Jette: returning to the Forbidden Zone

When I heard that Alamo Drafthouse was not only showing Forbidden Zone at a non-midnight time on April 30, but that director Richard Elfman would be there, I couldn’t resist. I had to go. I wanted to see the movie one more time.
I first saw Forbidden Zone in college, on a videotape from a Baton Rouge video rental store. I don’t remember which store, or how we found out about the movie, or exactly when we started watching it. My guess would be that my friend Lara knew about it and found it. Lara knew about all kinds of weird and obscure movies, like Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis films and the Cinderella porn film with the snapping pussy. We probably saw the movie some time in late 1988 or early 1989.
How and why a Baton Rouge video store managed to get and keep a videotape of an obscure 1980 underground cult film is something I suppose we will never know.
I didn’t have a lot of experience of low-budget or independent movies in 1988. Forbidden Zone was the strangest movie I’d ever seen. It looked like it had been filmed in someone’s basement, but it had Herve Villechaize in it, and Viva, and what seemed like the entire Elfman family, including Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo, who had done music for a movie I really liked, Beetlejuice. It was filmed in stark and less-than-glorious black-and-white.

I also thought it was pretty disgusting. The characters entered the Forbidden Zone through bowel-like tubes with an exit that looked like a woman’s ass, onto dark tube-like pillows, and afterwards the characters all yelled “Shit!” (or “Merde!” if you were Frenchy). There was a lot of simulated ass-humping, although the characters kept on their clothes, and I’d only seen that previously in Last Tango in Paris, which is a very different kind of movie. A lot of other stuff looked grungy or just plain gross.
But somehow the movie grew on me (like moss, as Mary Astor might say) and my friends and I loved showing it to new people, and watching it repeatedly. We may have been the only people in Baton Rouge to rent that Forbidden Zone tape. We might even have tried to make copies with two VCRs, but I think the resulting quality ended up being way too poor.
I am surprised we didn’t try to find a print of Forbidden Zone to show at LSU Union Theater. Nearly all of us in that group of friends were also on the Union Films Committee together. However, Richard Elfman noted after the Alamo screening that most of the movie had been shot in 35 mm, and I guess it was not popular enough to have a 16 mm print struck for universities and other small theaters. (LSU had only a 16 mm projector in the theater.) So we might have investigated the possibility and found out that we couldn’t get a print. We tried to show so many weird-ass movies back then that it is hard for me to remember all of them, except that I do remember lobbying hard and successfully to show Female Trouble a couple of years later. (I’m surprised I don’t remember that movie as being even grosser and weirder than Forbidden Zone, but I haven’t seen it lately either.)
For me, Forbidden Zone calls up a very specific period in my life when I was exposed to a much wider range of films, when I hung out with a group of people who liked alternative music and movies, when I worked until after midnight three nights a week as a copy editor for LSU’s paper, when we answered every “where” question with “up yer ass”, when I started trying to break up with my then-boyfriend, which was a longer process than I anticipated.
I remember joking one Halloween that I ought to dress up as Frenchy, which would have been easy because all I needed was a bathrobe and a pair of Mickey Mouse ears. (We had the mouse ears around because of the Rocky Horror thing, which is a whole other story.) But then I realized that hardly anyone would get the joke.
I had very nearly forgotten about Forbidden Zone until last year, when I heard that it was being re-released in some Landmark theaters and that a DVD release was on the horizon. I missed seeing it at the Dobie, mainly because it was at midnight and it is very hard for me to see midnight movies, especially if I’m going by myself. I thought it would be fun to gather a group of people over at the house to watch the DVD, but I wasn’t sure if it was fair to inflict a movie that I remembered as being disgusting and weird onto close friends whom I wanted to keep as friends.
I did give my brother the Forbidden Zone DVD for Christmas last year. I’m not sure if he’s actually watched it. I’ll have to ask. But I knew it was one movie he wouldn’t have on DVD already.
Which brings us back to the Alamo. I knew I was going to the 9:45 showing, and the part of me that wanted so many LSU acquaintances to see the movie in college resurfaced. I asked my boyfriend to go with me. I explained that it was the weirdest movie I’d ever seen, and did he really want to miss an opportunity to see something so very odd, with the director there to discuss it?
The Beau agreed to go, and I got the tickets online ahead of time. About 5 minutes after I bought the tickets, I started to worry. What if he hated it? I’d taken him to see Tom Jones at the Paramount the year before and he disliked the movie so much that he had to go hang out in a Sixth Street bar until it was over. We now have an understanding that he does not see movies described as “bawdy.” Forbidden Zone wasn’t bawdy, but I remembered it as kind of gross. Also, there were musical numbers, and The Beau does not do show tunes. (Or ABBA, but that’s another story.)
I fretted about this until I heard him laughing, more than once, during the movie. Whew. Even if he ended up not liking it much, it was obvious that he was being entertained rather than bored or annoyed during most of the film. I would not have to find him at Gingerman when the movie was over. I was so pleased.
