Inside Danny Elfman's Twisted Cult Film 'Forbidden Zone'

The story behind the Elfman brothers' oddball sci-fi fantasy that became a midnight-movie classic

Richard and Danny Elfman reflect on their twisted film debut, 'Forbidden Zone.' "I couldn't stop busting up," composer says. Credit: Courtesy Richard Elfman

Long before he wrote the wild, dramatic score for Batman and the twisted song cycle that runs through the beloved Nightmare Before Christmas, Danny Elfman's original claim to cinematic fame was far quirkier than anything he'd ever dream up for Tim Burton: He portrayed Satan, dressed in a long-tail white tux, conducting an orchestra of goblins in a run-through of every "hidey-hidey-hidey-ho" in Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher." The episode, in the campy 1980 cult hit Forbidden Zone, found the redheaded composer wiggling, shimmying and writhing as he decapitated his real-life childhood best friend (Freeway director Matthew Bright) and took possession of a topless blonde princess. It sounds horrific; it plays out as pure giddy hysteria, the movie equivalent of a warped Oingo Boingo song.

A vibrant, bizarre hybrid of sci-fi and fantasy with avant-garde, jazz-inflected music by the composer, Forbidden Zone still remains unique decades after its inception. Suburbanites venture into a "Sixth Dimension" where, in addition to Lucifer, they encounter the domain's diminutive king (Fantasy Island's Tattoo, Hervé Villechaize), his domineering queen (Cry-Baby's Susan Tyrrell) and an exiled monarch (Warhol superstar Viva). An anthropomorphic frog servant assists the royal couple; nightmarish Busby Berkeley–like dance sequences pop up out of nowhere. It's even weirder than it sounds — and thanks to an extras-packed "ultimate edition" DVD reissue that's being released on November, a whole new generation is about to discover why this movie became a midnight-movie must-see in the Reagan era.

Forbidden Zone began, for filmmaker Richard Elfman, as a jumping-off point from his performance-art musical troupe the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Before the group modified its name and achieved new-wave success with hits like "Dead Man's Party" and "Weird Science," he had concocted the bawdy ensemble that took cues from commedia dell'arte, German expressionism, French absurdist theater, Max Fleischer cartoons like Betty Boop and big band jazz. Richard had assembled the expansive troupe in the early Seventies, serving as its creative director and playing percussion; at the onset, he brought his little brother Danny – four years his junior – into the fold.

Growing up, the siblings had bonded over sci-fi and horror movies; Richard remembers his brother having no interest in music for years. "Danny had no guitar, no garage bands, he didn't go to concerts, didn't have a record collection," he recalls. "We got him a guitar when he was 16 or so, and he figured out how to do a [Gypsy-jazz] Django Reinhardt solo. Then he got a violin to do the Stéphane Grappelli accompaniment." He laughs.

"I remember hearing Django in an Indian restaurant I used to go to," Danny says. "I thought it was amazing. And at the same time, I became infatuated with Cab Calloway from Betty Boop cartoons and that led me to Duke Ellington. I'm not sure exactly how I fell into that vortex of early Cotton Club big band, but Fleischer's animation was part of it." Prior to forming the troupe, both Elfmans had also spent time in Le Grand Magic Circus, a similarly themed Parisian collective populated by what Richard calls "gonzo, avant-garde types – very French."

The main departure when they formed their own group, however, was that Richard exploited their love of jazz and his sibling's fledgling compositions. "I looked through hundreds and hundreds of pieces of music, searching for gems people couldn't hear live anymore – Yiddish theater, Josephine Baker, Miguelito Valdés – and we would recreate them brilliantly," he says. "Then Danny, out of nowhere like a meatball hits him from the sky — he's suddenly turned into Mozart. It was like, 'Where the fuck did this come from?'"

One of the few video documents of the group's early days is their appearance on The Gong Show in 1976. After one of the members introduces "the rarely performed Hayden trio for piano, accordion and triangle," a cymbal-crashing dragon storms onstage, as does Richard, in puffy purple pants and a rocket around his body. Then the face-painted Mystic Knights begin to play Eastern European oom-pah music on wind instruments. Buddy Hackett made a quip about the troupe's female member and rated it a 6; Shari Lewis suggested they needed a "vaccine for weirdness" and awarded them an 8. They won the show and $516.32. "So help me God, if we were gonged off, I would have thrown that little fuck into the audience," Richard says now of "smarmy" host Chuck Barris. "I didn't like the way they demeaned people. I've thrown more important people than him in pools, including the head of a studio once."

With the younger Elfman now complementing the rest of the troupe's oeuvre with songs that Richard still describes as "crazy" and "wild," the stage was set for something bigger.

