Despite the unequivocal disclaimer inherent in its title, THEY'RE NOT ZOMBIES is definitely a zombie thriller, and that's a good thing.
As a genre, the apocalyptic zombie thriller just won't die - which is rather appropriate, when you consider the subject matter. There seems to be something intrinsic in the concept that gnaws at the base of the brain stem, sending disturbing shudders down the spine. Individually, Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman are far more interesting monsters, but the walking dead convey a mysterious kind of cumulative power. They seem to be an eternally elastic metaphor for almost anything you want to read into them: lacking distinctive personalities, they represent herd mentality and conformity; lacking intelligence, they represent human life reduced to its animal basics; lacking possessions, they represent communism; lacking a place in society, they represent the dispossessed and the repressed, taking their angry revenge on the living. And lacking souls, they present a troubling philosophical debate: in a secular age that believes all life - even human consciousness - can be explained in biological terms, how much difference is there between the living and the mindless undead?
The essential strategy when presenting this kind of highly charged metaphor is to avoid overanalysis - which might filter out some of the interesting ingredients. It's far better to present the material raw and messy - like a steaming pile of entrails freshly ripped from a victim's body - creating a sort of bloody Rorschach inkblot by way of Jackson Pollack. Give the audience a swirling miasma of grue, and they will likely glimpse many profound messages in its depths, whether intended or otherwise.
In this regard, THEY'RE NOT ZOMBIES is damn well near a total success. Writer-director Leif E. Gantvoort's play (which is making its world premier at a small theatre in Hollywood) takes the archetypal structure established by George A. Romero's 1968 classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and fills it with characters, dialogue and action that seem simultaneously fresh and familiar. There is even a touch of post-modernism in the conceit that at least one of the characters is familiar with the scripture laid down by Romero in his zombie films; the question is whether this knowledge is more help than hindrance.
The setting is a small building that is being remodeled into a church. A young couple takes shelter from (what we gather is) an inexplicable apocalyptic plague of people turning mindlessly homicidal. They get little help from the church's sole living occupant, a priest who has been dipping into the sacramental wine and who has a Biblical quotation for every occasion. Shortly thereafter, they are joined by a cop, a blonde in a red dress, and then a local stripper.
As in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the drama focuses at least as much on the internal conflict between the humans as on the external conflict with the zombies. Thrown together by awful circumstances, the individuals are incapable of setting aside their personal differences and forming a cohesive group capable of banding together to fight the ouside threat. The difference is that, whereas in NIGHT, the arguments hinged mostly on tactics (was it better to hide out in the cellar?), in THEY'RE NOT ZOMBIES the argument focuses on the nature of the attackers.
What are these things? Because of the cultural impact of Romero's films (and their many imitators), we are conditioned to think of the lurking menace outside the church as zombies, but only one character comes down squarely in favor of this interpretation. Others suggest they may be soldiers brain-washed by the Chinese or victims of some kind of biological terrorism attack. The sentence "They're not zombies!" crops up several times, but the evidence seems to contradict the assertion. And yet it is not altogether clear that these zombies (or whatever they are) conform to the rules of the living dead as we know them.
Unfortunately, these characters do not have a convenient television broadcasting news reports to clarify the issue; they have only a barely working radio that issues only intermitent and frustratingly unclear fragments. Only at the very end, when it is too late, does a clear message come through, undermining the assumptions of both the audience and the characters.
Here, Gantvoort seems to be trying to make some kind of more specific point, but it remains elusive. Reduced to its simplist interpretation, one might conclude the message to be "Don't believe everything you see in the movies" - hardly a profound insight. More charitably, the concept seems to be that, when faced with cataclysmic and/or unprecedented events, people seek to interpret them according to their pre-existing mental framework, whether or not the facts actually fit into that framework. One could almost read this as metaphor for the Bush administration's Iraqi misadventure (faced with non-state terrorism, George W. launched a war against a nation-state because the neo-con world view insists that serious national security threats must be state-sponsored), but the play hardly pushes the idea. Instead, it's thrown out like a last-minute ironic twist, lacking the punch of a real zinger - because it's not clear that, had the characters known the truth, things would have turned out any better.
This quibble aside, THEY'RE NOT ZOMBIES is fast and frentic entertainment. The play is essentially a comedy that milks humor from the incessant bickering of the characters (who are named after the actors from the Romero film). However, the laughs do not drown out the screams; the action does indeed deliver a bucketfull of bloody horror and suspense, with some great makeup and more than a few bloody special effects.
I have to admit that something about the play's promotional efforts (which included posting fliers during a flash mob "zombie walk") had led me to suspect that this would be a semi-professional production at best, one with a punk attitude that would rely on enthusiasm and crude energy to supplement genuine talent. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is the text of the play sharp and funny; the production is beautifully staged and acted.
The theatre holds approximately fifty patrons. It is arranged to look like a small church, with the seats on either side of the center aisle. The result is that the audience feels as if they are almost in the middle of the action, with doors on both their left and right sides, and Gantvoort's staging uses this to great advantage, directing our attention to a threat at one door, while another threat sneaks in at the opposite side of the stage. The result is that, although the zombies remain outside for most of the running time, their presence is always felt; their interminable knocking, augmented by occasional groans, maintains a lingering threat waiting for the climactic moment to break down the doors. When they finally do, I might have preferred that their numbers be slightly larger, but there were more than enough to overwhelm their hapless victims and - breaking the fouth wall - turn their sights on the audience as well.
George Romero is not the play's only cultural touchstone; there are also verbal references to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," which pay off in an amusing curtain call, with the entire cast dancing to the song, mimicking the choreography seen in the music video directed by John Landis.
Finally, I don't want to avoid mentioning the elephant in the room, so I should note that, less than five minutes away by car, an official stage adaptation of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is being performed at the Stella Adler Theatre. So far, I've only seen a dress rehearsal preview performance of this latter play (which I wrote about here), so comparisons are not really fair. However, based on what I've seen, THEY'RE NOT ZOMBIES seems to come out ahead, by virtue of its originality. Sure, Gantvoort borrows blatantly from Romero, but his clever writing injects some new life into the undead formulae. THEY'RE NOT ZOMBIES is not an embalmed classic that's been artificially re-animated; it's a new, worthwhile addition to a tradition that - as I said above - just won't die.
THEY'RE NOT ZOMBIES is presented by the Theatre East company at the Lex Theatre on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays until November 25*. Each performance starts at 8:00pm.
Location: Lex Theatre - 6760 Lexington Avenue, Hollywood, CA
Get more information at the plays's official website. Call (323) 975-5782 for to make reservatiosn and to confirm performance dates (which are subject to change).
- The play's run has been extended, with performances now scheduled for December 1, 2, 8, and 9.