The third incarnation of Leif Gantvoort's horror-comedy rises from the grave to shamble across the Los Angeles stage, having previously appeared as They're Not Zombies in 2006 and The Afflicted in 2014. Now known as The Zombie Effect, the play has been not only re-staged but also revised and augmented in a way that offers considerable departures from the former text. Though not completely new, The Zombie Effect does warrant another look.
Taking Night of the Living Dead as its template, playwright and star Leif Gantvoort focuses on a small band of survivors arguing over what to do now that the "poop has hit the fan." The central question is whether the mindless attackers lurking outside - who seem strangely resilient to gunshot wounds - do in fact conform to the rules laid out in George A. Romero's 1968 film. Unable to agree on the nature of the threat, the characters can form no useful response, their internal squabble dooming them to impotent, uncoordinated fumbling. And then, just when they think they have found the answer..., well, we won't spoil it for you.
Most of the virtues from the Halloween 2013 production at the NoHo Arts Center remain intact (reviewed here). Some of the changes are subtle: instead of hearing news of the outside world through a sporadically working radio, the characters now have a television set (another nod to Night of the Living Dead), which the audience can also view (on monitors above the stage).
Other additions are more obvious. The experience of seeing The Zombie Effect now begins even before you take your seat inside the ACME Comedy Theatre. A Lumberjack with an ax (Chuck McCarthy) patrols the sidewalk outside and pops into the lobby, warning the audience to use the facilities and grab available supplies before taking shelter. A victim outside screams and bangs on the window begging for help, while a zombie clown approaches menacingly. Eventually, the Lumberjack checks the theatre and, proclaiming it secure, ushers the audience from the lobby to their seats, telling them they will be safe inside as long as the lights stay on. After he leaves, you can guess what immediately happens.
The small venue has been decorated to become a safe haven for not only for the audience but also the characters; the theatre seats have been transformed to resemble pews, as if we are sitting in the church where the action takes place. In effect, the actual theatre entrance is "cast" as the church door, from which humans and "zombies" spill in at various times, stumbling down the aisle toward the stage. Even after the door is nailed shut, the incessant scratching and moaning from the other side keeps us continuously reminded of the threat, even when our attention should be on the human characters. With another potential entrance on the stage itself, it is impossible to know where the next attack will originate from, and you strain your neck muscles like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, as you swivel your head back and forth, striving to keep an eye on the door behind you. The resulting sense of being "inside" the play is remarkably effective, and The Zombie Effect exploits it at several points, with the action erupting into the audience, most notably at the conclusion, when the walking dead turn their attention on you.
As energizing as this approach is, The Zombie Effect does lose a little vitality in its later section. Like its model, Night of the Living Dead, the play presents characters who are operating at pretty much 100% from their first appearance, which leaves the talented cast with almost nowhere to go in terms of building their performances. Sometimes, the one-note approach works: Brett Sheridan is delightful from start to finish as the Priest dipping into the sacramental wine, and Eddie Alfano's hysterical turn as the pec-flexing "Douchebag" is too short to wear out its welcome.
The only character who changes is Judith - which, ironically, turns out to be a mistake. In previous versions of the play, Judith was the approximation of the traumatized character played by Judith O'Dea in Night of the Living Dead, and one of the highlights of the 2012 production, The Afflicted, was actress Ariel Hart's remarkably sustained, inarticulate hysteria. In The Zombie Effect, Judith comes to her senses rather early so that the script can use her as a mouthpiece to voice an alternate interpretation of what is happening. A recurring motif in the zombie genre since Romero has been the concern that we may have more to fear from our fellow humans than from the living dead, and with a little rejiggering, The Zombie Effect emphasizes this concept: though you may lose track in the chaos, the onstage deaths are inflicted by the living, not the dead, prompting Judith to question whether the "zombies" are attacking anyone at all, let alone biting them. Perhaps we have nothing to fear but fear itself?
The Zombie Effect dangles this straw to its drowning characters, who clutch at it desperately while the lights go out and the living dead breach the barricades, swarming inside. It's an interesting twist on the material, but we're not sure it's an improvement. For one thing, it blunts the impact of the horror (one character rather conspicuously dies of mysterious "natural" causes instead of being bitten by the zombie targeting her). Also, previous versions of the play worked a different, more dramatically satisfying form of reversal: after all the arguments about whether or not the afflicted were zombies, just when the question seemed finally answered, our expectations were overthrown by a resurrection that should not have happened according to established zombie rules. This iconoclastic violation of genre conventions packed a startling wallop that cannot be matched by a last-minute "maybe it's this - or maybe not" plot gambit - even if that gambit leads to a wonderful closing line (the priest's cry of "Last Call!").
The Zombie Effect began life as a nod to Romero's cult film (see They're Not Zombies reviewed here). Though some of the references have been muted in this new version (the characters are no longer all named after actors in Night of the Living Dead), the connection remains strong, leaving The Zombie Effect feeling a bit dated despite the script revisions. (While arguing about the rules of cinematic zombies, Gantvoort's Karl and Jeremy Luke Cop name-check Romero and his film, but no one seems to have seen The Walking Dead or World War Z.)
Perhaps the new ending will work for first-time viewers. Regardless, The Zombie Effect's combination of black humor and spilled guts is riotous Halloween entertainment, and with two productions in two years, the play seems poised to become an annual Halloween event in Los Angeles. So pass the wine and play the Zombie Drinking Game (take a sip every time someone says the Z-Word). And check out that curtain call to the tune of "Thriller" - it's not every day you see zombies dancing in the aisles!
The Zombie Effect Rating
This third iteration of They’re Not Zombies features some interesting changes, but we prefer the original.
- Playwright – Leif Gantvoort
- Directed by – Leif Gantvoort and Jen Woldrich Pittman
- Produced by – Jeremy Luke, Leif Gantvoort and Eddie Alfano
- Set and Lighting Design – Leif Gantvoort
- Leif Gantvoort: Karl
- Jeremy Luke: Cop Guy
- Krizia Bajos: Stripper Chick
- Chauntal Lewis: Judith
- Ana Alexander: Ritch Bitch
- Eddie Alfano: Douchebag
- Brett Sheridan: The Priest
- Femi Longe: The Afflicted
- Danny Turco: The Afflicted
- Charles McCarthy
- Laura Seyffert
- Meghan McCabe
- Les Feltmate
- Niko Bonelli
- Rachel Bausch
The Zombie Effect runs through December 14, with performances at 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays; and at 7pm on Sundays. There will be a special “wet” Halloween Night performance at 10pm, featuring even more blood sprayed onto the audience (panchos are provided). The ACME Comedy Theatre is located at 5124 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood. Tickets are $20. Click here for the play’s Facebook page.