or something. So, I was like, "yeah!" I just remember I was like, "what can we do? What can we do?" For those of you who have not been to ZJU and know, when the lights go out, it's pitch black, you can't see anything. You don't see that anywhere, it's not something you see. The first show I saw that was like, when the lights went out and I'm like, "holy Jesus, look at this. There's like nothing, nothing!"
Norm: It's not something you see, literally.
Jana Wimer: Yeah. I mean, it's probably not legal. So, I was like, those lights go out and then you can bring up the lights and there could be anything, you know, just shock the audience with just anything. So, I just brought that idea, all I had were images like the lights coming up and you see something. So, I brought that idea to Zombie and then he kind of took it from there, the style, the no talking, the intensity, the depravity, the dick and balls.
Norm: The vajay-jay.
Jana Wimer: You know, that's all Zombie. But, I mean, it was really born from the darkness of 4850 Lankershim, you know?
Norm: And such darkness. Let's talk about the audition process. It just fascinates me that they get these people who get up there completely nude, or just doing all kinds of crazy stuff. Like, seriously, the show this year at Midsummer was ridiculous. What's the audition process like?
Zombie Joe: Basically, if you're available, you're in. It's hard, you know, we're kind of like a band of misfits and doing our thing. We're very much like a community kind of theater, we're community underground theater, and we hold auditions... I'd say the last couple years with the whole COVID thing it was really kind of keeping it... By the way folks we're very much like a theater family that gets thrown around a lot, but we really are like a family. We work hard together. We play hard together. There's a lot of emotion in our company, like a family. We're always looking to grow and expand our family. People come and go in the theater and for me, I'm really soft skinned and I'm like dish it out but can't take it kind of guy. Seriously, like, you know, people come and go and so often they stay for a long time. For me, it's really hard. ZJU's always been sort of like a leaping pad for things. For example, Jana and Abel are going to be putting up a show in Las Vegas guys, over here next year, they’re working on a lot. A lot of this stuff comes out of like, they met at ZJU, and it's a very special, almost magical place where things happen and people grow, we grow together. Otherwise, why bother? So, as far as the auditions, if you're looking to audition or get involved, we welcome you. You know, Ben came from seeing shows, to the Cunninghams here they came to see shows. So, basically, if you come and see a show, I'm going to interview you at the front, I'm going to try to get you involved. I'm going to sell you a ticket and we're going to try to... Because it takes a village, it takes a village to run it.
Norm: Well, seriously, every time I show up at the theater Zombie's like, " Norm, when are you going to be in the show? What are you going to do?
Zombie Joe: Is that how I act? I'm not sure.
Norm: But, I don't just... I just....
Audience: DO IT! DO IT!
Norm: Alright. Just kidding, just kidding!
Denise Devin: Well, I can speak to that, the auditions, a little bit. We recommend that you come see your show, so you have some idea of what you're getting into. Because we do have an ethic, we have a style, we have a way of being. And even in our, like more clothed shows that is still very much present. So, most of our actors have seen something, like Jonica and Jana, and then that makes them want to be part of it, and Jorge too. We do hold auditions, but it is it's difficult because no, one's really clear what they're getting into until they got into it. We treat people, I think, really well, like, you know, whatever you're comfortable with and we'll bring you along, or it's not for you, and this will be your only show with us. We're okay with all that, you know, it's not for everybody. But for those people who love it, they're with us forever.
Norm: Jorge, since, since you're directing a show with Zombie, and you've put on a few shows, you did the Circus of Values recently. I heard that was amazing. Can you talk to me about the rehearsal process? From the weeks, two to three weeks maybe, and what's that whole process like leading up to opening night?
Jorge Lozano: For me, it's very, what's the word, the device, right? You come in with an idea and you're like, "all right, let's see what sticks." Got to have a lot of trust in your actors to kind of understand the vision that you have with this. Like the Circus show in particular, all I said was like, "Hey, there's clowns that were oppressed by minds and now they're free. That's the show." So, with the style that we do there, there's a lot of very close, intimate moments at the beginning to get comfortable with everyone, moving around each other, a lot of breathing stuff. So, you just get through that and then you just play around, see what sticks with the goal in mind, and you hope two weeks after you start that you have a show. A lot of times, specifically with this show, it came to the very last second of like the last rehearsal when we found the show. So, it's very flying by the seat of your pants. So, it's very stressful, but at the end of the day, you know, "oh my God, what a show?" Right. Like, okay, cool. It's worth it.
