In 1968, an independent horror movie called Night Of The Living Dead not only irrevocably changed the horror movie genre, but has since proved massively influential.
Director George A. Romero’s low-budget film about seven strangers taking refuge from shambling but inescapable flesh-eating ghouls in an isolated farmhouse was an apocalyptic vision of paranoia, the breakdown of community and the end of the American dream. Despite occasional clumsiness, it was not just terrifying but thought-provoking and even humorous. In the decades since then, its symbolic, satirical and paradoxically soulful version of the undead has spread like a virus, from films (including the many and various sequels), remakes and parodies, through the broader culture.
“It wasn’t the first zombie movie,” says Andrew Quick of imitating the dog, the co-director of a new theatrical ‘remix’, “and, in fact, that word isn’t even used in the film, but it’s the source of so many of our ideas about zombies that it feels like the original.”
The film, partly because of a copyright snafu which meant it was effectively in the public domain, became a mainstay of the independent film circuit of the 60s and 70s. “I first saw it at one of those slightly dodgy all-night shows you used to get,” recalls Quick. “My film-buff brother re-introduced me to it and it’s been on imitating the dog’s radar for a few years now, partly as we wanted to break away from our recent run of adaptations of novels, like A Farewell To Arms and Heart of Darkness, and because we’re really interested in how it shows the politics of the time, especially the politics of race around America in the late 60s. The people who made the film claim they weren’t that aware of it, but you can’t help but be aware now that it is the first horror film to have a black central hero, for instance.”
This dynamic and ambitious live ‘remix’ finds the original film projected onto one screen above the stage while seven actors reproduce the action shot-by-shot onstage, with their version projected in real time onto another screen.
“Rather than simply adapt it for the stage, I suppose we’re embracing the theatricality of the attempt – the horror, the terror, the pace and the demand of that task of trying to recreate the film in real time against the original movie, so all the tension and all the pathos and all the tragedy of the original seeps through,” Quick tells me, just before the show’s first night.
Perhaps inevitably, the production proves a little bit busy and confusing at the outset with cameras and actors all over the stage so that it’s often difficult to work out whether to watch one or another of the screens or the onstage action (there was even a brave BSL interpreter side-stage). But it all became much clearer and more involving as the film and show settled into the rhythm of the interaction between the humans in the house, desperately trying to defend themselves not only against the shambling ghouls outside, but also struggling to survive their own antagonisms. Meanwhile, moments of comedy arose unexpectedly frequently from the staging.
“Of course, the film’s got this feel of environmental catastrophe as well as the question ‘can you exist alone and how do you survive in this new situation’? That critique of people failing to combine their intelligence and resources to survive this apocalypse still feels relevant,” reflects Quick, and the production’s bold determination to draw on the social context of the film’s era means there are frequent references on the surround screen to such tumultuous events as the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King as well as the violent debacle of the Vietnam War. Although it can sometimes all verge on sensory overload, it undoubtedly adds up to a powerful and provocative piece of theatre.
Images by Edward Waring.
Night of The Living Dead – Remix is at Leeds Playhouse until February 15, before touring to Liverpool Playhouse; Theatr Clwyd; Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal; Nottingham Playhouse; and HOME, Manchester.