It is now a long established fact that George Romero’s 1968 flick Night of the Living Dead revolutionised the zombie. These brain devouring monsters have been shuffling across our screens since the Dawn of the Cinema, but it wasn’t until Romero came along that they were injected with such unsettling realism.
Though Romero was proud of the disturbing level of gore audiences were subjected to, he long denied consciously embedding any subversive critique on 1960s American society into the film. And yet, subjects relating to race, gender, authority and war are all skilfully explored in some way during its runtime.
It was exactly these themes which captured the imagination of the people at imitating the dog. The production company, along with Leeds Playhouse, are to thank for this wildly inventive retelling of Romero’s picture. Understandably drawn in by the rich subtext of the film, artistic directors Andrew Quick, Pete Brooks and Simon Wainwright saw the potential in recreating the story for a modern day theatrical audience, and it’s the clever way they have went about realising this which makes the show so engaging.
Extended above the stage are two adjacent screens, one begins to play Night of the Living Dead for the audience as the actors beneath, armed with cameras, work to recreate the film shot for shot and in real time, projecting this onto the second screen. The attention to detail and technical skill required to pull this off is mind bending and great accolades should be showered on the cast for their work both in front and behind the camera. Everything down to intricate movements of the head or arms in Romero’s version has been picked up by the actors to great effect. To achieve such accuracy both in tone and aesthetic within a theatre setting the directors have employed ingenious methods. One of the more obvious and crowd pleasing examples was their use of miniature props. Establishing shots of a car twisting its way through the countryside or a hoard of zombies descending on an isolated farmhouse were accomplished by placing figurines onto sticks and filming them on their miniature sets to the stage left. Thus, imagination helped them realise the more difficult shots while also providing some much needed levity. To get an over the shoulder shot they placed a small doll in front of the camera and when trying for the correct angle actors would contort themselves on stage – the juxtaposition between what we’re seeing on screen and on stage was ripe for comedy. It works in the plays favour that the directors chose not to shy away from the more ridiculous side of their show and instead embraced them for comedic effect.
Nevertheless, the play is more than simply a shot for shot recreation of George Romero’s classic. Night of the Living Dead – Remix attempts to ground the film in its historical context for a modern audience. By using speeches by Bobby Kennedy, JFK, Martin Luther King, news reels, footage from the Vietnam War, and other clips of epoch shifting moments the directors have given extra weight to the films political voice. When Ben, the only black character declares, “You can be the boss down there, I’m the boss up here” the audience’s reaction was audible. Night of the Living Dead – Remix made sure its audience was conscious of the changing racial dynamics taking place in America at the time, making this line all the more impactful. The play brings these societal fractions to the forefront and thus draws a connection between then and now, leaving its audience asking the question ‘How far have we really come?’
Stephen King has said that “when we turn to the creepy movie or the crawly book, we are not wearing our ‘Everything works out for the best’ hats. We’re waiting to be told what we so often suspect – that everything is turning to shit.” Which is exactly why that dreadful feeling begins to settle in our stomach’s as we watch the sheriff’s posse approach the house at the end of Night of the Living Dead. The play alludes to the fact that 1950s American optimism had essentially been shattered by the tumultuous events of the 60’s. Living through JFK’s Assassination, the increasingly pointless Vietnam War, and numerous racial attacks on African-Americans had a profound effect on society. Seeing a zombie flick after this became cathartic because you were not being reassured, you were being allowed to live out your worst fears in the safety and comfort of a theatre. In our own time of looming environmental catastrophe, Donald Trump and everything else going on it’s probably a good time for Night of the Living Dead – Remix to provide that catharsis for us.
Any fans of Romero’s classic will enjoy the ride and it's one I am sure the zombie maestro himself would have enjoyed.
Night of The Living Dead – Remix is on tour across the UK until the 21st of March. https://www.everymanplayhouse.com/whats-on/night-of-the-living-dead-remix
Reviewer: Maria Cochrane
Reviewed: 18th February 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★