Norm: Yeah. So, basically, trial by fire. Just boom, just going out there. Now, let's talk about the development of some of the pieces in Urban Death, or any of the other shows really. Well, first of all, what are the elements. Jana, let's ask you that one, what are the key elements for an Urban Death piece?
Jana Wimer: You know, that's really hard to put the words because, Zombie could probably agree, although he's better words of words than I am. It's really like a gut thing. Somebody will come in with an idea and then it is pretty instant, if it's going to work or not. I'm a big fan of the dark humor. I love the dark humor stuff, the stuff that's like really fucked up and like, it makes you laugh and then hate yourself for laughing. I've been trying to analyze Urban Death for years, but for me it's just all gut and I try not to question it too much. For me, I just like, "yes or no, yes or no." Or, sometimes people will come with an idea and then it will kind of transform into something completely different. But, that's why I always encourage people just to breathe, whatever, even if it's just an image, you never know what you can do with just that idea that you have or just that image you have in your head. I don't know, is that helpful at all?
Norm: Yes. Jonica, have you suggested any pieces during rehearsal, and if so, what were they?
Jonica Patella: Uh, yes.
Jana Wimer: The poop chick was yours.
Zombie Joe: Oh yeah.
Jonica Patella: Pooping out the window.
Norm: What inspired that piece?
Jonica Patella: I was initially thinking of it as like a baby bird, like kind of like spiting into people down below, but poop is more fun to make. I feel like I'm the company poop maker. I did recipes for baby poop, adult poop, and cat poop. Cat poop is my most delicious.
Zombie Joe: Guys with the litter, when she makes the litter as corn flakes or grape nuts.
Denise Devin: Grape nuts.
Norm: Okay. Well, what are the turds? Come on? Oh, no, wait, maybe we shouldn't reveal any secrets. But we do know that the cat poop is delicious. You knew it was going to go there kids. So, infamous pieces. Let's talk about that. Again, we're pretty much all initiated into the crew here, but were there any pieces in Urban Death, or any of the other shows, that kind of left the mark, that you thought "Hmm. You know, we, we maybe took that too far."
Denise Devin: Rape in the window.
Jana Wimer: Yeah, the rape in the window. That was one that he directed. I had no part of that, because I may have, "no."
Denise Devin: But I got to star in it. It was great.
Jana Wimer: Even, I was like, ooo.
Norm: One of my favorites was the sniper one.
Zombie Joe: The school yard sniper?
Jana Wimer: Yeah. To describe it. It's just like, you just hear kids playing and then like a guy in the window, he like disappears for a second, then he comes back up with a rifle or like an assault rifle.
Norm: Yeah, and entirely to timely.
Jana Wimer: Yeah, it's weird, but you know, things have changed, nonetheless. Even though we just did it a year ago, I don't know if I wouldn't want to do it now. The time timing is a key on that one and I think now is a little too much.
Norm: Do you guys have any favorite pieces from any of the shows? Denise?
Denise Devin: I did 10 years, and a lot of the pieces we did in the first show actually ended up in this one. So, we have classics and Urban Death is... I mean, I love Urban Death. Who doesn't love Urban Death? Right? I mean, that's like saying what's better, an apple or an orange? You want something for that day, but it doesn't mean you don't want something else for tomorrow. I love all the pieces. I've done most of the pieces, or an incarnation of them. I have a couple of pieces that are signature to me, but we all do.
Jana Wimer: I've kept a spreadsheet of all pieces that we've done and there's over 600. A lot of pieces.
Zombie Joe: Many of them are scored too, with original score behind them.
Norm: Oh, you know what, let's talk about the music, because some of the music is... And I didn't put this in the outline, so I'm sorry. But some of the music is amazing.
Zombie Joe: Thank you.
Norm: You've had some, some big composers being a part of that, you want to talk about that?
