Cult Classics: Forbidden Zone

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One of the central tenets that defines a cult film is its inaccessibility to a general audience. Great cult films have gained their notoriety for being exceedingly difficult works for many people to understand or appreciate. Meanwhile, they are also films that obviously strike a chord in many viewers, particularly those who have become somewhat jaded and can appreciate a film that breaks through the generic constrictions that usually define so many movies.

Cult film fans are cinephiles that look for the outre, the offbeat, and the altogether bizarre. Although not every cult film has to be “weird,” it helps when a movie marches to its own beat and eschews traditional stylistic and narrative choices. Many films in the Cult Classics section covered on this site exemplify this description–with Meet The Hollowheads being one of the weirdest and most distinctive movies ever made–but it’s not necessarily a prerequisite for a film to be considered “cult.”

However, Forbidden Zone most certainly does embrace the idea that bizarre equals good. Made with scraped-together financing and directed by Richard Elfman–who also co-wrote the film and developed it with his former performance art group Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo–and the composing debut of his brother, the now-famous Danny Elfman, Forbidden Zone has become a stalwart cult classic for many reasons, its utter bizarreness being a major factor for its notoriety.

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What is this movie? An interesting question but one that ultimately means nothing since the overall film is a surreal trip that’s part musical, part dark comedy, and part avant garde theater. It’s like a very adult 1920s comic strip come to life, where identical twin goon boxers pantomime while grotesques guard the underground Sixth Dimension that most of the story takes place in that includes a perpetually topless princess, a little person king, and a frog servant who imprison various members of the Hercules family, who have found entry to this dimension through their basement.

If that sounds weird, that doesn’t begin to approach just how odd Forbidden Zone truly is. Initially opening to negative reviews for its potentially offensive content, it went on to become a hit midnight movie and its reputation has grown since then as one of the strangest movies ever made. It’s certainly something for fans of the outre to see.

“Hot damn! Zee Sixth Dimension!”

So, here’s the summary of  Forbidden Zone: Opening on slumlord, pimp, and drug dealer Huckleberry P. Jones as he enters a vacant house to hide his heroin stash, he finds a strange door and enters it, falling into the Sixth Dimension. He escapes, retrieves his heroin, and sells the house to the Hercules family.

After a typical breakfast with the strange Hercules family, wherein a majority of the characters we’ll meet in the film are introduced during a musical number, the daughter Frenchy (who speaks in a French accent for no particular reason) and her brother Flash walk to school and meet their friend Squeezit Henderson, an odd boy who has a tic that compels him to flap his arms like a chicken, in the garbage can outside the school. Squeezit tells them that while being beaten by his mother the night before, he had a vision of his transgender sister Renee being held captive in the Sixth Dimension. We see the vision Squeezit had, which involves the king and queen eating sausages while Renee plays a zither and a frog cuts off some of her hair as torture and eats it; meanwhile, a naked man hangs suspended from the ceiling with candles between his toes and holding two candle holders like a living chandelier.

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A hectic morning at school ensues, where their machine gun-wielding teacher gets them to behave by firing wildly into the air and their class of grotesques enjoys a song by Frenchy. After being taken hostage in a gunfight, Frenchy dives through the window, returns home, and decides to take a look behind the mysterious door in the basement, falling through its intestine-like entrance into the the Sixth Dimension.

After watching a performance from the avant garde comedy team The Kipper Kids, she is caught by the topless Princess and brought in front of the rulers of the Six Dimension, little person King Fausto (played by Herve Villechaize) and Queen Doris (Susan Tyrrell). The king falls for Frenchy and orders his frog servant Bust Rod to lock her up in a special cell where he keeps his concubines.

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The queen performs an expository song about how she became such a cruel person (composed, like all of the original songs in the film, by Danny Elfman), complete with an unbelievably weird tableaux to accompany the song. In the cell, Frenchy sings a sad torch song while wearing Micky Mouse ears as Renee accompanies her on accordion and the king spies on her lustfully through a telescope.

The next morning, the Hercules family realizes Frenchy is missing. In the Sixth Dimension, Frenchy speaks to King Fausto, who’s painting a portrait of Bettie Page. He then begins to kiss Frenchy while the frog attendant flails in the background. Flash asks for Squeezit’s help to rescue Frenchy, but when he refuses, he gets his Gramps to help instead. They enter the Sixth Dimension, where an elderly Jewish man gives them information on how to save Frenchy, but they are caught and lowered into a large septic tank instead.

