Jewish Horror Films: Forbidden Zone (1980)

It's strange. We're at a moment in history, just now, where a vast amount of the popular culture of the past is accessible to us, instantly, on demand. This is a utopian future for those of us who, when young, obsessively and frantically sought out the debris and forgotten oddball masterworks of earlier years: comic books, science fiction films, obscuro pop music, poverty row cartoons, that sort of thing.

They seemed then less like artifacts of the past than transmissions from an alternate dimension. You'd be listening to oldies radio late at night and a song like The Revels' "Foo Man Chew" would come on. This was a puzzling, punning doo wop song based on Sax Rohmer's weird pulp novels about an Asian supervillain, and you'd be left with nothing but questions: Why did this song get made? Who was it meant for?

But, if you were like me, it was meant for you, and so you'd add it to a list and spend years hunting for it in old record stores, and, when you finally found it, years or even decades after you first heard it, it was the most extraordinarily satisfying experience. A lot of us had these long lists of lost oddities, sometimes kept in our heads, sometimes written out, and we haunted the places that recycled these sorts of things, and we treasured what we found.

Here's "Foo Man Chew." It took me three seconds to find it on YouTube. I can download it instantly from iTunes, or, if I am more old-fashioned, it's inconsequentially easy to locate a 45 RPM record of the song on eBay.

Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places, but it used to be that there was a lot of art made by fanatical collectors, and it all had the quality of collage, of a new work assembled from older work that the artist loved and desperately needed to share. There was a special taste for the camp, the kitsch, and the tchotchkes of the past, and you saw it in the New Wave movement, in bands like The Cramps and Man or Astroman, in the films of Tarantino and David Lynch, in pop surrealist art.

I suppose it's still around -- pop surrealism still seems to be chugging along, at least. But I can't help but wonder if the sheer easy availability of the pop works of the past has somehow devalued it, or, perhaps, instead I have simply aged to point where culture from my teen years is a new generation's nostalgia, and that's what they are ransacking, rather than the mid-20th century art that I grew up obsessed with.

Whatever the case, 1980's "Forbidden Zone" is a perfect representation of the sort of film I am talking about. I don't know that it's appropriate to call it a horror film, despite the fact that much of it takes place in a pop version of hell. It's a midnight movie, from when there were such things as midnight movies, and the earliest review I have read of the film dismisses it as seeking to capitalize on the same circuit that supported "Rocky Horror Picture Show," as though that's something that could have been capitalized on. But the film made its tour of college and art house theaters, attracting little attention, if the newspaper archives are to be trusted, but building a cult audience anyway, probably thanks in part to the fact that it was an early example of the work of composer Danny Elfman and his band Oingo Boingo.

The film really can be credited to Danny's older brother Richard, who cowrote and directed the thing, although it showcases Danny's then-passion for 1930's-40's big band jazz and novelty music and the cartoons of the Fleischer Brothers, which I mentioned in an earlier article. If I were being reductive, I would say the film is a feature-length examination of everything upsetting about Flesicher brothers cartoons, but "Forbidden Zone" is a film that defies easy reduction.

Let me give an exceptionally brief summary, which is unhelpful and probably impossible, but traditional in this sort of essay. The film tells of the Hercules family, who seem to be a mix of Ma and Pa Kettle-type hillbillies, Jewish old men (including a wrestler in a fake beard), and a French woman. At some point, they all end up sliding into a hellish dimension through an alimentary canal-styled portal hidden in their house. There, they battle a monstrous queen (cult film great Susan Tyrrell), her diminutive husband (Hervé Villechaize), and the devil himself, leading a swing band (Danny Elfman).

The whole of it plays out on sets that are largely painted onto wooden flats in the style of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," involves musical numbers borrowed from Cab Calloway and Yiddish novelty, and includes dozens of topless women (including Hell's princess, played by Gisele Lindley and looking like one of Bettie Page's more outrageous photo shoots had come to life), a frog-headed man, Warhol superstar Viva, trash film leading man Joe Spinell, and performance artists The Kipper Kids.