Zombie Joe: Well, the original catalog, the original cannon, is with Christopher Reiner. For years he was doing music. For a long time, it's like, oh my God, how do we... eventually the composers might move on, or we'll move on artistically. Most recently, Kevin Van Cott composed for Urban Death Cannibal Corpse, composed the score, our very own. There's been also other composers, Michael Mayo and music we rip off and don't give credit for. No, never mind. There's been a few, but primarily most of the cannon has been with Christopher Reiner. So, the composers will come in, watch the piece, track the piece, they'll compose to the piece, and deliver a finished piece. Then Jana and/or I will listen to it and maybe we'll need another take on it, but yeah, just like scoring a movie, a film I guess, would be like scoring. So, Urban Death gets that special treatment, but I think a lot of our plays recently have, have had original scores and stuff. We’ve been really lucky with the music. We've been very fortunate with being blessed with great, just amazing, beautiful musicians in our group. It just seems to come so easy when in fact it's very complicated, you know?
Zombie Joe: I just wanted to also just follow up on, we asked about Urban Death and like kind of criteria, and putting a piece together. I think Jana says it best, if you guys ever see the time Warner little feature at video, Jana says, "all we ask are that our performers are fearless and then they're courageous and they go out there .", I just love the way she said that and I repeat that all the time. So, people that were looking to get involved as far as auditions, I don't really even see our company as, of course we're actors and performers, but more than that, I feel like they're really soldiers in our group. We're really like that kind of company, we're a blue collar, hardworking theater company. But yeah, just want to follow up from that.
Jana Wimer: If you show up on time and you show up and do all that, we'll find a place for you.
Norm: Hey, kids, let's put on a show. Why has Zombie Joe's Underground Theater endured for 30 years?
Zombie Joe: Sarah, thanks for coming today. I asked Sarah, and Albert Lamb was here too? He was here anyway. Hey, Philip back here from the Haunted Attraction Network. So, I'm sorry, what's the questions?
Norm: Yes, it was. Why has the show endured for three decades?
Zombie Joe: Well, I think a lot of it has to do with our family and just this amazing theater family that's hungry and voracious. For example, Jorge, as our newest management, and also Brittany Dewise, it's just completely amazing people in the group, that have ideas and they're young. Listen, guys, don't get old, don't do it, don't get old. The truth is, getting older now, I'm like fucking 51 years old. Sorry for the cussing, I'm 51, but it's somewhere to go on Friday and Saturday night, I've got somewhere to go. I've got an amazing group that keeps me young, they want to hang out with me and spend time with me. My own family doesn't want to spend time, you know? Also, what I think has kept us enduring is just that incredible creativity and the veracity. Sometimes I'm pushing the group forward, but more often than not, the group is pushing me forward.
Jana Wimer: I have something to say about that. I think one of Zombie's greatest strengths is just finding awesome people. He's just a really good judge of character. He just knows, like the people closest and dearest to me in my life I've met through the theater. He'll say, "oh, it's all the people." But it's him, he's the reason that we've been around.
Denise Devin: I do have something to say, even though I'm a little biased. But more important, because I come from a very different background and that's what I bring to the theater. Most importantly, I think, it has Zombie of course as our driving force. People don't realize the group of trained artists that we have, and if you're not one when you start, you become one, by the time you've been with us for a while. We have original composers, we have dancers, we have choreographers, we have actors who have major league training, we have people who handle Shakespeare as well as standing nude and getting their dick pulled on stage, and they do both equally. I think what people, sometimes, you know, it's that artistic home that keeps us going. It's a place where we go balls to the wall and do something. There's no talking, I don't mean there's talking in the place sometimes, but there's no talking about it, there's doing it. That is an extraordinary experience for an artist. You spend a lot of time in LA or other places trying to, you know, make something happen. You go to a theater, and they have five production meetings before they decide when they're going to have an audition date, then they want to review the script three times, and then they want to do this and then they want to do that. By that time we put up a show, and it's very exciting, it's very exciting for an artist. But it takes courage, like Jana and Zombie, courage, commitment and innate talent. We'll bring you there if you join us.
Norm: You guys illicit, you coax talent from people. I've actually seen you guys tell people, "oh, no, you can do that." You surprised them. Were there any people that, that come to mind? I mean, because I've seen it over and over.
