Brandishing the mayhem and inanity of a Tex Avery short, Forbidden Zone luxuriates in its own scatalogical hobbyhorses, funneling eclectic musical numbers and bursts of herky-jerky animation through the subconscious of a hyperactive schoolboy. Any deviation from this ethos of chaos is in service of skewering narrative cliché, repurposing themes of revenge, honor and love as trite wallpaper atop affected hysterics. Though the transformation of sadism and stereotype from cartoon to camp is ethically questionable, the visual audacity and salacious sexuality on display are provocative and flirtatious, coquettishly luring kitsch culture into the degradation of the red-light district.
Taking aim at early cinema’s ideological purity, specifically Disney’s putative benevolence and silent cinema’s modesty, Richard Elfman employs their antiquated perceptions of race, religion and orientation as fodder for a carnival of oddities, criticizing their piety without discarding the potency of their derogatory renditions. Benefitting from the benign joviality of outmoded animation and expository intertitles, Elfman’s incendiary visions of minstrelsy and queer identity are a jarring juxtaposition, gleefully perverting American art history into a nightmare of cultural despotism.
Despite the grandeur of his subtextual goals, Elfman’s work functions best as meticulously-designed exploitation, treating pale, nude flesh and shoe polish black as cause célèbre and indicators of a pictorial motif. By selecting black-and-white film stock, Elfman intentionally removes tonal gray area, strategically pigeonholing his two opposing hues as lust and fear, reducing women to their most primal functions and restricting African-American vocabulary to a discourse worthy of Dumbo’s murder of crows. This uncomfortable mélange of political agenda and sensationalism succeeds through its contrasts, provoking the viewer to confront pejorative notions, even as they’re aroused and entertained by them.
On a purely aesthetic level, the absence of color adds an unending depth to vast spaces and a claustrophobic tightness to narrow chambers, constructing a universe within the confines of the discernibly handmade sets. Elfman and cinematographer Gregory Sandor create striking tableaus and abstractions on a modest budget, memorably capturing a rogue’s Last Supper beneath floating human chandelier and a sea of talismanic dice shooting through space and beckoning the viewer towards the Sixth Dimension.
The evanescent nature of the metaphors on screen and caffeinated grooves of Oingo Boingo’s suggestive score all serve at the behest of Richard Elfman’s libido, dragging the bobby socks and Big Band of a bygone America into an adolescent nocturnal emission. Each erotic detail bears the specificity of one man’s fantasy, exhibited before us in the satin evening gloves of a perennially topless princess and a covetous queen’s overflowing bodice. The moment her breasts finally spring free, in the midst of a death rattle, feels like an emancipation, and it’s the liberating power of prurient sexuality that makes this fever dream so infectious.
Forbidden Zone (The Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1980)
Directed by Richard Elfman
Written by Richard Elfman (story and screenplay), Matthew Bright (screenplay), Nick L. Martinson (screenplay) and Nicholas James (screenplay)
Photographed by Gregory Sandor