Richard's first attempt at filmmaking, Hercules Family, was an hour-long experiment that contained the basic plot of Forbidden Zone. Some of his friends encouraged him to add another 20 minutes to this 16-mm short to make it a feature; he then shot the extra scenes in 35 mm. When the prints didn't look right together, he replaced the original Hercules Family footage, some of which appears on the upcoming ultimate edition for the first time, with new black-and-white 35 mm footage that he intended to have colorized. "I was going to have the 'Forbidden Zone' sequences hand-tinted in China or Korea, like they did in art films form Paris in the Twenties," he says. "I went broke way before the slow boat arrived in China."

The titular family, who'd be at the center of the main film, was inspired by Richard's next-door neighbors in Venice, California, "which was much funkier back then," he says. "I don't mean to sound elitist, but they were a poor, white-trash, hillbilly family. The drunken father would yell at the mother, who'd hit the daughter, who'd yell at the son, who'd yell at the dog."

For Forbidden Zone, Richard cast his wife at the time, Marie-Pascale Elfman (who also designed the movie's Cabinet of Dr. Caligari–like sets), to play "Frenchy" Hercules, the woman who disappears into the "Sixth Dimension" in the family's basement. Phil Gordon, who was working on another production at the same place they made Forbidden Zone and was an "old-school schmaltz machine," was cast as Flash Hercules because he looked vaguely like the actor who originated that role in the short but was now unavailable. "It was a little bit of a parody on man's lack of compassion for his fellow man," Richard says. " The daughter [Frenchy] finds the mother passed out on the floor, lifts her head, drops the head. In the Sixth Dimension, Flash will hump any butt that moves."

After the young woman ventures into the basement and disappears, Flash and classmate Squeezit Henderson (Bright) participate in an alphabet song inspired by a routine in the Three Stooges movie Violent Is the Word for Curly. A male teacher in drag teaches the tune to the class, which is made up of freaks (performance artists the Kipper Kids rubber-band their noses, a portly Hitler lookalike sings along), geeks and African-American students in the back who turn it into a funk number — until the teacher makes everyone put bags on their heads.

Richard wrote the scene, in part, as an exaggerated vision of his own high-school experience. "We grew up in a mostly African-American neighborhood in the Crenshaw area," he says. "The scene was mild compared to my homeroom at Dorsey high school. I was a state track competitor and, for a white, red-haired guy, that broke the laws of physics. One woman described me affectionately as, 'That boy ain't white, he a red nigger.' Once I had aced my first track meet, I would literally climb out the window with these gang guys. We would drink wine and the teacher would pretend not to see. It was more like West Side Story than Boyz N The Hood, but there were still shootings at the stands at the football games."

Over the years, Forbidden Zone has sparked controversy over its depictions of both African-Americans, including some scenes with blackface, and Squeezit's transgender sibling, René (also played by Bright). Some moviegoers said they'd burn down theaters if it were shown, and the University of Wisconsin banned it. Even though it was clearly satire, it was politically incorrect even by Reagan-era standards. Nowadays, Richard just shrugs it off.

"Political correctness comes in waves and there was a strong wave back then," he says. "I don't have a racist cell in me, and the film is a human cartoon. No one is portrayed more cartoonishly than anybody else, but the politically correct contingent take things out of context to find offense where none is intended. It's one of the most insidious forms of censorship. What's funny is how the mainstream gay press like The Advocate condemned the way Forbidden Zone portrayed gay people, like René — but the underground gay press loved it and became the biggest loyal audience. Even the homos aren't homogeneous."

"I would tell Rick, 'Are you sure you want to do that?' He'd go, 'Yeah, absolutely,'" says Danny. "There's no talking my brother out of anything, so I didn't worry about it one way or the other."

"So help me God, if we were gonged off, I would have thrown that little fuck [Chuck Barris] into the audience. I've thrown more important people than him in pools, including the head of a studio once."

"Forbidden Zone isn't for everybody," Richard continues. "I don't know if it's the level of absurdity or craziness, but it threatens certain people. They just go berserk, hating the film, and others loving it to the same degree for the same reasons. You know, life can sometimes be absurd."

Perhaps the film's most bizarre imagery is in the form of the Sixth Dimension's king and queen, Villechaize and Tyrrell, who joined the cast in a Forbidden Zone-y way. "Matthew's roommate at the time was Hervé, and [the diminutive actor] was fucking Susan Tyrell," Richard says, laughing. "There was a lot of drama on set. Susan, who was brilliant and wild, came from a New York repertory company and had a stentorian voice box. Hervé, as charismatic as he was, had a little voice box. So I'd see them in the distance having this fight, and all you heard was her. You couldn't hear him until you got 10 feet away." He laughs. "Hervé was a prince, and his agent did everything he could to keep him away from Forbidden Zone. But he was so dedicated he not only kicked his check back into the production, he came to paint sets on weekends."

