The composing debut of Richard Elfman's younger brother Danny, the film stars Hervé Villechaize, Susan Tyrrell and members of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, and features appearances by Warhol Superstar Viva, Joe Spinell and The Kipper Kids. Villechaize kicked his cheque back into the production and even painted sets on weekends. The only actual paid actor was Phil Gordon, who played Flash; all the other SAG actors kicked their cheques back into the show.
The film was made as an attempt to capture the essence of The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo's live performances on film, and also as a means for both director Elfman to retire from music to work on film projects, and to serve as a transition between the group's former cabaret style and a new wave-based style. Amid negative reactions to content in the film that had been perceived as being offensive, the film was screened as a midnight movie, received positive notice, and developed a cult following. In 2004, the film was digitally restored and released on DVD, and in 2008, the film was colorized.
The film begins on "Friday, April 17" at 4 pm in Venice, California. Huckleberry P. Jones, local pimp, narcotics peddler and slumlord, enters a vacant house that he owns. While stashing heroin in the basement, he stumbles upon a mysterious door and enters it, falling into the Sixth Dimension, from which he promptly escapes. After retrieving the heroin, he sells the house to the Hercules family. On their way to school, Frenchy Hercules and her brother Flash have a conversation with Squeezit Henderson, who tells them that, while being violently beaten by his mother, he had a vision of his transgender sister René, who had fallen into the Sixth Dimension through the door in the Hercules' basement.
Frenchy returns home to confide in her mother, and decides to take just a "little peek" behind the forbidden door in the basement. After arriving in the Sixth Dimension, she is captured by the perpetually topless Princess, who brings Frenchy to the rulers of the Sixth Dimension, the midget King Fausto and his queen, Doris. When the king falls for Frenchy, Doris orders their frog servant, Bust Rod, to lock her up. In order to make sure that Frenchy is not harmed, Fausto tells Bust Rod to take Frenchy to Cell 63, where the king keeps his favorite concubines (as well as René).
The next day at school, Flash tries to convince Squeezit to help him rescue René and Frenchy. When Squeezit refuses, Flash enlists the help of Gramps instead. In the Sixth Dimension, they speak to an old Jewish man who tells them how to help Frenchy escape, but they soon are captured by Bust Rod. Doris interrogates Flash and Gramps and then lowers them into a large septic tank. She then plots her revenge against Frenchy, relocating all the denizens of Cell 63 to a torture chamber. She leaves the Princess to oversee Frenchy's torture and execution, but when a fuse is blown, the torture is put on hold and the prisoners from Cell 63 are relocated to keep the King from finding them.
After escaping the septic tank, Flash and Gramps come across a woman who tells them that she was once happily married to the king, until Doris stole the throne by seducing her, "even though she's not my type". The ex-queen has been sitting in her cell for 1,000 years, and has been writing a screenplay in order to keep her sanity. Meanwhile, Pa Hercules is blasted through the stratosphere by an explosion caused by improperly extinguishing his cigarette in a vat of highly flammable tar during his work break at the La Brea Tar Pit Factory. After re-entry, Pa falls through the Hercules family basement and into the Sixth Dimension, where he is imprisoned.
Finding a phone, Flash calls Squeezit and again asks for his help. Finally, Squeezit agrees to go into the Sixth Dimension to help rescue Frenchy and René. There, he is captured by Satan, with whom he makes a deal to bring him the Princess in exchange for Satan's help freeing René and Frenchy. Squeezit accomplishes this task, but has failed to include himself in the deal to rescue his friends, and the devil has him decapitated. Queen Doris sends Bust Rod to keep an eye on the king, and to ensure he doesn't find out where she's hidden Frenchy.
Fausto catches Bust Rod and forces him to lead him to Frenchy and René, whom he orders to leave the Sixth Dimension to avoid the Queen's wrath. However, en route to safety, René is stricken with pseudo-menstrual cramps, and they are again captured by the frog. Squeezit's head, which has now sprouted chicken wings, finds the king and informs him of what has happened.
While preparing to kill Frenchy, Doris is confronted by the ex-queen, and the two engage in a cat-fight, with Doris eventually coming out as the victor. Just as she is about to kill Frenchy, Fausto stops her, explaining that Satan's Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo are holding the Princess hostage, and will kill her should anything befall Frenchy. Flash and Gramps arrive, and Flash is knocked down by Gramps. Ma Hercules enters and, seeing a seemingly dead Flash, shoots Doris. Fausto mourns Doris, then marries Frenchy.
