Night of the Living Dead - Remix


imitating the dog and Leeds Playhouse
The Courtyard, Leeds Playhouse
to

The folk at imitating the dog can’t get enough of zombies. In their impressively multi-layered adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, zombie movies were invoked as metaphors for capitalism’s mindless market forces and expansionism.

Now we see the company take on the adaptation—the “remixing”, in fact—of the grand-daddy of the zombie film, George A Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead. Though by no means the first manifestation of these now ubiquitous creatures of the horror genre—and despite the word ‘zombie’ appearing nowhere in Romero’s film—the film did much to set the ground rules of these shambling, cannibalistic reanimations.

Pete Brooks and Andrew Quick’s method here is to assemble a cast of seven, arm them with cameras, props and costumes and set the film running. The original is displayed on one screen above the stage, with the live-feed of the onstage action on another immediately next to it, aiming to recreate it, shot-for-shot, as closely as possible.

Apart from a large, functional staircase unit, Laura Hopkins’s set design is mostly bare, with the walls made of long vertical strips which put me in mind of the staging of David Byrne’s superlative American Utopia tour: simple but flexible, and built to play well with Andrew Crofts’s lighting and Simon Wainwright’s projections. The walls, then, become further screens, which function both to generate fluidly-shifting backdrops for the live action, and to introduce additional footage outwith the original film or its on-stage recreation.

This footage is where the team engage in the “remixing” of the show’s title, with iconic moments of American history blasted large across the set. The evening starts, in fact, with a recreation not of the film itself, but of archive news footage announcing Kennedy’s assassination. When Night of the Living Dead itself kicks in, its odd, ponderous opening shots of a car approaching a graveyard are hence shadowed by those of the presidential motorcade.

To say too much more of these moments of juxtaposition and commentary would rob the show of some of its power, but the invocation of various high-profile assassinations, as well as the long, bleak history of race-related violence, adds depth to what would otherwise be simply an entertaining—and technically astounding—exercise.

The aesthetic is modern, but tinged with VHS artefacts and the flickering of celluloid, and the show is compelling throughout. It was only at the end that I realised how fully my attention had been gripped, not only by the above-mentioned historical contexts offered, but by the sheer thrill of the endeavour: to recreate, shot by shot and in real time, this film.

The ensemble members make the attempt with incredible focus and technical skill. As they multi-role between the central cast and the shambling “ghouls” attacking the homestead in which the protagonists are holed up, there is joy in the accuracy of some moments of synchronicity. When the action starts to drift—particularly in the business of shoring up the house and when ghouls start to break through the defences—there’s still pleasure, though you yearn for them to get back on track.

In our podcast discussion, one of the performers, Morven Macbeth, spoke about the choreographic precision demanded by the show, but it was only in viewing the piece that this truly came home to me. There is an odd, utterly unique pleasure in letting one’s attention switch between the original film, the livestreamed remix, and the busy stage action. When the film calls for shot-reverse-shot sequences, performers have to bob up and down, or flick between 90-degree angles to ensure the composition is maintained when the camera cuts.

It is hugely satisfying to watch this team tackle the task while the original ticks away “like a colossal metronome”, as co-directors Brooks and Quick put it. Morgan Bailey takes on the central role of Ben with softly-spoken intensity, while Laura Atherton is impeccably precise in her recreation of Barbara. Matt Prendergast plays a range of roles, notably the nervy, bullish Harry Cooper; his vocal and physical performance is often spot-on, though his face is almost too irrepressibly mobile to recreate the stony original.

Luke Bigg, Will Holstead and Morven Macbeth are all excellent too, with Macbeth in particular extremely accurate as Cooper’s wife, Helen, a moderating force as she tends their sick daughter in the cellar. Adela Rajnović has a great turn as a splendidly awkward newscaster, as well as the aforementioned daughter.

Singling out any cast member, though, feels inappropriate given the sheer team effort it takes to keep the show on the rails. They pass cameras to each other, manoeuvre props and set items, act as stand-ins for over-the-shoulder shots, and indeed share duties as some characters where reverse shots are called for. Laura Hopkins’s costume does great work here and there are delightful details—look out for Cooper’s tie. It feels like a gang at work, as they go about this frivolous / serious task with a rough and ready but dedicated approach, itself so fitting for the original: Romero and his gang would surely have approved.

Reviewer: Mark Smith