Zombie Joe: Well, Jorge here, comes not necessarily from a theater background. If you want to work with one hell of a director, guys, you work with Jorge Lozano here, really coming into his own and watching him grow. This is my boy here. This kid is my boy, you know he's become a better director than me, just a totally amazing working with people and bringing out their best. Also, I just wanted just to bring everybody's attention real quick, Jonica Patella is the greatest actor in Los Angeles.
Jana Wimer: I was going to say the same thing.
Norm: Yeah, she does this one piece that I'm unashamed of saying is my favorite piece, and it's the one, the asylum starting with the giggling and the laughing and the hysteric crying there. You can't breathe, and so yes, you're easily one of the most talented actors in not the country.
Jana Wimer: And one of the coolest people.
Norm: Easy, like super cool, and just easy to get along with.
Zombie Joe: Jana loves Jonica so much, goes, "Jonica! Jonica!" Whenever Jonica walks in the room.
Norm: That was actually the finale. Sorry, spoiler alert. So, what does the future hold for Zombie Joe's Underground Theater?
Zombie Joe: Pretty much death, loneliness. So, hope everybody enjoyed the show here. Well we've got a big season lined up. We are opening a one man show, me being the one man next Friday, Jorge directing, totally terrifying. Make sure to come. Then we have Denise directing Attack of the Rotting Corpses.
Jana Wimer: By the way, Zombie wrote that.
Norm: It's been performed a few times.
Zombie Joe: This will be our fifth incarnation. Jana's directed it, Sebastian has directed it. It's a lot of fun. It's like Evil Dead meets Return of the Living Dead sort of thing. It takes place in a condo complex with an evil microbe gets in the water supply and everybody turns in a...
Jana Wimer: It's a horror farce. It is pretty brilliant.
Zombie Joe: Yeah. So, and we are looking for funding, because Jana's looking to make the film version of it. So, if anybody wants to put up some money, we've been talking about this for a while.
Norm: If there are any producers or financiers, we've got a pitch.
Zombie Joe: Then, we're doing Killer Klowns Coplay dance party with John Massari, that's coming up. It's rescheduled twice, but that's definitely happening this time the 17th and 18th of September. Urban Death Tour of Terror, our big haunted attraction, opens up September 30th. Then, Cabaret Macabre Christmas. Did you guys get to see Cabaret Macabre Christmas? The beautiful Britney Dewise, we already have those tickets on sale for our Christmas show and some other. Is anybody looking to do a project? If anybody's interested, we've got openings. It's like three weeks from concept idea to opening. Anybody? Okay, come see me afterwards.
Norm: This is not a lie. So, you know what, let's open it up to any Q&A. Let's make this a mutual conversation here. Does anyone have any questions for the iconic Zombie Joe's Underground Theater team?
Audience: How do you come up with these random concepts? Like, I just saw you smoking from the head downstairs. I want to smoke on someone's head and laugh hysterically? I mean, like, pulling guys dicks around... how does that happen?
Jana Wimer: Recently I directed Urban Death Cannibal Corpse. If you don't know, Cannibal Corpse is like the world's biggest death metal band. So, we did an Urban Death that all the pieces were inspired by their song titles. So, that song titled is Severed Head Stoning. So, that's where that one came from. But, I don't know, they just come from people and places. You just never know, they come from everything and everywhere in life and everything.
Cast Member: Sometimes you also just like, Hey man, [inaudible] and the next thing you know he's pulling my dick with a rope. It was really a hard sell for the other two guys. Me and my girlfriend [inaudible] I'll do it and see if it's possible, but guys believe me, it won't pull, it won't tighten. Is it weird? Can we try it? Let's just see if it works. Like they said, it's a gut feeling it worked, and that was it.
Zombie Joe: Did you guys like the show we just put up? Ok, we never really know.
Norm: Any other questions guys? Over here.
Audience: So, I took a very different perspective from the show downstairs. One of the things that popped into my mind is, what is the most obvious to you, now after the show has been produced, accidental allegory that came out of one of the scenes?
