Some entertaining zombie mayhem enlivens Night of the Living Dead, but updating the cinematic shocker for the stage proves trickier than expected.
George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) is such a groundbreaking film that it's no surprise it continues to inspire movies, books, television shows, and even theatrical plays decades after its release. However, redoing a classic presents its own challenges: along with the built-in audience appeal, the familiarity of the material creates predictability; changing the story can create surprises, but it also risks mitigating what worked in the original. Ron Milt's adaptation (currently at the Archway Theatre in North Hollywood) doesn't successfully resolves this dilemma, but then neither did Romero's own 1990 remake, some of which seems to have been incorporated here.
The temptation to adapt the film for the stage is understandable. Most of the action takes place in a single location over the course of one night, so it's easy enough to squeeze the story into a single set. However, key scenes and a major climax take place outside the farmhouse where the characters take shelter from an outbreak of the living dead. The 2006 stage adaptation of Night of the Living Dead at the Stella Adler Theatre handled this by equipping the farmhouse with "security monitors" to show what was happening outside. The new production at the Archway cleverly uses "walls" that are really screens, which allows the action behind them to be seen when the lighting is properly adjusted.
Nevertheless, the story suffers from seeing much of the major zombie action at a distance - or not seeing it at all. What's left is a play about boarding up a house and yelling about whether to hide in the basement. (At the performance we attended, the argument for sheltering in the basement received an extra boost when the board securing a window refused to stay in place.) This is the core of Night of the Living Dead - that, faced with crisis, people are unable to set aside their differences and work together - but for the drama to register, we must see the crisis close enough to feel it; otherwise, the characters' reactions seem overblown and melodramatic.
The play updates the action to modern times: the characters have cell phones but get no service, so they still rely on an old TV to hear the news about the outbreak. The major innovation is that the narrative is threaded with flashbacks, which allows the play to visualize the film's monologues, showing some action we have not seen before. Unfortunately, this also leads to the play's first big mistake: it begins with Barbara entering the farmhouse, robbing the story of its memorable opening in the cemetery, which is instead staged later as her recollection of the event. For Barbara's character to make sense it is necessary to see the traumatic episode that led to her catatonia - no, wait, in this version she is not catatonic, only briefly hysterical, so perhaps this was a deliberate choice.
This leads to another problem: Barbara is not catatonic, but she's not much of anything else. She's given more dialogue to make her seem like part of the drama, but in the story's major conflict - whether to take shelter in the basement or make a run for a rescue center - she's a wobbly third wheel, doing nothing to change the course charted by the confrontation between the major antagonists, Ben and Cooper. Later, when Judy emerges from the basement, is briefly given the catatonic role, but the play arbitrarily forces her to snap out of it, so that the action can synch back up with the movie's scenario, when she decides to join her boyfriend on a fateful attempt to escape.
That the escape attempt takes place mostly offstage is an example of the stage version failing to capture the film's full impact (as indeed was the case with the Stella Adler adaptation). Fortunately, things pick up for the climax when the living dead finally break into the house, overwhelming not only the stage but the whole theatre as well. The climax borrows a final twist from Romero's remake of Night of the Living Dead; what was surprising in 1990 feels arbitrary here. Apparently, it's not easy to inject new life into the old corpse.*
- If you're wondering why we never use the word "zombies" in this review: Night of the Living Dead never so designates its resurrected corpses; the film called them "ghouls."
Night of the Living Dead continues through November 18 at the Archway Studio/Theatre, 10509 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood,, CA 91601. Performances are on Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm, Sundays @ 2pm. The website is archwayla.com.