Night of The Living Dead™ - Remix
imitating the dog and Leeds Playhouse
Night of the Living Dead was one of the productions that would probably have been on my reviewing schedule when it was due to visit HOME in Manchester, but that was not to be, so it's good to still be able to see it during lockdown. However, as a film transferred to stage and then back to screen, it does lose something in the move even though, technically, the filming is pretty decent.
The granddaddy of all zombie flicks—although they are referred to only as 'ghouls' in the film—begins in a graveyard (of course) but mostly takes place in an old farmhouse, where Ben takes charge in securing the doors and windows from the fiends outside. Barbra, whose brother Johnny was killed by a strange man in the graveyard, has arrived there, and the cellar houses Harry, who argues with every decision Ben makes, his wife Helen and their ill daughter, plus teenage couple Tom and Judy. As a story about confinement in one space from an outside threat, with news of the outside world coming through radio and TV reports, it does lend itself to a stage adaptation.
However, imitating the dog doesn't do straight adaptations. This ambitious production features two screens over Laura Hopkins's adaptable set, one of which is continuously playing the original George A Romero film and the other featuring live video fed from cameras operated by the seven-strong cast to match, shot-for-shot, the original film. While not always perfect (the film is put together from clips filmed during rehearsals in January 2020), a lot of it is pretty damned close, which is a remarkable technical achievement even just to memorise this complex choreography of cameras, set, costumes and bodies over a standard rehearsal period.
While on the screen we see something that looks like the film, on stage we see actors rushing from one position to the next then snapping into character, positioning cameras in exactly the right angle to get the shot, posing against specific parts of the set or against projected scenery on the backdrop, occasionally manipulating miniatures of themselves and vehicles for outdoor shots. It's fascinating to watch, if emotionally disengaging, although something of the tension of the original does come across towards the end.
In order to take this beyond an impressive technical exercise, imitating the dog has inserted into some of the 'ghoul' sequences some news footage and speeches relating to social unrest in the '60s, including assassinations of John F and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, race riots and Vietnam War protests. The film has been interpreted to refer to all of these in the past; while these additions would have been immediately relevant and powerful to a 1968 audience, now they can look incongruent unless you've done your research. Of these interpretations, Romero would only say, "it was 1968, man. Everybody had a 'message'. The anger and attitude and all that's there is just because it was the Sixties."
What does immediately stand out as relevant now (but wouldn't when either version was filmed) is a story about people confined to a house, barricading themselves in against an outside threat from people with a mysterious, possibly contagious disease to which there is no cure, waiting for official instructions from the government over radio and TV. Perhaps inserted shots of people walking the streets two metres apart wearing face masks and supermarket shelves emptied of toilet rolls and flour would be more relevant now, although perhaps the nihilistic ending wouldn't make this a welcome metaphor for our current situation.
While the video and sound of this recording are perfectly adequate, there is a lot going on at once for a small screen, even when streamed to a decent-sized TV. I can imagine sitting in the auditorium at HOME glancing between the stage action, the original film and the edited live-stream on a stage that filled my field of vision, making my own decisions about when to look at each. On screen, these decisions have been made by the editor; each element of the stage picture is quite small in the wider shots, and close-ups seem to go on for too long, so I felt I was missing out on something elsewhere on stage.
It's a technically extremely impressive achievement for directors Andrew Quick and Peter Brooks, the design and technical team and actors Laura Atherton, Morgan Bailey, Luke Bigg, Will Holstead, Morven Macbeth, Matt Prendergast, Adela Rajnović and Matthew Tully, but is this enough to keep the attention for an hour and 38 minutes in your living room? It kept mine for most of that time, but you have to prepared to concentrate as you would in the theatre, ignoring outside distractions, as you will miss something if you allow your attention to wander even for a moment.
Reviewer: David Chadderton