Even the most ardent of horror fans would struggle to deny that films of that genre tend to be a bit predictable; no matter what choices the protagonists make, no matter what door they open or path they take, there will inevitably be a zombie waiting to pick off at least one of their number. A bit of a generalisation perhaps, but who hasn’t watched a gore fest and urged the characters to make a different choice? That’s the twist the writing team behind Night Of The Living Dead LIVE! have given the 1968 cult classic from George A. Romero.
Through a modern lens the original film seems a little tame, but back when it was released, this low-budget, independent movie caused quite a stir, thanks to the graphic scenes of gore. It was shot on low quality film, and in black and white so cinema going audiences had no idea the blood was nothing more than chocolate sauce.
In a loving nod to the film’s look, this entire production is staged in black and white. Yes, you read that right, Diego Pitarch’s design sees everything from the cabin set, to the costumes, wigs and make up, presented in glorious monochrome. Even Nic Farman’s exquisite lighting design sticks solely to white light. It’s striking and bold, and just a touch disconcerting.
The first act concentrates on the plot of the movie, opening with Barbra (Mari McGinlay) visiting her father’s grave, all the iconic scenes are there, though with more of a comedic edge and a slapstick approach to the violence. As this story reaches its tragic end, Chief McClelland (Mike Bodie) considers what would have happened if they had followed Harry’s advice and taken shelter in the cellar, the whole stage resets and the opening of act two sees this alternate scenario played out. It doesn’t end well either, so more and more ridiculous ‘what if’ scenarios are played out. The stage resetting each time, until Night Of The Living Dead LIVE! becomes a full blown comedic farce.
All this slapstick, combined with the constant resetting, and quite a lot of role sharing, makes this production technically very challenging, but director, Benji Sperring has made it look effortless. Each scene transitions to the next with a swiftness that defies what should be possible, catching the audience off-guard and creating a little movie magic live on stage, especially as Samuel West’s intricate and unsettling soundscape kicks in.
Marc Pickering again demonstrates his comedy talents, waddling under the weight of his fat suit, even the make-up can’t hide those gloriously comedic facial expressions. Tama Phethean takes on a number of roles, but it is as the charmingly foolish Tom that he truly demonstrates a command of his craft. Jennifer Harding, also plays a dual role, so convincingly that most of the audience didn’t even notice until it becomes the butt of a running gag in the second act. Ashley Samuels gives a tremendous performance as Ben, building up rage and fear in equal measure.
Transferring such an iconic piece of cinema to the stage was never going to be easy. Fans of the film love it for different reasons, and a straight replay of the movie would have likely been disappointing in comparison. This second half twist makes it more intriguing, giving hardcore fans something to get their teeth in to, while NOTLD virgins get more than they bargained for. Those themes of domestic racism and political upset aren’t completely ignored either, as Phethean’s Vince reminds us, more than once, that this is 1968.
If anything, Night Of The Living Dead LIVE! dials down the horror too much, focussing far more on the comedy aspect, those loyal fans, especially the twenty audience members dressed in overalls and shower caps, and seated on the stage (known as the splatter zone) might feel let down by the lack of graphic bloodshed. It’s a brave decision to turn a cult horror in to a comedy, but perhaps it just reinforces that idea of ‘what if’, and even if it’s not all together terrifying, Night Of The Living Dead is frighteningly funny.