Night of the Living Dead
Is this stage adaptation playing George Romero's zombies straight or for camp?
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., Oct. 31, 2008
Night of the Living Dead
Hyde Park Theatre, through Nov. 7
Running time: 1 hr
When I was a teenager, I got my first kiss watching Night of the Living Dead in a little theatre in Madison, Conn. I'm not sure what that says about me, but I think I know what it says about our culture. Of the hundreds of thousands of films made since Louis Le Prince shot the "Roundhay Garden Scene" in 1888, the National Film Registry has preserved fewer than 500, and Night of the Living Dead is among them.
Despite its claim to icon status, the film has somehow been allowed to fall out of copyright. That explains why you can watch it on the Internet in its entirety and why you can see this live version, faithfully adapted and directed by John Carroll, at Hyde Park Theatre. And while I'd like to recommend it for sentimental and even aesthetic reasons (it's really difficult to do zombie and not entertain, if only accidentally), I just can't.
Those of you with extensive zombie experience can feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that there are only two ways to do living-dead stories effectively: straight or camp. (I think you also can do them combining straight and camp.) What bothered and distracted me about this Weird City Theatre production was that I couldn't tell what style it was going for. The actors playing zombies (and kudos to them all; they are as fine a bunch of living dead as I've ever seen) seem to be playing it straight. Problem is, you can play zombie straight, and it still doesn't quite work in a live situation. Unless one of those staggering hunks of decaying flesh actually latches on to an audience member's throat and tears out some trachea, no one's going to believe it. Which seems to imply that you're better off playing zombie for camp, at least when you're playing it live. Some of the actors are most certainly going for camp – Jenni Bauer's Dr. Grimes is so over-the-top, she is in free fall. Others, though, seem to be going for straight, Patti Neff's Helen Cooper and Phillip Taylor's Ben being two of the more effective examples of this. And while the show may be going for the straight-camp combination, there isn't enough of either to make the distinction. This confusion of style – or, at the very least, lack of definite style – works against the production throughout.
The music, all of which seems to be from the original, works wonderfully (in a campy sort of way), and I cannot recall ever seeing such free use of blood and internal organs in a live situation (that worked in a straight sort of way). But I was never actually frightened, not even when the zombies invaded the audience, and I thought I should have been, at least once or twice. I did get some giggles, though, but I don't think they were intentional. Or maybe they were.
Which brings me back where I started: Was it straight? Was it camp? Does it matter? You can always see it and decide for yourself. Which is almost always the best choice.