The film is deliberately outrageous, including frequent uses of racist imagery, which has been the subject of repeated criticism that Richard Elfman has been publicly defensive about. The criticism is valid: The first thing we see is a blackface image, they recur throughout the film, and they feel like a legacy of underground comix, where white artists explored the things that shocked and upset them, including racist caricature. However, there, as here, the exploration felt blunt and abstracted, or, worse, intended to be funny, oblivious of the genuine hurt that these sorts of images can cause to people for whom they are not an abstraction.

A lot of this sort of thing shows up in the film, including images that seem to make sport of the transgender experience and sexual violence. It makes parts of the film difficult, and, for some viewers, impossible, and that's a fair cop. If people take issue with the film, well, the film has given them cause, and they get to.

I suspect the real function of these moments was similar to how the racist songs of Johnny Rebel and the repeated images of snails being killed is to Crispin Glover's film "What Is It?": To unnerve the audience. There is a lot about "Forbidden Zone" that is unnerving, and I do think the act of unnerving someone is a valid artistic one; it's pretty central to horror films. But it is possible to unnerve someone right out the door, and purposeless cruelty is a good way to do that. People probably draw the line at different places, based, in part, on their own experiences of the world. If I am forgiving of racism or transphobia or sexual violence in a film, it is likely because I have never experienced any of it. That's worth considering when making a film, even one intended to be upsetting, and doesn't seem to have been considered here.

But alongside the unnerving elements of the film, there is a lot that is genuinely beautiful. The most-available version is colorized, which was always Richard Elfman's intention with the film, and it looks fantastic, colored in a delicate, faded way that is reminiscent of hand-tinting. The hand-painted sets are a delight, and well-used, especially in an opening scene that gives a panorama of hell that both looks like it cost about $15 to make and nonetheless manages to astonish. The performances are often delicious, especially Tyrrell, who could always be counted to goose a movie with a style of furious overacting that somehow managed to be droll, as though her whole noisy performance is a very dry, very subtle joke.

And finally there is the film's Jewishness, which may only appeal to me, but is there, is abundant, and is fascinating. The filmmakers seem to have sought out popular culture that is Jewish inflected and then set out to parody it, including a remake of a Three Stooges short called "Swingin' the Alphabet," the Fleischer Brothers' "Minnie the Moocher" cartoon, and even an old novelty number called "The Yiddishe Charleson." The gates of hell are guarded by an old Jewish man who speaks Yiddish, played by the Elfmans' own grandfather, Herman Bernstein.

Perhaps this was also meant to be disquieting. There is a little shock you get when you watch Flesicher Brothers cartoons, especially Betty Boop, and start to get the feeling that anyone in their university could be Jewish, and probably is. "Forbidden Zone" magnifies this, makes it part of the texture of the whole unsettling world. Not only are our heroes bizarre grotesqueries who engage in mindless violence and have a doglike tendency to just hump any appealing curve they see, and not only must we watch them bumble around a surreal, hand-drawn hell, but so many of them are Jews?

Unlike the film's ironic racism, I'm okay with its ironic antisemitism, at least in part because the filmmakers are Jewish, and in part because it feels legitimately transgressive. The Jews are not represented as caricatures, as with blackface, but are strange, distinct character with qualities drawn from real Jewish history (there actually were Jewish wrestlers, and The Yiddishe Charleston was created by Jewish musicians for a Jewish audience.) If audiences are unsettled by Jews in this film, it's not because the filmmakers seem to be mocking Jewishness in the way that blackface mocks black people, but because they are being exposed to a raw, Jewish id attempting to represent itself.

Besides which, I like the idea that it is possible to ransack the Jewish past for its own otherworldly transmissions of lost culture, and create new art from it. And unlike the pop debris of mainstream culture, a lot of the Jewish stuff is still harder to get your hands on: Try to locate Patsy Abbott's dirty Yiddish songs on YouTube or iTunes, as an example.

Maybe, because this sort of Jewish is still rare, it can still be discovered and treasured.