Night of the Living Dead (Theater Review)

Night of the Living Dead
Theater Review

By Jeffrey Kieviet

Night, Dawn, Day & Play


If you haven’t seen the film Night of the Living Dead, you may as well be a member of the undead. It is the pivotal film that launched the zombie genre as we know it today. Way back in 1968, George Romero, godfather of ghoulies, made a film with little more than pig intestines and a handful of nickles. There have been dozens of sequels, reboots, remakes, sequels to the reboots, as well as spoofs, parodies, and unofficial spin-off sequels like the Italian Zombie 2. This film is ingrained into the public consciousness as much as classics like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca… only with more blood and gore. And, ironically enough, less racism.

This film is also in the public domain because someone forgot to cross a “T” or dot an “i” or something stupid so now it’s as much my movie as yours or Romero’s. It’s one of those films offered in a 5-pack in the dollar-bin at Walmart. Which is a shame because it’s such an awesome movie and shouldn’t be treated with the same verve as Hotels for Dogs, but good because it’s available to everyone for cheap (or even free). So Brian Newell, co-founder of the Maverick Theater, adapted the screenplay into a stage play 8 years ago and has turned it into a local spectical, beloved by theater goers and horror enthusiasts alike. If you’ve seen the film, your first instinct probably wasn’t to try to put a live adaptation in front of an audience, showering blood and debris onto a dedicated cast of monsters and victims. But take a moment; there’s only a handful of people in the film (as well as a bloody fistful of rotating zombies) and the simple location of an abandoned farm house. Newell and co. found something special that they’ve been able to remount every Halloween for nearly a decade.

For those of you not familiar with the Maverick Theater, they’re the folks who let us use their stage for the beloved Four Horsemen “festival”. They’re also known for doing lavish productions that play like movies (most of the shows they do have been adapted for film or are movie adaptations themselves, like Night of the Living Dead). I’ve participated in shows there such as Father of the Bride, Little Shop of Horrors, and the critically acclaimed Hobbit, which was done before and much better than the trilogy señor Pete Jackson is putting out over the next eleventy years. The adaptations of popular, public-domain movies include Plan 9 from Outer Space and Santa Clause Conquers the Martians (both adapted for the stage by the Maverick folks themselves [Plan 9 is playing as the late night show, accompanying Night of the Living Dead through November 16]). They’ve also done the South Park boys’ Cannibal! The Musical which I got to see earlier this year.

These movies are generally considered bad. Bad acting, bad directing, bad sets. Plan 9 is considered THE worst movie ever made (although there is some argument for Troll 2, The Room, or the entire cinematic catalogue of Uwe Boll [Derek, highly recommend putting these on your B-list]). So how do they make bad movies into good plays? By hamming it up! Every tacky line in the film is now said with a wink and a nod to the audience. It’s like watching the movie with a couple of your funny, drunk friends commenting on the pie-tin spaceships, only your drunk friends are live on stage, holding the strings and “flying” the “spaceships.”

The thing about Night of the Living Dead is: it’s scary! The movie isn’t bad, it’s well made and is still haunting, gruesome, and terrifying, even for a modern day audience. So the play walks the very precarious line of finding humor for a raucous audience, and keeping the edge-of-your-seat, hide-under-the-bed fear. The first time I saw the show was 4 or 5 years ago, and it’s evolved every time. Originally, Barbara’s brother Johnny wasn’t even part of the cast, but now they’ve added him, as well as a “Homeowner” (this year, played by the Four Horsemen‘s own Sean Coutu), his “Daughter,” and a few extra zombies along the way. Way back in the day, the Police Chief & News Anchor that appear in the brief television clip doling out exposition at the halfway mark actually show up at the end of the show to deliver the classic, dark, macabre, and shocking ending from the movie. Not to ruin the surprise, but this time around they are able to tie together some of the material they’ve added at the start of the show to the untimely demise of the rest of the living cast.

