Inside the Elfman’s The Forbidden Zone
The most absurd musical of the 1980s
Thirteen years before Danny Elfman scored the seminal Tim Burton film The Nightmare Before Christmas, (he and his brother Richard Elfman) conceived and created one of the most despicable, deplorable, grotesquely imaginative—even more so than Tim Burton—and brilliant musicals of the 20th century.
The Forbidden Zone is the 1980 musical-comedy featuring the Elfmans’ performance-art band Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo—which would later be dissolved to the Oingo Boingo that is known for “Weird Science”—melded with blues classics like Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher,” and performed by redheaded Danny Elfman as none other than the devil himself.
The whole film is a plot hole, chronicling a family that finds the portal to the sixth dimension in their basement. Each family member enters the “portal” (the set was constructed from entirely construction paper and crayon drawings, so the portal wasn’t exactly convincing) and finds themselves in a series of surreal high-jinks. The film focuses on Squeezeit Henderson, a young “school boy” (played by the Elfman’s best friend Matthew Bright) and his classmate Flash (a character who is supposed to be younger than primary school age but is easily at least 65 years old) who are trying to rescue Squeezit’s sister, René. The film chronicles encounters with the evil King and Queen of the sixth dimension, Satan, and a perpetually shirtless princess. The initial rescue mission strays off course, a love triangle develops, an uncomfortable amount of humping, and more genitalia than anyone is willing to see is exposed; this is more or less how the movie progresses.
The surreal musical was shot on black-and-white film, but remains one of the most vibrant pieces filmed in the 1980s. Although it was later re-released, the muted color palette—digitally restored with almost only reds popping from the screen—conjures an even better backdrop to each unbelievable scenario and the infectiously catchy songs that frame it.
The Elfmans describe their film as “a human cartoon,” which is perhaps the most basic, but apt, description. Despite the critiques of the satirical film for its over-politically “incorrectness” (but what else can you expect from the Reagan era), the film does not stand out in history purely for its absurdity—but rather for its music.
One of the first musical numbers in the film, colloquially known as “The Alphabet Song,” is inspired by a routine done by the The Three Stooges. A man in drag plays Squeezeit and Flash’s teacher, who teaches the song to the class (which is primarily composed of adults dressed in childrens clothes) of geeks and freaks. Shabadoo, a legendary dancer in the troupe Lockers, who popularized the “locking” dance style, along with his cohorts are dressed stylishly in fur coats and wide-brim hats. They transform the primitive and absolutely nonsensical alphabet tune into a captivating funk track, until the teacher makes all of her students put bags over their heads, of course.
The most memorable and absurd scene is when the red-haired Danny Elfman appears as Satan, dressed in a long-tailed white suit, playing a grand piano while he sings a skewed version of “Minnie the Moocher,” (changed to “Squeezeit the Moocher”) then decapitating a character—or two—grinning all the while. The Cab Calloway routine wasn’t foreign to the Elfmans, as they performed the track (among a few other Calloway songs) incessantly with Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. It was a familiar tune, and it was loved and honored by the Elfmans, which is perhaps why it remains as one of the best scenes in the film.
The Forbidden Zone is without a doubt a bizarre experience, but it is the scoring of the film that makes the film remarkable and even tolerable. Mystic Knights is certainly not palatable to many audience members—it is an acquired taste. But their bizzaro mixture of carnal faux-vaudeville while outlandishly strange, purely kitsch and camp, offers some of the most enticing adaptations of these classic musical arrangements.