imitating the dog are a company who have never been scared of a challenge, but this time out they are really going for it creating their own live version of George A. Romero’s classic zombie movie Night of the Living Dead – all 1076 cuts in 95 minutes.
Zombies seem to everywhere in our current popular culture, but Romero created the genre with his 1968 black and white masterpiece shot on a shoestring. It tells the tale of seven desperate people holed up in a remote farmhouse as the zombies gather to try and eat them alive.
This daring co-production with Leeds Playhouse will be directed by the company’s co-artistic directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks, with projection and video design by long-time collaborator Simon Wainwright.
“The audience will walk in to see this very beautiful grey box set, with a floor that looks like it has black and white wallpaper on it, and two screens hanging above the stage,” says Andrew Quick fresh from rehearsing this fiendishly complex project. “On one screen we will play the movie from start to finish, every shot, no edits and in all its glory. The film has its problems with weird cuts, mistakes and some of the acting is slightly exaggerated we’d say today.
“On a matching screen we will match that original movie shot for shot, and remake on the stage every moment from the film, or we try to. Of course, we fail at times as sometimes we will be behind, and sometimes we might be ahead, but the film is the driving thing we have to follow and adhere to.”
Aside from the chance to watch a movie that is now seen as a classic, it is rare to sit and watch a company who not afraid to fail, but actually welcoming failure as part of the onstage process.
“I wouldn’t say we lack the fear as we’ve had a couple of good days of rehearsals, so it feels more possible now, and it’s now about the quality in which you achieve it. Theatre has always got that at the back of it as something can always go wrong, so it’s not like film where you can reshoot and re-edit.
“In film you can manipulate time and the image really well, but in theatre you don’t know how the audience will react, or what the actors will do. We’ve always been really interested in the cinematic, so we’ve used film as a big reference point in the making of our work, the rehearsals and thinking about the type of work we do.”
When Night of the Living Dead was released it was seen as a B-movie as the seven survivors of an apocalyptic disaster led by the young black man Ben battle the flesh-eating zombies that Romero only refers to as ghouls. The film was completed on just $114,000, but grossed over 250 times its budget, and over the years has been rediscovered as a subtle, if gory, critique of contemporary America.
“The filmmakers argue that casting Ben as the only black person in the film – all the zombies are white as well – was blind casting, but you can’t help but read it now with the whole backdrop of the 1960s as somehow being very relevant and symbolic,” notes Quick.
“In the same year you have the assassination of Martin Luther King, the killing of Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam war taking off, and you’ve already has the assassination of JFK, so there has been quite a massive amount of violence going on. Of course, you’ve had the Summer of Love with the hippies, but this feels like an answer to that.”
Three of the survivors are a classic American nuclear family who have sought refuge in the farmhouse’s cellar, but these seemingly solid citizens prove to be less than useful in the seemingly hopeless battle.
“At the heart of the film there is the idea of the American family so you’ve got Harry and Judy Copper and their little girl. I wouldn’t say he is Trumpian, as Trump didn’t exist then, but he’s more a Nixon Conservative and they are out for themselves.
“They are not working together with the others and that family unit is part of the disintegration in the film so there’s a sense of a critique of American consumerism and family values. Even that feels relevant to today, but it is the way that humans interact and react under extremis. It’s an old story that you are tested as a human being when something happens in their extreme.”
Romero went onto to make five more zombie movies including Dawn of the Dead – now seen as the definitive zombie flick – that led directly to the runways success of hit TV series The Walking Dead. So what does Quick think is the enduring appeal of the zombie genre over the last five decades?
“The zombies are monsters, but not monsters that aren’t us,” he muses. “All monsters are metaphorical, but the great thing about zombies it puts you straight away in an apocalyptic crisis, and drama often comes from putting people in extremis where they are having to do something extraordinary.
“It is a really clever, useful device as there is an emotional residue that the people who are your enemy are only a little bit different from you.
“Romeo poses the question certainly in the later movies who are the more moral – the zombies or the humans? He implies in a way that the zombie has more clarity and consistency as they do one thing really well with a sense of purpose.”
So, the million-dollar question, do you have to be a diehard fan of The Walking Dead to enjoy this production or doesn’t it matter if you can’t stand Sheriff Rick and his gang of hardy survivors?
“If you know the genre you are going to enjoy it, and get a lot out of it, but if you don’t it is a kind of tragedy because to survive this human interaction there is an irony, humour and a pathos to the ending that feels really quite moving."
2020 Tour Dates
24th January – 15th February 2020 – Leeds Playhouse
Box office: 0113 2137700 / www.leedsplayhouse.org.uk
25th - 26th February - Exeter Northcott
Box office: 01392 726363 www.exeternorthcott.co.uk
10th – 11th March - Nottingham Playhouse
Box office: 0115 9419419 www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk
13th – 14th March - Dundee Repertory Theatre
Box office: 01382 223530 www.dundeerep.co.uk
18th- 21st March - HOME, Manchester
Box office: 0161 200 1500 www.homemcr.org
Further touring locations and dates to be announced