To shout out a couple of the performances, David Chorley (my co-director of the well received & critically acclaimed Woman in Black [currently playing at Stages Theater in Fullerton through November 10]) plays the slimy, villainous bastard, Mr. Cooper. I’ve seen a couple other guys tackle this role (one of them is currently a zombie in this year’s run, zombies being the coveted roles in this show [just ask Primitive Screwhead’s own Casey Moriarty, who played a zombie back in 20XX]), but Chorley is the line between camp and creepy, with a nasally voice & hollow pride that makes you hate him to the core, and cheer whenever there’s a gun pointed at his face. Hannah Noshirvan was originally Judy back when Mr. Coutu (of the aforementioned, legendary Four Horsemen) was Tom (Tom & Judy being the young couple hiding in the basement. If you haven’t seen the movie or aren’t familiar with the characters, I can’t help you. Go back to playing Farmville or whatever’s kept your interest away from this Halloween Horror Classic since 1968). Now Mrs. Noshirvan leads as the scream-queen Barbara, and her fear is palpable in the ears and hearts of the audience. If I recall correctly (and I definitely may not, my mind is withering in my ripe old age), the hero, Ben, had always been played by a guy named Scott, and I feel terrible for not knowing his last name (or even being sure that that’s his first name), but this is the first time I’ve seen the show without him in it, and since he’s not in the program this time around, I don’t have his name on file. But now, David P. Lewis has taken over the role, and he brought a new vulnerability to the character as opposed to the more macho version of earlier years. Back when Scott(?) was Ben, he had military dog tags and an attitude that said his made living people dead for a living. So when this new Ben finally makes one of the Living Dead even deader, it was a truer moment of shock & horror. Although Scott had a little more of the chutzpah of Duane Jones of the original black & white film.

The show is full of shotgun blasts and baseball bats to the dome, but this time around there seemed to be less physical fighting. Still bloody as hell, but fewer swings of the monkey wrench. And I think that’s one of the best improvements they could have made. Instead of all the cheese included in twenty minutes of obviously staged violence, they solidified some of the battles and they look & feel much more realistic. When zombie Danesh Noshirvan, with a face-full of glass, reanimated in a way that was terrifyingly inhuman, standing like a broken pretzel pulled up by the strings of an evil puppet god, there was half a heartbeat where an actual zombie outbreak looked like it was happening onstage. The only thing I missed with this more realistic take was the “Unkillable Zombie,” who, while still making an appearance as the towering Topher Mauerhan, was destroyed in a couple quick moments, and only knocked a few people around the stage instead of flinging them ass-first into the walls.

When the show starts, you’re ushered into this foreboding dwelling where the eventual “survivors” gather to wait out the apocalyptic zombie storm, and as the undead surround the players on stage, the carnage fades into darkness and the projected text “Night of the Living Dead” scribbles across the set to a very enthusiastic round of applause. Being able to watch this show grow and refine over the years gives me hope for our website. While 8 years ago, the Maverick theater put on a version of this show that was still wildly popular and successful, it’s developed into a cult sensation. Give it a couple more years, it could turn into something along the lines of the Rocky Horror Show, or maybe even Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare. Now, our website only has a handful of followers, but as we grow and refine ourselves, hopefully building our following, creating a site full of enthusiasm & support, maybe even merchandise some day, we could become as powerful as the undead (although it may take more than 8 years of people eating and zombie killing). The show is probably entirely sold out already, but if you get the chance I highly recommend checking it out. If not this Halloween, it’ll be back again next year. Fun for the whole family, except little kids because they make the most evil and vicious zombies.

"Zombie Joe" Sanders stole my beer while 2 other zombies stole my girlfriend.
“Zombie Joe” Sanders stole my beer while 2 other zombies stole my girlfriend.

Night of the Living Dead
Adapted & Directed by Brian Newell & The Maverick Theater
Based on George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead

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