The surviving characters look toward a great future as they plan to take over everyone and everything in the Galaxy.Hervé Villechaize as King Fausto of the Sixth DimensionSusan Tyrrell as Queen Doris of the Sixth Dimension / Ruth HendersonGisele Lindley as The PrincessJan Stuart Schwartz as Bust RodMarie-Pascale Elfman as Susan B. "Frenchy" Hercules.Virginia Rose as Ma HerculesUgh-Fudge Bwana as Huckleberry P. Jones / Pa HerculesPhil Gordon as Flash HerculesHyman Diamond as Gramps HerculesToshiro Boloney as Squeezit Henderson / René HendersonDanny Elfman as SatanViva as The Ex-QueenJoe Spinell as Squeezit's FatherThe Kipper Kids as ThemselvesKedric Wolfe as Miss Feldman / Human ChandelierHerman Bernstein as Mr. Bernstein, the Old Yiddish Man
- "Forbidden Zone" - Danny Elfman and The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo
- "Some of These Days" - Pa Hercules, Frenchy and Ma Hercules
- "Beautiful Dreamer" (Excerpt) - Ma Hercules
- "Witch's Egg" - Doris
- "Bim Bam Boom"
- "Pleure" - Frenchy
- "Alphabet Song" - Miss Feldman, Flash, Squeezit and Chorus
- "Queen's Revenge" - Doris, Frenchy, The Princess, René and Chorus
- "Pico and Sepulveda" - Pa Hercules and Chorus
- "Squeezit the Moocher" - Squeezit, The Princess, Satan and The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo
- "Yiddishe Charleston" - Mr. Bernstein and Doris
- "Finale" - Frenchy, Fausto, Doris, The Ex-Queen, The Kipper Kids, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, Flash, Gramps, René, Squeezit, Huckleberry and Company
The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo were formed in late 1972 by Richard Elfman, as a musical theatre troupe. As Richard's interest shifted to filmmaking, he passed leadership of the band to younger brother Danny Elfman, who had begun to lose interest in musical theatre, and had gained interest in other musical styles such as ska, and had become "sick of lugging around so much stuff with the theatre troupe. Towards the end", Elfman remembers, "it was a big production... there was, like a semi full of stuff. And that was becoming burdensome. So, for me, the idea of being a band that can fit all their gear into a van and set up in a club, and an hour later be playing, became a goal."
Production began during a transitional period when the group was moving from its cabaret style towards a more pop/rock format; by the time the film was completed, the band had shortened its name to Oingo Boingo.
The film was originally conceived as The Hercules Family, a 16mm musical that consisted of twelve musical numbers and a story loosely constructed around them. But as the project grew to 35mm and the storyline evolved, Richard Elfman found himself re-shooting many of the original scenes to fit the new film. Two sequences from the original 16mm footage were featured on the 2004 DVD release: one of Danny Elfman, as Satan, performing "Minnie the Moocher" (later reshot with visual elements borrowed from the original 16mm sequence and alternate lyrics), and another of Marie-Pascale Elfman, singing "Johnny". The sequence with Elfman as Satan, and members of the Oingo Boingo as his minions, came from live shows, in which the band would perform Cab Calloway tunes like "St. James Infirmary Blues" in the same costumes.
Marie-Pascale Elfman, at the time of shooting, was married to director Richard Elfman. She designed the film's expressionistic sets and starred in the film. Actor and former Mystic Knight Gene Cunningham helped fund the film. When Cunningham and Elfman ran out of money during production, Richard and Marie-Pascale Elfman helped finance by selling houses, before Carl Borack put money into the production in order for Elfman to complete the film. According to Elfman, he had originally intended the film to be screened in color, stating that the original plan was to ship the film to China, where each frame would be hand-tinted, but that this plan was not practical within the production costs.
Actor Hervé Villechaize was a former roommate of co-writer and co-star Matthew Bright, Villechaize had previously dated co-star Susan Tyrrell, but the two had already broken up by the time production on the film began. According to Richard Elfman, Tyrrell and Villechaize fought periodically throughout the production. The Elfmans' grandfather, Herman Bernstein, also appeared in the film, and Richard Elfman's accountant appeared under the name "Hyman Diamond" because Elfman had no idea whether or not he wanted to be credited. Others who worked on the film include The Kipper Kids (Brian Routh and Martin von Haselberg), Joe Spinell, and former Warhol superstar Viva.
