Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone Friday

[Please note that this interview contains language that some may find offensive. Read at your own risk.]

The Long Beach Cinematheque always seems to have something great in the works. A few months back its founder, Logan Crow, handed me a flyer that announced a 30th Anniversary screening of the cult classic, Forbidden Zone, at the Art Theatre. That, alone, would be fantastic but, of course, there’s more. The screening, which takes place this Friday night at 11:55 PM, will include a live ‘shadowcast’ performance by Cell 63, where actors will act out scenes from the film as they play. There will be a performance by The Radioactive Chickenheads, and the film’s director, Richard Elfman, will be on hand to join in the festivities.

Now, I love film. I love odd, quirky, challenging, and even disturbing cinema. I’ve seen countless so-called cult classics but, as I searched my mind, the shocking realization dawned that I had not seen Richard Elfman’s early 80’s magnum opus. This I immediately remedied.

Words feel inadequite when attempting to convey the whimsey and humor of the film. It is constructed of vignettes, each based on a song from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The original version was high contrast black and white, with the characters cast against type, and the sets mostly surreal abstractions.

These filmed musical vignettes were first staged theatrical pieces created in the 70s for what was then a performance troupe called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. The group’s leader, Richard Elfman, shared how he became fascinated by music.

“Neither Danny [Elfman, Richard’s younger brother] or I were particularly into music growing up. Our dad had mainly classical music in the house. My first record, although I didn’t actually buy it, was a life-changer, and is also one of those ‘weird fate’ tales.

“I was an out-of-control 15 year old,” Richard recalled, “six feet tall, going to a a tough, inner city high school. I was taken to a party in Watts, and met a drop- dead gorgeous, black-as-coal Cuban lady in her 30’s. I was doing my best to talk seriously to her when she interrupted me with a deep tongue kiss.

“A few hours later at her apartment she played me a Celia Cruz record, from Cuba. It wasn’t in Spanish. The language was Yoruban, from West Africa. It was a revelation, and totally blew my mind! It got me into world music, and ethnomusicology. I soon became an Afro- Latin percussionist. She sent me home with that record: Celia Cruz, ‘Homenaje al los Santos.’ I only found out later that this woman was still married to a Jewish Beverly Hills dentist, my cousin’s partner! Yes, life is strange!

“I didn’t discover Cab Calloway, Josephine Baker, etc., until I worked with a troupe called the Cockettes in San Francisco around 1970,” Richard said. “They did these Nocturnal Dream Shows to a mixed gay/straight boho crowd at an old Chinese Opera House. I performed with the troupe, directed them, and was exposed to all this great old music.

“From San Francisco, I went to Paris and joined the Grand Magic Circus, a scruffy musical theatrical troupe that had just been picked up by Peter Brook, famous director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Magic Circus director Jerome Savary went on to become director of the French National Theater. Danny joined us for a summer, and the show was a huge hit.

“After two years,” Richard continued, “I started my own troupe in the States, the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Later, it became the rock band, Oingo Boingo. As the Mystic Knights evolved into a rock band, I wanted to preserve on film what I had been doing on stage. That is Forbidden Zone. It is basically a filmed version of various elements of my live stage show.”

I asked Richard what it feels like to be revisiting the film 30 years later.

“A bit surreal,” he confessed. “Forbidden Zone actually disappeared after a brief summer of midnight shows. It wasn’t till many many years later, when I put up my first website, that I realized it had somehow attracted fans, through VHS bootlegs apparently, all over the world. Now I’m flown to a different city every month or so to an auditorium full of young fans, born after the film was made. I count my blessings for this!”

I asked Richard what it was that connected the film to a new generation of young enthusiasts.

“Absurdity,” he said, “with just a little dash of genuine pathos, along with memorable music. Memorable music is music you hear once and you’re marked for life. It is like having an itch in your head you need to scratch. You must go buy it, or at least you crave hearing it again. And after the show, you remember it. That is the key. You remember it.

“I first saw the 1931 film version of Three Penny Opera when I was 18,” Richard recalled. “I remember walking out of the theater and stopping in my tracks. Kurt Weill’s music had marked me for life. I turned around, walked back into the theater, and saw the film again.

“There’s an infinite amount of memorable music that has never been tapped. It doesn’t age. It’s good forever. All those terrific songs from ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ had been gathering dust for over half a century before the gifted musical supervisor/composer T-Bone Burnett found them for the film.

“However, finding someone to write new memorable songs can be a bit trickier. It helps when you find that your younger brother, who had no musical training or even much musical interest as a kid, turns out to be Mozart.”

After 30 years, Richard has begun work on Forbidden Zone 2. I asked him why.

“Why? [laughs] 1. It’s been my dream. 2. Although I have a dozen scripts on the shelf, this is the one that life is giving me to direct, now. It has a built in world-wide fan base. And it is too much fun!”

Richard has searched through more than a thousand songs to find the tunes he’s using for the new film. It will also feature original music by Danny, and a performance by daughter-in-law Jenna Elfman.

I asked Richard if he is concerned that expectations based on nostalgia might give it a rough go, or if people will find and love it, just like they did with the first film. If not on VHS, then on the torrents.

“Fuck the torrents,” Richard exclaimed! “I hope to actually make a buck on Forbidden Zone 2. Forbidden Zone literally bankrupted me. FZ 2 will have memorable music that’s every bit as good as FZ 1. My brother is doing some great stuff, and it will have all the balls-out absurdity and outrageousness of FZ.

“As a matter of fact, it will be more outrageous! Poor Susan Tyrrell, who did a brilliant job as the Queen in FZ1, lost her legs. Matthew Bright, who played Squeezit and Rene (before directing Freeway and other classics) will reprise his drag role as Rene. I’m going to have Rene fuck the ex-Queen in a dungeon scene. It will be totally explicit. I expect to be crucified afterwards. FZ 1 might be mild stuff compared to FZ 2, but count on the music being catchy!”

A few days after this interview, the sad news of Susan Tyrrell’s untimely passing at the age of 67 was confirmed. Richard had this to say about her:

“My God, what an actress, what a woman. Susan had generously kicked her SAG [Screen Actors’ Guild] checks back into the Forbidden Zone budget and, after shooting, we took her to Paris as partial repayment. My ex-wife (Frenchy in FZ) comes from a high-end French family and we were at a party filled with young, snobby French blue bloods, some of whom gave Susan attitude in a way that only the French can… just enough to feel, yet so subtle the perpetrator will deny it.

“A young countess bitch asked Susan for a light from her cigarette. Susan dragged deep on her smoke making a nice hot ember, took the girl’s hand to light the smoke, then burned the girl’s wrist instead. She screamed like murder. I pulled Susan off her before further damage was done. What fucking passion! And one of the great talents I have ever had the honor to work with.

“We will miss you, Susu, and dedicate Friday’s show to you. I know, darling, that you will be watching, somewhere from the Sixth Dimension.”

Susan Tyrrell, March 18, 1945 – June 17, 2012.

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