BWW Review: Hat Trick Theatre's Scary and Entertaining NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at the Murray Theatre
"I don't think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they'd seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up--and you could actually see what they were eating...I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater last Saturday afternoon. I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt." --Roger Ebert, on his reaction to seeing the original 1968 movie, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, for the first time
"It would be fun to be able to dismiss [NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD] as undoubtedly the best movie ever made in Pittsburgh, but it also happens to be one of the most gruesomely terrifying movies ever made...The film's grainy, banal seriousness works for it--gives it a crude realism; even the flatness of the amateurish acting and the unfunny attempts at campy comedy add, somehow, to the horror--there's no art to transmute the ghoulishness." --Pauline Kael
It makes sense to return to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in our scary world of 2017. The original movie, released in 1968, seemed liked a reflection of a society gone mad, in a country truly divided. With the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the streets of Chicago turned into a battlefield at the Democratic National Convention, 1968 was considered the most turbulent year of the latter part of the 20th Century. Intentional or not, when the audiences of 1968 first watched NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, a stark black and white film about the risen dead feasting on the panicked living, they were shocked, of course, but they were also becoming desensitized by what was appearing on the evening news. It took zombies gnawing on a young couple, killed in a truck explosion (a sort of ghoulish bbq), to get them to react in horror. And because the MPAA rating was not yet in place, even young children got to experience the demented humans-as-smorgasbord gruesomeness (as indicated by Roger Ebert in his famous first reaction to the film).
And so here we are, stuck in 2017, an awful year. With the horrific slaughter in Las Vegas, the upheaval at Charlottesville, a nation once again divided and a world seemingly coming apart as I write this, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD seems kind of tame by comparison. We've not only been jaded by Romero's follow-up classic, Dawn of the Dead, or the walkers of The Walking Dead, but society seems to have grown crazier than anything the late, great George Romero conjured nearly 50 years ago.
A very entertaining stage version of this zombie-fest is being produced by the Hat Trick Theatre Company (located at the Murray Theatre in Ruth Eckerd Hall), and my first thought before seeing it onstage was: Is this completely necessary? Will it improve on the original film or at least give us new insight into the original's storyline?
After experiencing this production, I realized that those questions are unnecessary. This NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is less a remake than a celebration of the cult classic. And at times it's genuinely bone-chillingly scary. And funny. The plot is the same--a group of people are trapped in a dilapidated home while flesh-eating zombies swirl around them. But there is something about seeing this live that makes it extra special. Yes, we miss the original's grainy black and white starkness (which would be difficult to truly capture onstage), but we get the this-is-happening-now urgency, the true terror, that only live theatre can bring.
In the original, the lead, Ben, is played by a black actor, Duane Jones, and his ethnicity is never brought up, even though the bully, Harry, would definitely attack his race if he wanted. But the filmmakers were smart enough to let Jones' race speak for itself. (Even so, in an interesting side note, in some of the film's early runs, it appeared in a double-feature with the Dionne Warwick movie Slaves.) In the Hat Trick version, Ben is played by Nick Torres, and he does an excellent job of keeping it all together. He's more human than heroic. Frantic yet sturdy, his adrenaline obviously pumping, he's always in a manic, protect-everyone state. And he brilliantly holds the whole show together. We want him on our side, even though his argument (it's safer upstairs than in the house's cellar) is ultimately proven wrong.
Best of all is Emily Belvo as Barbara, out of her mind after witnessing her brother (the wonderful Jamie Jones in a small, but memorable role) being attacked by ghouls. She is always in a state of mournful paralysis, unable to get over the shock of it all, and when she finally does, it's too late. She's not as hilariously "out there" as the original Barbara (played by Judith O'Dea), who got lots of laughs when I first saw the movie at a midnight showing in 1981. But Belvo makes this version her own. And no local actress has eyes as expressive. She's the center of the show and, as always, does an admirable job. That said, in a spoiler alert aside, I would mention to her that zombies would not care about their hair in their faces and, thus, would not stroke their hair with their hands, even ever so briefly, but that's a very minor point.
As the young couple who wind up as human barbecue, Tom and Judy, Nick Hoop and Yvelisse Cedrez are effectively sweet as characters who are in way over their heads, whether they know it or not. I like seeing them in the cellar throughout, holding each other, so we understand Judy's unthinking (and fatal) run to help her husband in a time of crisis. I just wish Cedrez's costume matched the smart 60's outfit worn by Judith Ridley in the original.
As Harry the Ass, Maxx Janeda brings out humor that you didn't know was there. In the original movie, Karl Hardman had sort of a deadened presence, so cold-hearted and aggressively uncaring for anyone else, that we just wanted to see his comeuppance. There wasn't an ounce of comedy or anything near comedy there. Here, Janeda plays the part angrier, if that's possible, but he is also a master of comic timing, squeezing humor out of various long pauses. It's an uncomfortable joy to watch.
Jole Marsh as Helen brings out a sensitivity in the character that wasn't as present in the original. (The original Helen, the lovely Marilyn Eastman, was in the audience on the night I saw Hat Trick's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.) Marsh plays off Janeda's Harry well. Why she stays married to him, we haven't a clue; but isn't that true with so many marriages we see in real life?
Oscar Azul is too young as Chief McClellan; Shane Urso is appropriate as the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later Deputy; and David Barrow is fine in the small part of slick small town reporter Bill Bardough ("Bill Cardille" in the movie).
Beware that guns are fired throughout the production, oftentimes making the audience jolt out of their seats. It's like an NRA wet dream.
The zombies are scary here, not goofy. They pop out constantly, or wander in the darkness of a side stage. And they draw lots of blood. One of the more brutal blood spills received loud applause from the audience. Their make-up is suitable, but I wish they had more of the movie's (or its sequel's) humor, like a zombie still wearing a body tag or a Hare Krishna zombie. But that would probably take away from the dread here. But they and the blood effects are extraordinary (including edible intestines, thanks to Misty Hornsby's special FX make-up). Special mention must be paid to the walking dead in this production: Hannah Anton, Anna Robinson, Alathium Finchum, Trevor Rockwell Salmon, Iris Moon, Louisa Pastorius, and Angela Hudec.
Kristen Garza's set is quite good, rightfully grungy, and it serves the work well. Lighting is effective, sound spot on, especially the hissing of the outside zombies. The ominous music effectively adds to the horror, the horror.
My main qualm is with the Murray Theatre ushers letting late comers walk to their seats, almost interrupting the performance at crucial moments. The ushers should have had these tardy audience members wait for a black out, or a scene change, before unintentionally disrupting the morbid proceedings.
Kudos to the man at the helm of it all, Jack Holloway, who directed a truly frighteningly-fun experience and adapted the script (based on the original by George Romero and John Russo). And his fight choreography is out of this world wonderful. It may be my imagination, but in his burly beard, looking not unlike a Teddy Bear, does Holloway resemble George Romero in the 1970's?
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a 60-70 minute joy ride, and not once does it lose its beat. No, it doesn't exude greatness, nor does it want to. It wants to scare the bejeezus out of you, like an extended haunted house ride. You go to this expecting a ghoulishly good time; you don't come expecting the second coming of Henrik Ibsen. This is a fun-as-hell homage to the original, perfect for Halloween. And the horror continues the week after All Hallow's Eve (it closes November 5th). Just beware if you sit in one of the first rows...you may get splattered by rains of spurting blood!
For tickets, please call (727) 791-7400.