Missing Reels: “Forbidden Zone” (1980)

Missing Reels examines overlooked, unappreciated or unfairly maligned movies. Sometimes these films haven’t been seen by anyone, and sometimes they’ve been seen by everyone… who loathed them. Sometimes they’ve simply been forgotten. But in any case, Missing Reels argues that they deserve to be seen and admired by more people.


With the easy delivery of films via Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and a host of other choices, it’s easy to feel like you’ve seen everything. This feeling can be especially true when looking at mainstream films which have a sameness to them that permeates the medium: the same tropes, the same familiar group of actors, the same story points endemic to the genre. So in order to find something new, something unlike anything you’ve seen before, you should seek out more independent flair, as there’s no focus group to market those.

Although indie films have their own clichés that rise up in waves every few years, depending on which indie darling is making a splash currently and getting studio gigs or selling out at Sundance, there’s still a better chance of finding something unique in the rogue filmmaking of outsiders than possibly what could be made by most studios. And you don’t have to look for the most recent films to find something new or pushing the envelope; there are plenty of undiscovered gems from the past as well. And for those that feel like they’ve seen everything but haven’t watched 1980’s “Forbidden Zone?” Then brother, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

I would (humbly) suggest that “Forbidden Zone” is the ultimate midnight movie. If you take the various midnight movies that have played throughout the years, whether it’s John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos,” Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo,” David Lynch’s “Eraserhead,” or even more modern fare like “The Room” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Forbidden Zone” encompasses a lot of what makes those films stand out for midnight audiences. The transgression of sexual and cultural mores from Waters; the surrealism of Lynch and Jodorowsky; the forced (and hackneyed) dramatic elements of Tommy Wiseau’s flop; and even the catchy music of “Rocky Horror.” All of these elements are contained within this film by Richard Elfman, which creates a comical, weird, slightly shocking but ultimately fun world for viewers to experience.

The film was created as a sendoff for Elfman as he was leaving behind leadership of the band Oingo Boingo (credited in the film as “The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo”) for his brother, Danny (yes, that Danny Elfman) to take over. With the new leadership came a new direction; gone were the days of a cabaret style and performance art with costumes and weird transgressive old time routines. Instead, Danny would help the band become synonymous with L.A.’s new wave art scene with ska influences before shedding the band himself to become a leading film composer in Hollywood. Oingo Boingo got its popularity under Danny Elfman’s reign, which is why you think of Oingo Boingo like this:

As opposed to this (from “Forbidden Zone”):

The film is an absurd trip through outdated pop culture with a heavy influence from German expressionism, Fleischer cartoons of the ’20s, music from the ’30s and ’40s, and with a touch of the punk attitude of the ’70s. This melding of styles means that the film traffics in horrific stereotypes and weirdness for the sake of being weird in order to get a reaction from audiences, but it also means that this weird goulash of influences produces something wholly unique. Watching “Forbidden Zone” is to see something that feels familiar, due to how it leans on certain imagery and musical numbers of the past, but you know is completely original and ultimately unlike anything else out there.

It’s not really worth it to try to summarize the plot, mostly because the plot was cobbled together after filming to make the scenes make more sense as a cohesive story (it still is weirdly jumbled, but does have the appearance of singular narrative). The film revolves around the Hercules Family, who live in a house where there’s a doorway to the sixth dimension, a weird ramshackle universe ruled over by a diminutive king (Hervé Villechaize) and his psychotic wife (Susan Tyrell). There’s all manner of freaks and geeks in the sixth dimension, and it all seems to exist solely for the purpose of entertaining the royalty. As more and more members of the family (and others) cross over, hilarity and absurdity ensue, and eventually, it all results in a mad catfight and another dazzling musical number.

The music is excellent in the film, reusing old Cab Calloway and Josephine Baker performances and songs, as well as Danny Elfman’s first time composing music for a film for the score. When combined with the gonzo visuals that seem lifted from a Salvador Dali painting touched up by Mad Magazine’s Wally Wood, it produces a film that is both childlike in its approach but very adult in its underlying themes:

(Be forewarned: the following video does contain nudity, so it’s NSFW.)

“Forbidden Zone” was originally delivered to theaters in black and white, though Richard Elfman always wanted it colorized. In 2008, it finally was colorized under his direction, and thus there are two versions of the film available for people to watch. Personally, I prefer the black and white version as it makes the contrasts pop and evokes more of that expressionism feeling. Plus, the colorized version just makes thing appear a bit cheaper, though still charming in its own, ramshackle way. Whichever way you see it, the magnetic performances will still be the same: incredibly campy and over the top. The fact that Tyrell isn’t regarded as a drag queen goddess is a pity, as she certainly delivers an iconic role that simply devours the scenery around her. She’s truly the standout of the film, though all of the performers have their own charms as weirdoes acting up, feeling like they got away with something and just playing in the best way possible.

If Andy Warhol were to create some pop art after suffering a head injury, a fever and while on a hallucinogenic bender, then maybe that would approach a film like “Forbidden Zone.” As it stands, the film remains a completely unique enterprise that echoes the past while creating something new and different. For those that say “they’ve seen everything,” Elfman’s “Forbidden Zone” offers a unique experience that’s unlike anything made before or since. Viewers who take the plunge into the sixth dimension will be rewarded with a midnight movie that dares to hold nothing back while forging its own path ahead.