(SPOILER ALERTS FOR A 50+ YEAR OLD MOVIE; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!)
It is impossible to overstate how important Night of the Living Dead is to the genre of modern horror. From bringing to screen a level of violence and terror that had never been seen before (let alone on such a shoestring budget), to its subtle and not-so-subtle social commentary, and the very fact that it more or less created all the rules for zombies that films abide by to this day, it’s one hell of a movie. While certain parts of it don’t quite hold up (Barbara’s portrayal is easily one of the worst characters in any classic horror film), it’s a classic for a reason.
And so, in hearing that a local theatre company did a stage adaptation of Night of the Living Dead every October, we knew we had to take a look.
The Maverick Theater in Fullerton is a tiny theatre, (though larger, and more an actual theater than where we saw Evil Dead: The Musical), but with a lounge area featuring a bar before hitting the main stage, as well as a boarded up doorway featuring some very hands-on zombie performers…
I can go into the plot, but if you know the 1968 original, you know this one. It’s 1968. Zombies are patrolling the Pennsylvania countryside. A group of disparate survivors gathers together and spends a whole lot of time arguing the virtues of boarding up windows vs. staying in a basement. Zombies attack. More boards vs. basement arguing. Something explodes. More boards vs. basement arguing. People die.
You get the picture.
The stage production trims the original film’s runtime from about 90 minutes to a lean hour, which, while sacrificing a surprisingly small bit of character development, actually works pretty well, since most of what’s cut is Barbara running barefoot across the countryside and long semi-montages of boarding up windows. Certain scenes are admittedly more perfunctory, and the characters of Tom and Judy, barely even characters in their original incarnations, are now just blank slates who fill time and die while occasionally providing some comic relief. While the comic relief is welcome in this play that adds a distinct tone of gallows humor to the original story, it only serves to highlight how borderline unnecessary the characters are in this incarnation (not to give a hard time to the actors, though, who did a fine job).
The acting in this play was uniformly great, and while there were some undeniable opening night jitters in play, they didn’t detract too much. The standouts were, hands down, Alexander Harris’ Ben and Briana Donze’s Barbara. Harris gives Ben a sense of power and calm strength, being eaten away by the horrific situation he’s found himself in, while Donze’s heavily rewritten Barbara changes her character from a shrill catatonic to a woman driven mad by the end of the world, but one who’s willing to do what it takes to survive. It doesn’t help her in the end, but it makes for a much more palatable show.
The production was top notch for the small space, with the farmhouse feeling both real and claustrophobic (which is a benefit in working with a play with a lot of zombie attacks). The zombies were, well, zombies, but there were a lot of them, and they clearly had a lot of fun plying their undead craft on stage. The fights against them were well choreographed for a local stage production, and they managed a few over the top gags that really make you take pause and say “WOW” for such a production.
Regardless, any complaints I have are minor, and this is a production I highly recommend checking out if you get the time. They will be running from October 7-30, at the Maverick Theater in Fullerton.
-- Matt Carter
(We know there's a lot of Matt Carter's online you could spend your time with, so thanks for hanging around this one!)