They’re coming for you, Barbara

Night of the Living Dead, Live at Dayton Playhouse

by Tammy Newsom

Photo: [l – r] Jared Mola (red shirt), Christina Lewis, Eric Specht (background), Noah Shane (in hoodie, hidden), Max Santucci (brown shirt, back to camera), Courtney Carmichael, Jill Lynott (purple shirt), Marcus L. Simmons II (with hand to mouth) and Adam Clevenger (green jacket) prepare during a rehearsal; photo: Andrew Thompson

 

They’re back!

The similarity in plot and themes in zombie pictures is of a disquieting comfort. Homicidal and rotting corpses are radiated, mutated or reanimated into flesh-eating monsters. These rapacious killers hunt down and eat their human prey until the survivors, forced to hide out in order to avoid being infected, rush out to kill the zombies by shooting them in the head, blasting them with a grenade or lighting them on fire. We love a good zombie film.
Believe it or not, 50 years into the genre, filmmakers have not improved or strayed from the formula. And this formula has proven to be successful. AMC’s The Walking Dead series is in its fifth season. There is the Evil Dead franchise; “28 Days Later” and “I Am Legend” – all of which are memorable examples of the monumental staying power of the living dead.
In a recently published interview, George A. Romero, creator of the first zombie film ever made, “Night of the Living Dead,” was asked if zombies will ever go out of style. “Not in my book!” he said. Fortunately for us, the undead keep coming back. “Night of the Living Dead,” the godfather of all zombie films, has been rebooted as a stage play, a 1960’s themed, black and white tribute to the creator of the genre, in “Night of the Living Dead, LIVE.”
Stepping off the success of “Evil Dead: the Musical,” Romero’s U.S. stage premiere of “Night of the Living Dead, LIVE” opens Friday, Oct. 31 at the Dayton Playhouse. The play, set in 1968, which is the year the film was produced, is an adaptation of the cult classic that has already been produced twice in Canada and has won five awards at the 2013 Broadway World Toronto Awards, including Best Play.
“Audiences will enjoy some of the cult references,” said Director Geoff Burkman.
The stage play opens with the closing scene of the film. Police Officer Vince shoots Ben, the only survivor of a nightlong standoff against a strain of zombies attacking and killing people in rural Pennsylvania. In a particularly harsh and unconventional ending for our hero, Ben, the only human captive to survive a grisly night of zombie hunting, is callously shot through the head and thrown atop a funeral pyre with the rest of the walking dead.
“Good shot,” exclaims Chief McClelland. “Well, that’s another one for the fire.”
The play’s second scene flashes back to the film’s opening at the graveyard between bickering, odd-couple siblings, Barbara and Johnny. Johnny’s flippant attitude plays well opposite his bouffant-haired sister Barbara, who is compared to a bowl of skim milk. The siblings had driven three hours to put a wreath on their father’s grave. Barbara scolds Johnny for being jumpy after he hides among the stones and scares her. His request for candy from her is denied and this becomes a recurrent theme later on in the play. “They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” Johnny says to her. “They’re coming to get you.” Pointing to a stiff man lumbering towards them from among the gravestones, he says, “Look, there’s one of them now!”
It turns out Johnny is right. The stiff is no man; it’s a zombie. Barbara is attacked by the creeper and Johnny is killed coming to her rescue. She barely makes it out alive, fleeing from her attacker and two other joiners into a neighboring farmhouse. And that is where we meet the hero Ben, who roars up in a truck that has just run out of gas. Ben makes it inside the farmhouse with Barbara, while the zombies destroy the truck – the humans’ only means of escape.
But Ben is a zombie survivor with plan. He knows just what to do to kill all the zombies and rallies the other living survivors he discovers hiding out in the basement. He single-handedly consoles Barbara, boards up the windows and doors, searches out a stockpile of shotguns and wisecracks with the pugnacious five-some hiding in the basement.
“That cellar’s a death trap!” he famously exclaims.
We learn from a radio broadcast a little later that the cause of the zombie outbreak is radiation that leaked from a controlled NASA explosion of a satellite orbiting Venus. This plot point, brought up in both the play and the film, does not give the characters enough information in time to survive. However, survival wasn’t the point of Romero’s film. The zombie mutations and killings are a commentary about the unraveling of the characters’ world.
“I always used the zombie as a character for satire or a political criticism and I find that is what is missing now [in zombie films],” said George A. Romero in a recent online interview. “[Shows like The Walking Dead are] just a soap opera with a zombie occasionally [thrown in].”