Jana Wimer: I directed a version in South Africa. I went to Cape Town, South Africa and I had an all South African cast. One of the coolest things, because coming up with pieces is very collaborative, and to learn about a culture through the context of creating a horror show is really interesting. There is a piece that we had done before where the lights come up on a very tired woman in an apron, you hear the baby crying, she's clearly just kind of burned out, she's like shaking the baby bottle, she puts like cleaner in the baby bottle, and then she like goes off and the baby stops crying. We did that piece in South Africa with a black actress, and the cleaner just happened to be Brasso, which wasn't even thinking about it, it was just a prop. All the white women were losing their shit over that piece, because they all have black nannies. So, that was like one of those pieces, like it never even occurred to me that somebody would take it that way.
Norm: And Brasso was like the go-to cleanser there?
Jana Wimer: Well, Brasso, you polish brass and stuff you know? Like a lot of the white women there have black nannies who are also house keepers and all that stuff.
Norm: Wow. It's amazing how something takes a different context, like in a different country. Was there anything like that in Edinburgh? Because, by the way, they took the show to the fringe festival in Edinburg. Also Abel helped out with that over there. He was over there. So, was there anything that kind played different?
Jonica Patella: The most like culturally different thing about Edinburgh, we had to get used to a crowd that sat respectfully and watched, and like they might have been drunk, but they weren't like rowdy drunk. So, we did it for a couple of shows and thought, "they hate us. This is terrible. We should just go home right now." Then there were some lovely Irish lads who stayed after and bought us all drinks. They just were like, "it was amazing. This is our second night coming. We were here last night. We were pissed with those people who were like clapping after pieces. We're like, 'pay attention!' That's how you taking theater here." Ok.
Norm: That's awesome. Any other questions?
Audience: So, I know you've referenced the whole student school shooting thing, since this changed, what topics are considered crossing the line for you guys? Like, I don't even feel comfortable doing this.
Zombie Joe: Well, it's interesting, coming out of this COVID period. Before patrons come to a show sometimes they write us before they'll come and say, "Hey, we're really looking forward. We know that you guys are hardcore and you do this stuff, but is there any rape in the show? That's triggering for me, and I don't think I'd come if there's any themes of rape." Things that we used to just do all the time. "Is there any rape or is there any suicide," is it really triggering theme? So, for us as a theater company, we're a completely independent theater company. We're an all American theater company. So, we like to feel that there's nothing too taboo. We can do whatever we want without fear of persecution. So, we really kind of take that to the limit and we exercise our American rights to do theater and live entertainment as American theater artists. So, there's been some issues that are beloved supporters have said, "we want to come and we love you, but this might be too triggering." So, we've noticed that a little bit repetitively, like suicide and rape style theme. So, we've tried to be sort of sensitive to, especially... We want to do whatever we want, but at the same time, it's all entertainment for us, we have no viewpoint on anything really, so that allows us to be entertainers. But we also want to be sensitive to the triggers of the people, we love you guys, you guys are everything as our audience and our supporters, you guys are our friends, we're all in this together. So we really, yeah...
Norm: Exactly. What sets this theater company apart from other companies doing things that are as extreme, or not even as extreme in my opinion, is the fact that you're rarely glorifying these things. You're sitting there considering these things. I forget who said it, but the point is, you go to the theater, you consider these things, you observe these things, great. Then you leave the theater and you can move on. It's not like you're glorifying rape, pooping out a window, or things like that. These are things that you're noticing, observing. Is that correct?
Jana Wimer: We have no agenda. Like, for me, the worst thing you can do in theater is to have an agenda. It's just like, "Ugh." All we want to do is entertain. We want to freak people out and entertain, and not try to be political or get an agenda across. If we're offending you, we're not even trying to offend you. We're just, if it makes us laugh.
Denise Devin: I've said this now, I think the thing that I remember, I've been in a lot of Urban Death, I've seen a lot of Urban Death by now, it's been a long journey for me, I was there at the beginning. It's an artistic show at heart, these aren't people up there jerking off to jerk off. These are people up there doing... well, sometimes, maybe. They're up there presenting a slice of life. So, even our hardest core pieces, the ones that hit the hardest, they're events that happened, and you see them through the actors, which is what art is supposed to do. That's why they're triggering and disturbing, because you are there present in that moment, and these artists are presenting that vignette, and then they'll go on and present something else. When it's art like that, and there's a commitment, most people get their heart and mind opened a little bit. So, can it be triggering? Yes, nut in a good way. It makes us think, it makes us be, it makes us feel. We sit on our phones and text all day, it makes us happen, it makes us recognize the human experience, which is what Urban Death does. Then, sometimes, we bring in some levity so that you don't go out and kill yourself. Life is all of that. Life is all of that. I think people forget that it's the art that takes it up the next level.
