Forty years after the release of his cult film Forbidden Zone, director Richard Elfman is going back into the edit bay to fix an uncomfortable problem.
“My 1980 cult film Forbidden Zone is getting a tweak,” Elfman says during our sitdown. “It had a few seconds of blackface that I regretted since its first screening.” Indeed, the director issued a statement previously denouncing the offensive image two years ago through Dread Central. Now he is finally able to rectify it for future generations, without changing the subversive intent of the film as a whole. “FX friends are presently helping me change the blackface to ‘clownface,’” Elfman says.
Forbidden Zone was made when offense was a calling card of underground filmmaking, a cornerstone of counterculture publications, and a seven-minute set for standup comedians. This is perhaps why Elfman’s film has been hit with accusations of homophobia, and branded as both anti-Christian and anti-semetic, but political incorrectness was a by-product, not a concern.
“Forbidden Zone was not made to offend,” Elfman says. “Never my intent. It was just an Absurdist art film. Influences were Max Fleischer, German Expressionism, Three Stooges.”
Taste-testing comedies from 30 Rock to The Simpsons have adjusted to cut racial stereotyping from streaming. But those are mainstream and answer to a large demographic. Independent filmmakers answer to no one but themselves, and still see the urgency in slowing the damage.
Richard Elfman is the brother of Danny Elfman, best known for A Nightmare Before Christmas, a slew of classic scores to Tim Burton movies, and the theme to The Simpsons. Danny also composed and performed the score to Forbidden Zone, a vehicle for their musical ensemble The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. The movie was Richard’s directorial debut, and it has gone on to have a life of its own.
Richard spoke with Den of Geek about the balance and the risks.
Of course the first question is what were you thinking, using blackface?
Richard Elfman: I wasn’t thinking! Forbidden Zone is an absurdist art film. ‘Absurdist’ with a capital ‘A.’ My feverish clown-brain spewed forth dozens and dozens of crazy, insane images. The brief moments of blackface had no particular importance other than being part of the general absurdity.
When did you realize you should make the change to the actual film?
The moment I first screened the film 40 years ago. But by that time I had gone bankrupt, lost my house, and almost went to jail over Forbidden Zone–another story, and a good one. I had totally given away rights and control in order to finish the film.
When did you realize you could change the images?
Only recently. I had to track down some original elements, and it’s a challenge on a modest budget. Fortunately, there isn’t much footage to change and I have talented friends in the F/X world.
Does the shock of the scene amidst the images elicit anything which is lost in the change?
I was never going after “shock.” Just absurdity. Changing the image to clownface fits perfectly. Better, actually.
Did the shock and reaction even occur to you when you put it in?
I was more concerned about getting caught from paying off that banker guy.
Has the time of offensive content come to an end in film?
The general answer is no. Someone is always going to be offended by something. The Powers That Be will always try and tell artists what to do and what not to do. Russian artists had to create “Soviet Realism.” Classical pianists had their fingers broken during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Jerry Seinfeld says he currently can’t perform on college campuses.
Was there a golden age of bad taste and was it necessary?
There has always been “bad taste” and there always will be. It’s in the eye of the beholder, I guess. I wasn’t trying to do “bad taste” in Forbidden Zone, although I’m sure there are people who find it there. Again, my goal wasn’t to offend. I was just doing absurdist art—with great timeless music, in my, not so, humble opinion.
When will people be able to see the new version and where?
In the next month or so. We plan to start with some drive-ins until things open up again in 2021. I do wild pre-shows at Forbidden Zone screenings with music and burlesque. Circumstances allowing, I grill for everyone after the film.
Why should people see the new version?
Because this version is Richard Elfman’s vision. If I had a fucking time machine I would have switched the blackface to clown-face 40 years ago.
What about the versions which are out there? Are you going to break into people’s homes and replace them?
Yes, actually. Years ago, they recruited me as an “Esteemed Donor with a Boner” to the Demonic Sperm Bank. I eventually developed carpel tunnel and still grow hair on my palms–but I put my heart, soul, and many millions of little Elfmans into the cause. And now we have developed an army of red-haired clown zombies!! They will break into every house!! Replace every Forbidden Zone with clownface. Then, and only then, will I finally be able to shoot my bucket list film, Forbidden Zone 2.