Irony and the self-conscious desire to transgress have been key elements of cult movies for as long as people have been gathering at seedy cinemas at midnight to watch drag queens eat dog shit. Like John Waters and his Pink Flamingoes, Richard Elfman was trying to make his own politically tuned-in college audience feel icky when he made Forbidden Zone, and though its over-the-top racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, etc. will make you feel grosser than watching Divine devour a turd, it is a beguiling piece of filmmaking. Forbidden Zone brilliantly recaptures the childlike yet nightmarish abandon of Fleischer Brothers cartoons and the sleazy hedonism of underground comix with Marie-Pascale Elfman’s absurdly artificial sets, John Muto’s animations, Danny Elfman’s twisted jazz score, anthropomorphized animals, and the cast’s distorted and depraved behavior. The film is so blatant and absurd about its offenses—using blackface and rape as comedy fodder, for example—that it can be viewed as a satire of the ways such things are ubiquitous in less in-your-face ways in Hollywood movies. I don’t think Elfman intended his movie to be read this way (or, perhaps, any way), and in an age when assholes with badges are still gunning down black people with horrifying regularity and elected officials use terms like “legitimate rape,” you can’t blame someone for not seeing the humor in this material and rejecting the idea that to find it offensive is to miss the point.
Wasting a lot of energy on recounting the “plot” of Forbidden Zone, however, probably does miss the point. It involves Flash and Gramps Hercules (Phil Gordon, Hyman Diamond) and Squeezit Henderson’s (co-screenwriter Matthew Bright) descent into a depraved Wonderland to rescue Frenchy Hercules (Pascale Elfman) and René Henderson (Bright in a wig and dress) from evil king Herve Villechaize and queen Susan Tyrrell. There’s also a frog-headed butler, a perpetually topless princess (Gisele Lindley), a human chandelier, and Danny Elfman as a crooning and rather sexy Satan.
More than anything, Forbidden Zone is an excuse for the Elfman brothers’ theater troupe The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo to give one last surrealistic performance. That means the focus is really on wild costumes, props, and music, and the film delivers some unforgettable examples of all, though one would be remiss to not also single out the great—in both quality and size—performances of Tyrrell and Danny Elfman, and Pascale Elfman, who should have become a star beyond this one cult item (she never made another movie after it).
MVD Video’s new “Ultimate Edition” of the Forbidden Zone is a marvelous showcase for both its music and visuals. The soundtrack CD showcases the eclectic music Danny Elfman made before becoming a pop star in Oingo Boingo and an even bigger star as the most popular soundtrack composer in Hollywood today. Cab Calloway-style jazz, French music, new wave, prog rock, Residents-style avant garde, and synthesized pseudo-baroque pieces wad together like crayons in an oven.
The film appears in both its original black and white and a colorized version made in 2008. With so many psychedelic visuals to take in, you might be tempted to gravitate toward the colorized version, but it’s the black and white one that is truest to the film’s olde timey inspirations. Despite a few white specks, the picture looks fab with excellent contrast and natural grain.
A fine selection of bonus features have mostly been ported over from Fantoma’s 2004 DVD: 20 minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes, Richard Elfman and Matthew Bright’s commentary, the truly excellent A Look into the Forbidden Zone documentary (which finds cigar-wielding Richard interviewing brother Danny, ex-wife Marie Pascale, Bright, and Muto and features some fascinating vintage video of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo). There’s also a brief but zany new introduction from Richard Elfman in which he teases Forbidden Zone 2 and presents a selection of conceptual illustrations of a Prussian general leading a microcephalic army. With the sequel exceeding its crowd-sourced goal of $100,000 last year, there may be some more transgressive weirdness on the way soon.