More brains…
In 1968, at the time “Night of the Living Dead” was produced, the country was in social and political upheaval. The Vietnam War raged on. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. We saw the collapse of the nuclear family and an increase in the divorce rate. Romero’s film included some of the elements that now represent its genre: the resourceful hero, the silly femme fatale, the defunct nuclear family and the racist police chief and his posse.
“In the opening scene, we hear creepy noises, a helicopter overhead,” Burkman said. “We hear guns and a man in the background. Ben comes out of the basement and all of a sudden is shot right in the head. Everybody goes, ‘Oh my God!’”
How does the play differ from the film? The play’s sheriff, Chief McClelland, changes the story throughout the second act, with a series of what-ifs to replay the story with different outcomes. Several alternative endings and gags are added to the play to augment the film’s subtle humor. The play starts to become more absurd as it diverges from the film.
“We’re going to just go further than the movie did,” Burkman said. “For example, we see one of the main characters being killed and disemboweled, and over the wall comes her head and spine, which have been completely torn out of her body!
“The end of the play closes with a big song and dance number. Then the characters all die,” he added.
Burkman did elaborate on some of the story’s second act. Barbara loses her grip on reality, becoming almost a zombie herself – dead through osmosis. Chief McClelland introduces some humorous “what-ifs” into the script during Act II, but the play and the film’s ultimate tragedy is that everyone dies.
Burkman said the play faithfully recapitulates the entire film in the first act. The script calls for humorous bits and pieces thrown in to set up for the nouveau second act. “The perfect gag is the Johnny and Barbara bit,” Burkman said. “‘Any candy?’ he asks. She says, ‘No!’ Then she pulls a piece out when his back turned.” Another gag, Burkman said, emphasizes the film’s racism theme. “Ben shows up with his shotgun and character Harry pulls out his wallet and hands it to Ben.
“Like, ‘Oh, he’s a black guy; he’s going to rob me,’” Burkman said. “This sets up audiences for Act II,” he said. “Then stuff gets real silly.”
Burkman said there are other surprises during the what-if scenes. “The sheriff asks, ‘What if they are all really well-armed?’ Barb enters the stage carrying a grenade, drops it and … OOPS! Blackout. Back to another take,” he said.
At one point, Chief McClelland comes out and pans to the audience, “What if Ben was a white man? Then Sheriff and Ben have switched places. New White Ben is doing a John Wayne/Randolph Scott kind of characterization.”
Marcus L. Simmons II, who was cast as Ben, said his favorite scene is one in which Black Ben changes places with White Ben and becomes the Police Chief. Simmons, who had just completed work on “45 Seconds from Broadway,” said he likes to develop a backstory when creating a character. This extra from the script allowed that.
“A good backstory builds a better illusion in my mind,” Simmons said. “Ben’s been through hell trying to survive. He meets Barbara and he’s got to save himself and everybody else, and he is still in survival mode,” he said. Simmons indicated he is playing it straight even with all this silly business going on. He said the cast and crew worked together to capture the mood of the film and let the script speak for itself.
The entire stage production, costumes, set pieces and lighting will be done in black and white. Eric Specht, Props Master, is busy fabricating zombie parts to be eaten and thrown across the stage. Cast members and costumers are preparing dual roles for the “Enzomble cast,” the unnamed zombie characters, and will be expected to execute several 10-second costume changes.
Burkman assured us he got something special out of the cast and crew during auditions. Before anyone was cast, he asked the actors to line up at the audition and scream. “I wanted people who were willing to go as far as we needed to go for this production,” he said. Like the script, a few pleasant surprises came out during rehearsal.
Maxamillian Santucci, lanky, double-jointed Zombie 1 from the graveyard scene is in his element. His body has the full scope of zombie movement. Jared Mola nails Johnny in the grave scene as a beatnik Boris Karloff.
The making of this production wasn’t a random occurrence. Burkman once traveled to Pennsylvania with a friend to play a zombie in Romero’s 1984 cult hit sequel “Day of the Dead.” More recently, he found the play online. Having had two encounters with Romero’s work, he knew this was no accident. “I knew this would be a wonderful thing to do,” he said.
“The play is a loving homage to the film, under the realization we’re cramming a one and half hour movie into one act,” Burkman said. Marcus L. Simmons II added, “For anybody who enjoys zombie movies, there is no way that you wouldn’t like it.”

Cast: Marcus L. Simmons II as Ben; Jill Lynott as Barbara; Jared Mola as Tom; Adam Clevenger as Chief McClelland; Noah Shane as Harry; Christina Lewis as Helen; and William Boatright Jr., Alex Chilton, Matthew Clifton, Tamar Fishbein, Maxamillian Santucci, Eric Specht and Lauren Stubbs as the Enzomble™

The cast, crew, and board members of the Dayton Playhouse are volunteers.

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, LIVE will premier in the U.S. at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 31 – Nov. 9. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinées are at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18 for adults and $16 for seniors and students. For more information, please visit daytonplayhouse.com.

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