Forbidden Zone featured Bright's first work on film, and his only work as an actor (under the name "Toshiro Baloney"). A founding member of the Mystic Knights, Bright later became a screenwriter and director in his own right. Bright's credits include Freeway, Ted Bundy, and Tiptoes. Bright and director Richard Elfman's only dispute during the screenwriting process was over a scene in which his character, Squeezit, was originally to have been beaten up for eight minutes and having the walls wiped with his blood. Another scene cut from the script would have had Squeezit being castrated. According to Bright, "I didn't have any sense of limits or balance then, at the time, I... you know, I was just, didn't know what I was doing. I needed reining in." During filming, Bright was sitting on the set in costume when a lighting stand fell onto his head, cracking his skull, and he had to be rushed to the hospital. When Bright returned to work the next day, he had a mild concussion and whiplash, but he continued with filming.
Richard Elfman had never gone to film school when production started, and "I didn't know what I was getting into." The production, from its original 16mm roots to its finish, took three years. Cast and crew members would sleep on the film's stage, wearing spare gorilla suits to stay warm. Among the film's artistic influences included 1940s big band and jazz music and Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1930s (such as Betty Boop). Some of the film's cast was made up of non-professionals cast off the street. In one scene, Richard Elfman brought in a young man to mouth the words of "Bim Bam Boom", but when he was put in front of the camera, he stood there as the scene was shot. Elfman left the scene in the film by editing in Bright's lips over the actor's face. Another scene featured homeless men.
The film's animation was created by then-unknown animator John Muto. Because of the film's low budget, Muto created all of the film's animation sequences himself. Muto made frequent use of airbrush techniques to establish for himself a distinctive style. For sequences in which live-action and animation were combined, the actors were photographed in tight head-on and profile shots, and the photos were cut out and pasted into the animation in a style recalling Terry Gilliam's work on Monty Python's Flying Circus. Muto also credits The Fleischer Brothers as another inspiration.
Forbidden Zone was the first film scored by Danny Elfman, who would eventually score, among other films, Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The song Witch's Egg was written by Georg Michalski and Tyrrell. In some scenes, characters lip synch to old records, including recordings by Cab Calloway, Josephine Baker, and others.
The alphabet song performed in a classroom scene was inspired by the "Swinging the Alphabet" song from The Three Stooges short Violent Is the Word for Curly.
For the "Yiddishe Charleston" scene, Richard Elfman had shot the sequence with him lip-syncing to an old recording of the song, but was later unable to acquire the rights to the recording, and had to record a new version of the song while attempting to sync the new recording with the footage.
Forbidden Zone was given limited distribution during its initial theatrical release, and not well received by critics. Some of the film's sequences and characters led to director Richard Elfman being accused of racism (because of its satirically surreal use of blackface), and even anti-Semitism despite Elfman's Jewish background. According to Elfman, "I was attacked on every level. [...] We were kicked out of theaters; there were arson threats." However, the film has since been rediscovered, and has gained new life as a cult film.
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an 88% score based on 8 reviews, with an average rating of 7.1/10.
The film's soundtrack has also become popular, and its theme song was eventually reused by Danny Elfman, who rearranged it as The Dilbert Zone for use as the theme for the television series Dilbert.
The film was released on VHS in the late 1980s and on DVD by Fantoma in 2004 for Region 1 viewers, and in 2006 for Region 2 by Arrow Film Distributors Ltd. with a region-free Blu-ray release by Arrow in 2012
In 2008, the film was colorized by Legend Films. This version of the film is being sold as a download and on DVD from RiffTrax.
In June 2009, it was revealed that a sequel was in pre-production.
In 2010, Forbidden Zone was performed as a live stage show with the support of Richard Elfman. It is a production of the Sacred Fools Theater Company, and premiered there in Los Angeles on Friday, May 21, 2010.
Richard Elfman entered into a licensing deal with the creative resource company, PANGEA, to provide licensees with the opportunity to create merchandise based on the cult film. According to articles that appeared in the media on May 3, 2016, the arrangement calls for content to be created that will include a Storyboard Book of the original film, featuring commentary and anecdotal notes from director. Shot glasses and sculpted pieces were among the list of immediate items that would be released. A fantasy novella series was also noted as being under development.
Rocky Horror "shadow cast" companies have begun performing screenings of the film. Elfman sometimes participates in these live performances. He enters in a clown suit and beats a big bass drum that is accompanied by a Brazilian percussion ensemble—reminiscent of his former group, the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.
The Syfy Channel has run a teaser piece musical number, "Princess Polly" from Forbidden Zone 2: The Forbidden Galaxy on its show Monster Man, starring Cleve Hall. Elfman opens the Forbidden Zone shadow cast shows (after the march in) with Erin Holt singing Princess Polly live in front of her screened “monster” image on stage.