So, what did I think about Forbidden Zone this time around?
First of all, I didn’t remember the blackface at all and it surprised me, and made me cringe a bit. Why does this film need blackface? Is it to shock, or did the filmmakers think it was in character with the general look of the film? I don’t know, although Richard Elfman mentioned afterwards that all kinds of people protested the film for various “politically incorrect” (god, I hate that term) reasons. I can imagine this is one of them. Also, I find it interesting that when I remembered offensive or unpleasant things about the movie when I saw it at LSU, I didn’t remember this at all. Maybe it didn’t strike me at the time as being quite as offensive and shocking as it does now.
That’s the thing—I’ve changed, and seen so many other movies, that Forbidden Zone didn’t have the impact on me that it once did. All the sex was just plain silly. Very little struck me as gross. (After you see A Hole in My Heart, damn near everything else seems family-friendly.) Is it still the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen? Probably not, although I’ve never seen another movie that has quite that look and style to it.
The movie doesn’t look as grungy as I remembered it, although it still looks like it was filmed in someone’s basement. I think that might have to do with the fact that I had only ever seen the film on an old nasty videotape on small TV sets, instead of the very good print that Alamo showed on a nice big screen. The big screen did allow me to notice that the walls were all made from trash bags and sometimes the “rocks” blew around in the breeze.
I’d forgotten entirely about the animation, which is not bad at all. In fact, the animation is probably the best part of the film in terms of quality. Maybe they should have just made an entirely animated film? But then we’d miss the sequence with Danny Elfman as Satan, singing a weird version of “Minnie the Moocher.” Many of the musical numbers are revamped Cab Calloway songs, or other songs from that era. Watching the credits, I realized that the song Frenchy sings in school is a Josephine Baker song … and in fact it appeared from the credits (I can’t find out for sure) that they just used an old Josephine Baker recording in the film.
It surprised the hell out of me to find out how much of the dialogue I remembered. Has this ever happened to you? Usually it happens to me with children’s movies that I saw a lot when I was younger. But it is really weird to hear yourself muttering a line right before a character says it, or singing along to a musical number, when you didn’t realize you knew the movie that well.
I realize I have not said anything about the plot, but, um, there’s a plot? Sort of. The Hercules family has a portal to the Forbidden Zone in their basement, the kids aren’t allowed there, but one day Frenchy (Marie Pascale-Elfman) is “soooo curieuse” that she peeks in the basement, slips on a rollerskate, and ends up in the wacky Forbidden Zone. The king of the Forbidden Zone (Herve Villechaize) falls in love with her and tries to keep Frenchy out of the talons of the evil queen (Susan Tyrell). Somehow the whole Hercules family ends up in various weird parts of the Forbidden Zone, and I haven’t even mentioned Squeezit the Chicken Boy, or Princess Scary Tits (well, that’s what we always called her when we watched the movie at LSU) or The Kipper Kids.
Richard Elfman talked about the movie afterwards. Apparently he had not realized that Forbidden Zone had such a large cult following. I guess a lot of cities and towns besides Baton Rouge had rogue videotapes lurking about, rented by film freaks and geeks who, like me, found it weirdly attractive. The Alamo audience was certainly full of all kinds of people, from older women in overalls to young women in black vinyl dresses and fishnets to Harry Knowles and his dad. I bet the audience for the midnight showing was even more interesting.
Anyway, Richard Elfman said he didn’t realize that Forbidden Zone was so popular until he created his own Web site and became inundated with email from people wanting to know where they could get a copy of Forbidden Zone on videotape or DVD. He implied that the movie did not have a favorable reception when it was originally released in theaters in 1980.
Richard Elfman was very entertaining, teasing audiences about a possible sequel, which I believe about as much as I believe in Evil Dead 4. He even phoned his brother Danny at one point to ask him a question from the audience.
I was tempted to buy the DVD, but I’m not sure I need to see Forbidden Zone again. I did get the CD, which ought to satisfy any remaining desire to hear the unusual songs in the future.
Still, I think Forbidden Zone is a movie everyone should see once. Just once, mind you. More than that, and who knows what might happen to you?

3 thoughts on “Jette: returning to the Forbidden Zone”

  1. Actually, I ‘d forgotten the name of this movie entirely, but remembered strange Shiner Bock influenced flashbacks while listening to Oingo Boingo. Yeeha! I have a name to put to the imagery!

  2. One thing about the CD – it leaves off a couple of the songs: the Josephine Baker song that Frenchy “sings” and “Pico and Sepulveda”. I suspect licensing issues, since the lp version does include the songs

  3. Thanks for the heads-up about the missing songs from the CD. Those are two of my favorite songs from the movie. I’m holding off buying it now and am thinking that since the DVD has a complete audio track, maybe I should get that instead. (Although I missed my chance of having Richard Elfman sign it … too bad for me.)
    fredlet: Rent the movie as soon as you can get a sixer of Shiner Bock to go with it.

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