Queen Doris plots her revenge against Frenchy by relocating all of the captives in Cell 63 into a torture chamber. The Princess is left to ensure Frenchy’s torture and subsequent execution, but a fuse blows, halting the torture. Flash and Gramps escape from the septic tank and find the ex-queen, who has been imprisoned deep underground for 1000 years.

Back in what passes for reality in this world, Pa Hercules goes off to work in the La Brea Tar Pit Factory, where a lit cigarette causes an explosion and he is shot into the stratosphere. Falling hard back to earth, he smashes through the basement of the Hercules house and into the Sixth Dimension, where he too is imprisoned after witnessing Princess having sex with the frog guard Bust Rod.

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Meanwhile, we see Squeezit’s pathetic life where he sleeps in a chicken coop while his promiscuous, drunken mother wakes him up to humiliate him in front of a sailor she had brought home. After she’s dragged out of the room by the sailor, one of the chickens he lives with talks to him about his self-esteem issues. Flash calls Squeezit and asks for him to come to the Sixth Dimension to help them, which he decides to do, only to be abducted by the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.

He’s taken to Satan (played by Danny Elfman), who’s leading the Mystical Knights of the Oingo Boingo through a rendition of “Minnie The Moocher.” The Devil makes a deal with him that he will help free Renee and Frenchy if Squeezit kidnaps and brings him the Princess. But, this being a deal with the Devil, Squeezit had forgotten to include himself in the deal and is quickly decapitated.

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The queen sends Bust Rod out to make sure the king won’t find out where she has hidden Frenchy, but the king catches the frog guard and forces him to reveal where Frenchy is being kept. The king orders her to leave the Sixth Dimension for her own safety but she is captured once again. However, Squeezit’s head, which has sprouted chicken wings, flies into the king’s quarters and informs the king of what has transpired.

Queen Doris prepares to execute Frenchy but is confronted by the ex-queen. The two fight, with Doris coming out as the victor, and just as she’s about to kill Frenchy, King Fausto stops her, informing her that the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo are holding Princess hostage and will kill her if anything happens to Frenchy. Flash and Gramps arrive and Flash is knocked down by Gramps. Ma Hercules enters and shoots Doris, thinking that Flash has been killed by her. King Fausto mourns Doris but then quickly marries Frenchy. All of the surviving characters gather to sing the closing song “Forbidden Zone” and detail how they plan to take over the galaxy together. The end?

“Just wait until those dead babies start marching, then you’ll be eating your words!”

While it had gained momentum over the years as a classic midnight film, there have been some criticisms of the film, many of which are completely fair. Its use of blackface (which occurs in the first scene and a few more times thereafter), and the negative portrayals of blacks in general are troublesome. The copious amounts of female nudity throughout the film, which seems to serve no purpose but to feature a lot of nudity and extend the surreal tone of the film, seems rather gratuitous, especially with one main female character appearing topless in every scene she’s in. In fact, the film’s overall perspective towards women is rather exploitative and negative, with many instances of rape occurring to women who are in chains in the Sixth Dimension by ostensible protagonists. Modern audiences will also find the use of the word “faggot” and its disparaging portrayal of a trans character in the film distasteful.

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But it’s also a wildly transgressive film on many fronts, taking to heart its grotesque and avant garde vision of a hellish realm like the Sixth Dimension. Inspired by German Expressionism, along with Fleischer cartoons, Busby Berkeley musicals, silent movie conventions, and vaudeville revues, it’s a musical that incorporates classic jazz and musical tunes along with original songs by Oingo Boingo (then known as The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) ,which is stellar if you happen to enjoy their offbeat style of New Wave.

Mixing animation with live action and multiple spotlights for the performance artists the Elfmans knew from their time as part of the LA avant-garde scene, Forbidden Zone is a somewhat overwhelming movie to take in. Directed by Richard Elfman, the former leader of Oingo Boingo before turning it over to his brother to focus on a directing career, this is a highly stylized comedy/musical. The colorized version is currently available for Amazon Prime subscribers and it’s recommended that this campy, perverse, experimental, and most assuredly original film should be watched after a few drinks (and maybe a strong sedative) to experience one of the most unique films ever made–and one that still retains its status as a cult film among cult films.

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