Cast Member: To piggyback on that, if I may, there's so much fear and you go on for like two hours and just sitting there and you don't feel anything. Then you walk into Urban Death and you give us 10 seconds and all of a sudden you're like, "what is this?" Not even just mind boggling, just some beauty and just feels something. That's what this show and this place really does. It'll pull something out of you, it's the punk lot show up here, like we're going to make you feel.
Norm: I think that the most egregious sin that art can create, or that art can commit, is being mediocre and terribly forgettable. Because it has to leave a mark, somehow. If it leaves an impression, like this show has on so many of us, and the theater company itself, you've done your job.
Jana Wimer: As I've always said, I can forgive anything but boring.
Zombie Joe: If you're an artist, if you're in the theater, and you're like, "I have this idea." We want to help you cultivate it. We'll go toe to toe with you. If you're feeling the passion, we want to be part of that passion with you. That's really, in a lot of ways, what we're about. We want to help cultivate these ideas with you and bring them to fruition quickly, like in a couple weeks, we're up and running, we've sold tickets, people are coming, let's step into this and let's do this together. So, we really all about supporting artists and supporting each other. We're about, also, people having a voice in the arts, because we all want to have a voice, right? We all want to be heard. So, if you, if you want to say something in a theater, we want to be there to help you kind of do that. That's really what I get out of that, what we get out of that, we get growing together and watching each other grow, and it just makes you want to cry to watch the growth and stuff. That how we're spending our lives and living our best life, you know? In the arts guys.
Norm: No question, no question. With that, we've actually planned and pitched the next 30 years of Zombie Joe's Underground Theater today, and I'm sure it's going to be around for many more years to come. So, you guys, I could be up here for another couple hours, but our time's up. So, all I got to say is that when I looked into the abyss, the abyss look back and I love it. I love it.
Norman J. Gidney is a Los Angeles-based film critic and writer. Founder of HorrorBuzz and writer for Film Threat, Norman grew up in Southern California learning to read by scouring the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times and is an avid film fan with a special love for horror and genre films. His goal is to champion horror, queer cinema, and the independent filmmakers who sacrifice everything to tell their stories.
Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group aka Z.J.U. continues to push the limits of live horror and progressive theater as a vital experimental art form. Zombie has performed, directed and produced over 350 productions since ZJU's founding in Northridge, CA in August 1992. He is a huge fan and inspired by the prowess and game-changing stylings of the Great Antonin Artaud and Alfred Jarry (King Ubu), the Russian Masters Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol and Tolstoy, plus historic theatrical visionaries Bertolt Brecht (Caucasian Chalk Circle) Gaspar Noe, George Lucas, Neo (from the Matrix), Denise Devin, and Jana Wimer.
Jana Wimer created Urban Death with Zombie Joe, and was instrumental in its critically-acclaimed runs in New York City; Cape Town, South Africa; and Edinburgh, Scotland. She has served as director, actor, scenic artist, costume designer, lighting designer, sound designer and puppeteer for countless shows. She studied puppetry with Muppet artists and also has an extensive background in art and music. Jana was recently hired by Paramount Pictures to write an immersive horror experience for the Paramount Studios lot.
Denise Devin has been with ZJU since it re-located to 4850 Lankershim Blvd., NoHo, CA, twenty-two years ago. Since then, she has participated in at least 200 shows, probably more, as actress, writer, director, and senior advisor. Denise was original cast member of the first Urban Death and stayed with the show as actor-collaborator for its first ten years. Today, she remains with the show as Senior Advisor. It was at ZJU, under Zombie, that she learned the power of darkness to illuminate the human spirit. At ZJU, creators, have full reign to explore the mystery of the human spirit, in all its darkness and light, both in spoken and unspoken word. It is an honor and privilege to work alongside Zombie, Jana, and all the other artists to create unforgettable theatre.