Fans of the seminal 1968 horror-film classic, Night of the Living Dead, will delight in Night of the Living Dead Live, a new theatrical production of the story. Despite a weak second act, it’s a fun black-and-white romp with some inventive deaths—and even a chipper musical number.
Nictophobia Films, which produces the play, gives executive-producer credits to three people who were involved with the original film. John A. Russo wrote the screenplay; Russ Streiner produced, and appeared in the film as “Johnny”; and George A. Romero, now a Toronto resident and Canadian citizen, is the famous director credited with creating the zombie genre. The stage show also boasts director and co-writer Christopher Bond, who created the hit Evil Dead: The Musical.
The first noteworthy aspect of Night of the Living Dead Live is the colour scheme. Lindsay Anne Black and Michelle Ramsey (set designer and lighting designer, respectively) have done a remarkable job of emulating a black-and-white environment on stage. This is driven home early when a corpse bonfire flares up, casting pale flames and shadows on the wall. The actors wear greyscale makeup.
Barbra (Gwynne Phillips) and her brother Tommy (Andrew Fleming) are visiting their mother’s grave when they’re attacked by an incoherent madman. Barbara escapes to a nearby farmhouse, where she’s soon joined by Ben (Darryl Hinds). Ben soon discovers other survivors in the house. There’s stubborn cellar dweller Harry Cooper (Mike “Nug” Nahrgang), eager-to-please teen Tom (Fleming again), and Dale Boyer in a pair of quick-change roles: shrewish Ms. Cooper and ditzy girlfriend Judy. With every actor slipping behind the farmhouse at one point or another to join the undead horde, it’s tough to keep track of the grasping arms and ominous forms. Co-writer Trevor Martin plays the most prominent zombie—and also the sheriff who arrives too late to save anyone.
Hinds and Nahrgang are the most invested in their iconic characters, but it’s co-writer Boyer who has the most fun as Judy and Helen, who are polar opposites. And every actor gets to meet his or her doom, eventually, with a modicum of gore. The first act ends with the satisfying slaughter of all the farmhouse refugees, and Martin’s sheriff hinting at more to come. (During the intermission, zombie volunteers roam around the theatre, eyeballing the audience.)
It’s in the second act, though, with nearly every decision made by the refugees examined and replayed, that the tribute begins to lose some steam. It’s a sensible idea: with everyone dying in the end, what could they have done differently to survive? But the repeats bear diminishing returns, with the possible exception of a version where the women (should have) saved the day, and a musical-number closer.
Though the sketch collection in the second half lacks the impact of the original story, fans of the film (and the zombie genre in general) will love the clever jokes about the film’s shortcomings, and the loving tribute to its impact more than four decades on. With an enthusiastic crowd, touches like the flashing “Bllarggh” sign and undead section in the balcony will enhance the experience.
Repeat customers will probably gravitate toward the late-night shows, or the shows with Romero in attendance on May 4 and 5. But any zombie-film fan is going to love the obvious passion, both onstage and off, for the shambling undead, and for the many ways of dying during a zombie apocalypse.
We reviewed this production during its first run, in the spring of 2013. The fall run is of the same production, featuring the same cast performing in the same venue.