Tyrrell also clashed with Viva, a "tart, acid-tongued brilliant wit," according to Richard, who (spoiler) played the king's exiled queen. "She was needling Susan, so when they fought, I had to end with the moment where Susan is lying on top of Viva, who's complaining that her ribs are breaking from the weight," Richard says. "The wrong words to the wrong person. It wasn't faking: Susan beat the shit out of Viva, and I had to separate them with their talons at each other's necks. They were both bleeding."

The opposite of blood-drawing drama occurred during Danny's scene playing Satan decapitating Squeezit. "It was probably three in the morning after an 18-hour shoot," the composer says. "I was trying to lip-sync to 'Squeezit the Moocher' and go through the motions of chopping his head off, and I couldn't stop busting up. I just got into that state of mind where I couldn't do a take. Every time, he said his line – 'It's not for me I'm pleadin'/ if you help René and Frenchy, I'll give you what you're needin'" – I'd look at his face and couldn't keep it together. I don't think I've ever had that happen again since then."

The song was typical for Danny and the Mystic Knights at the time. "I used to do 'Minnie the Moocher' and two other Cab Calloway songs with the Mystic Knights," Danny recalls. "There was a period in the Seventies when I didn't listen to music that was recorded after 1938. In my mind, I lived in 1933 in Harlem and was essentially totally unaware culturally of whatever was happening at the time. I just tuned out for a decade, more or less."

Incidentally, even though Richard didn't clear some of the other old music ("We had to pay a lot for some of the more obscure things"), getting an OK to rewrite "Minnie the Moocher" from Calloway was easy. "He was a prince," he recalls. "Funnily, the musicians union came after me for some of the Cab Calloway stuff, and I had to point out that they didn't allow blacks in the union back then, so go to hell."

When Forbidden Zone came out, it hardly made a ding. So Richard went on to do stage work, a few rock videos and some small commercials. Danny decided to disband the Mystic Knights (his brother had left the group a few years prior), which at the time of the movie was playing only instruments that didn't require amplification in order to get a Forties vibe. After taking the group in a bigger theatrical direction with more animation and costume changes, Danny stumbled on a new sound he liked.

"I woke up one day and heard Madness and the Specials from England and said, 'Eh, I don't want to do this anymore, I want to be in a ska band,'" he recalls. "It was really an overnight thing. No costumes, no props, the antithesis of a big, complicated theatrical troupe, which is what we had become." With that, he formed Oingo Boingo, with whom he played through 1995, as he worked on film scores. (He recently performed "Dead Man's Party" live for the first time in 20 years as the encore to his Hollywood Bowl performance of Nightmare Before Christmas.)

Then, unexpectedly, Forbidden Zone slowly started to become a cult hit over time, thanks to midnight screenings and the occasional production where a Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast acted along to it. "It's been a total surprise," Richard says of renewed interest in the movie. "It was 10 years ago when I put up my first website, and I got thousands and thousands of hits from all over the world, people who'd seen bootlegged versions of the movie. I didn't know it had picked up a worldwide following. Every month or two since then, I've flown to a different city for a screening, and most of the audience is college-aged kids. It's been a surprise and something I'm grateful for."

For years, the rights to the movie drifted between distributors. In 2008, Richard got the opportunity to get the movie colorized, as he'd originally intended. Although the story of how he lost the rights to the picture is the one thing he's vague about, the filmmaker reacquired control of Forbidden Zone last year. The new edition of the film contains both the color and black and white versions of the movie, as well as outtakes, deleted scenes, Hercules Family footage and commentary by Richard and Matthew Bright.

A few years ago, he'd also announced his plan to make a sequel to Forbidden Zone, in which a new family moves into the house with the inter-dimensional basement. (There's a synopsis for it, but like the original, the plot looks so outrageous it would have to be seen to make sense.) Richard drafted his daughter-in-law, Jenna Elfman, to do a "surrealistic aerial dance routine" dressed like Tim Curry in Rocky Horror; he's repurposing the song the troupe played on The Gong Show as the Sixth Dimension's National Anthem; and he wants Danny to write more music for it and reprise his satanic role, singing another Cab Calloway classic, "St. James Infirmary Blues."

"I haven't really started anything for it yet," Danny says. "He's my big brother and it's like, he says, 'OK, we're doing Forbidden Zone 2, and you're going to do songs.' And I'm like, 'All right.' Our relationship hasn't changed. When I became the musical director of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo it was right after I'd come back from Africa at age 19; he picked me up at the airport and said, 'I started a theater troupe, you're the musical director.' I was like, 'OK, I guess so.' It's like getting called up into active duty."

Richard expects production on the sequel to begin next year in Hollywood – "just for Jenna and using some of her So You Think You Can Dance connections" – and he hopes to lock in Bright, the Kipper Kids and Gisele Lindley, who played the topless princess in the original. "Maybe I'll lock her up in the dungeon and do a love scene with Matthew, I don't know," he says. But what he does know is, "It's going to be bigger, badder and bolder than Forbidden Zone one."