Night of the Living Dead must be the most over-analysed film in the history of cinema. Basically it is a cheaply made, badly acted picture with hardly any plot and an ending you could see coming a mile off, but please do not let this put you off going to see this production at Leeds Playhouse.
The idea of the piece is that the original film is shown on one of two screens suspended behind the stage, while the cast recreate it scene by scene on stage, simultaneously transmitting the video images, which they are also capturing, to the second. This provides for some very amusing moments and highlights a high level of acting and timing so sadly lacking in the original.
The action kicks off briskly with the opening credits showing a car driving down a winding country road. The recreated scene uses a model set with a stick glued to the roof of the vehicle to facilitate its movement. The rest of the show is interspersed with models to illustrate crowd scenes etc. The only items on the stage are a table, a chair and a flight of stairs leading nowhere. All were used to great effect during the evening. The stage was surrounded on three sides by a plain curtain with slits to enable the actors to disappear through it between their scenes and so that it could be used as a third projection screen. The purpose of this third screen was to show drawings of various backdrops, accommodate captions, display films illustrating speeches by politicians, interviews with members of the public, and newsreels.
The ‘plot’ is that a group of people are sheltering in a farmhouse from others who have recently been killed but refuse to lie down. They ‘live’ by eating human flesh and can only be killed – again – by having their brains destroyed, preferably by a bullet in the head. It is no spoiler to tell you that violence breaks out within the farmhouse, leaving only one man still alive and he is shot in the head through a window by a vigilante who is in a mob out to destroy the ghouls.
The acting from the live(?) cast was uniformly excellent. Some of the roles have two people playing them and other actors have multiple parts. When not delivering lines they are engaged in operating the hand-held cameras used to transmit the action onto the screen. There was only one hitch when one of the cameras went badly out of focus for a time. A simulated television screen piece also suffered from a lighting issue but it is a miracle, given the pace of the piece, that more things didn’t go awry. The way in which the characters entered and exited the stage and passed the cameras from one to the other was almost balletic although no choreographer is credited!
Speaking of credits I must mention the cast/camera operators. There were only seven of them but at times there seemed to be double that number. The two main male characters were played by Morgan Bailey as Ben, the last man standing, and Matt Prendergast who had more roles than Pret A Manger. Luke Bigg and Will Holstead were the other male characters whose portrayals ranged from protective father, the first ghoul victim, the young man who was the catalyst for the internal friction and ghouls themselves. Laura Atherton, Morven Macbeth and Adela Rajnović were the women involved playing multiple roles including one of a male newscaster. Every one of them was superb and miles better than those from the original.
Laura Hopkins was the set and costume designer, both were perfect. The costumes, especially the wigs, got progressively exaggerated whilst the props on stage and the back screen worked superbly. Simon Wainwright was responsible for the projection and video design whilst Andrew Croft designed the lighting. I have mentioned the models created and operated on stage by Matthew Tully which were designed to look like models rather than to fool the audience into thinking they were real. Great touch. The music was composed by James Hamilton and enhanced the atmosphere perfectly.
There were two co-directors in Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks which, given that the characters were played by multiple actors, seems appropriate.
My feelings about the production cover several aspects. Firstly there was the central idea of having live actors copy a well known film. As it was in black and white on both screens I couldn’t help but think of French and Saunders and the Two Ronnies, both of whom regularly featured sketches based on this premise, although without showing the original side by side. After about twenty minutes I found that the joke began to wear a bit thin. There were a couple of curve balls thrown in during the second half with one character simultaneously talking to two versions of another and the previously mentioned actress playing a male newscaster. The art of comedy is knowing when to shut up and get off and obviously you can’t just abandon a project like this half-way through so they had to stick it out. I must say that there were several laughs from the audience at the same joke repeated several times, so what do I know.
My second issue is the back projections which referenced the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy along with earlier newsreels of speeches by John Kennedy, and footage of US troops shooting their way through fields in Vietnam whilst the vigilantes were doing the same to the ghouls in the film. All of these were spurious in my eyes. Reading the programme and comments about the original film on line I think that this is a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes and once someone has made a link suggesting that there is a hidden agenda then everyone comes up with their own take.
The programme catalogues the events of 1968 erroneously referring to it as ’the Hippies’ Summer of Love’, sorry, you are a year late with your barrow there, it was 1967 – although I admit that some participants might not have returned to planet earth for a good twelve months. The real events of that year which it suggests influenced the film’s ’socio-political context’ don’t bear too much scrutiny either, as, apart from some scenes, which were improvised, the final draft of the script was written in 1967, so Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were still both alive and well, and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam hadn’t taken place yet.
My final gripe is that the race issue is also brought into play. Once again this is just wrong. Firstly the programme states that ‘A little more than a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, George Romero shot Night of the Living Dead’. I don’t know if the use of the word ’shot’ was quite appropriate but, as Martin Luther King was murdered on 4th April, 1968 and the film premiered on 1st October 1968 that can’t possibly be true. It also says that this was important because ’the calm African-American central character, Ben, is shot at the end by a bunch of jubilant rednecks.’ Whilst Ben is played in the film by an African-American, no mention of his ethnic origin is made, in fact the part was written to be played by a white actor and the Director, George Romero, said that Duane Jones got the part because he simply gave the best audition. The terminology is disturbing in this part of the programme as well. The people who shot Ben were a group of vigilantes who were destroying all of the ghouls, no matter what their colour and mistook him as being one. They most certainly were not ‘rednecks’ a term which is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary along with others as being ‘a poor white person, especially one living in the countryside in the southern US, who has prejudiced ideas and beliefs’. These men were certainly not poor, they lived in Pittsburgh which is nearer to Canada than the southern states of the US, and there is absolutely no hint that they were in any way prejudiced, racially or otherwise, simply protecting their community.
I am sorry to bang on at such length about this but I believe that it is important to get facts correct before drawing conclusions. If my sources of research should be less than accurate then I apologise but my main authority comes from the fact that in 1968 I was 19 years-old and politically aware. I didn’t get my idea of how the world was from outside sources, simply my experience.
If it is obligatory to draw some kind of socio-political conclusion from this picture I believe that it is trying to show that Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg are mistaken in their campaigns to stop the production of fossil fuels. Should we do so then how would we repel any attacks from ghouls when the only way to stop them, other than a bullet in the brain, is, as they do in the film, throw petrol bombs!
Night of the Living Dead is at Leeds Playhouse until 15th February, 2020
Tour dates are:
18th-22nd February – Liverpool Playhouse
25th-26th February – Exeter Northcott Theatre
28th-29th February – Theatr Clwyd
3rd-4th March – Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal
10th-11th March – Nottingham Playhouse
13th-14th March – Dundee Rep
18th-21st March – Home, Manchester
All photographs by Edward Waring
Feature Image provided by Leeds Playhouse