Thursday, October 23, 2008
Why do we enjoy this stuff so much?
A brother and sister arrive at an isolated cemetery to leave a wreath on their father’s grave. He scoffs and complains. She reproaches his irreverence. He recalls the childhood fright he gave her, long ago, in this same place, and intones in sepulchral cadence, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”
And by gosh, they are. That figure, tottering across the grass and between the headstones, attacks them. Barbara flees. She takes refuge in an isolated house.
And suddenly the world has gone mad. Barbara goes into near catatonic shock. Others who took refuge in the house tell of other horrible, lurching attackers. Radio, television, and civil defense newscasts inform us that the recently dead are coming back to life, and “the mayors of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Miami are calling out the National Guard.”
Uh, oh. We’ve got a bad feeling about this. . . .
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a 95-minute black and white horror creepy produced in 1968. It cost only $114,000 to produce but made $12 million in the United States and $30 million overseas. It caused a sensation. Pauline Kael of the New York Times called it "one of the most gruesomely terrifying movies ever made — and when you leave the theatre you may wish you could forget the whole horrible experience . . . . The film's grainy, banal seriousness works for it — gives it a crude realism".
The film’s distributor failed to include the frames asserting copyright, and Night of the Living Dead lapsed into public domain. The advantage to you is that now you can watch the whole thing on-line from any of several sources, including Google Video. And the concept, script and characters are available to anyone who wants to – well – revive them.
John Carroll (left) and the Weird City Theatre Company have done just that. I haven’t seen the whole film, but judging from the first ten minutes, viewed on YouTube, much of the adaptation uses the movie lines verbatim.
Carroll applied his ingenuity to shaping the script so that except for the initial cemetery scene it fits mostly into the claustrophobic confines of that ramshackle, deserted frame house. He and the other 15 actors in the cast set up this absurd, unexplained situation, make us believe in it, and scare the crap out of us.
Okay, the script is weak. What do you expect? When the zombies are coming after you, who ya gonna call?
How are you going to keep up the interest of the audience for the one-hour duration of this impossible slide into hell? Phillip Taylor as Ben (left), the focused, organized, compassionate leader of the trapped humans, does everything he rationally can. Identify transportation. Nail boards across the windows and door. Fight ‘em off with weapons and fire – the undead don’t have much muscle tone. Argue with the rest of the trapped team, try to exert some leadership. Figure out where to find help.
But since when has rational behavior overcome the inexplicable forces of Evil?
Action in that house plays out in the semi-darkness that mirrors the state of the world. Weird City uses sound to impressive effect, scoring much of the action to spooky, surging music and winding in radio broadcasts as apocalyptic and threatening as those of Orson Welles in 1938. Zombie attacks are hair-raising, colorful and well choreographed. Ohmigosh, look, there’s one that used to be a nurse! There’s many a shot in the night, especially when John Smith as Chief McClellan leads his vigilantes against the bad ghouls (“Just shoot ‘em in the brain, that’s all you need to do. Then pile ‘em up and burn ‘em.”)
You just know it’s going to end badly. But on the way there, there are some fine moments. Sarah Griffin (right) and her portrayal of Barbara’s hysteria and then her shock; snarling face-offs between Ben (Phillips) and Harry Cooper (Kevin Gouldthorpe, right, above); and the appalling conversion of the delicate, injured young Kevin (Nick Orzech). And, particularly, John Smith’s all-business Chief McClellan as he’s interviewed by field news anchor Nicholas Kier. (Click here for Weird City’s video of that exchange, shot in the much less oppressive out-of-doors).
But back to that question: why do we enjoy this stuff so much?
Night of the Living Dead is a 20th century reprise of one of the oldest of Western dramatic art forms – the medieval mystery play.
These are stock characters. Cynical Johnny mocks Barbara as she prays at their father’s grave; he deserves his violent and horrible comeuppance, both in the opening minutes and again, at the very end. Ben the leader thinks that logic and preparation can overcome furies; his demise, in a vividly cinematic moment, belies that belief. Cold-bloodedly efficient Chief McClellan supposes that he has the Answer but finds out otherwise. And media representatives deliver the News and offer counsel about Security, but they cannot provide Salvation.
Sin begets punishment; ignorance brings death; and arrogance brings terrible retribution.
One could quote the central character of “Le Miracle de Théophile,” written by Rutebeuf in France in 1261:
"Filthy I am; I must go to filth beneath.
In filthiness I’ve lived; God must know –
He lives forever. My dying will be slow,
Poisoned by the bite of devils’ teeth.”
The difference, however, is that back in the thirteenth century Théophile could hope. His humble repentance on the boards attracted the attention of the Blessed Virgin, who vividly trampled the Devil underfoot, certainly to the delight of spectators.
We face, still today, the puzzle of Evil and the fears of Death. We try to exorcise them by entertainments and distractions. Halloween celebrations among them.
This production of Night of the Living Dead doesn’t have to carry such a theological load, of course. We can enjoy it for its own production values and for the healthy scare it gives us.
But at the last moment those zombies do turn around and start for us, don’t they?
Barry Pineo's review in the Austin Chronicle, October 30
Weird City Theatre Company website -- with link to cast bios and link to audio of the scary radio broadcast script (open the "Tickets" page)
Hannah Kenah's pre-production piece with interview of director/producer John Carrol, Austin Chronicle of October 24
Weird City promo on YouTube for NOTLD
First ten minutes of NOTLD film, 1968
1968 trailer on YouTube (1:37)
3 Flickr sets for NOTLD rehearsals and prep, containing
31 images, 80 photos and 8 videos, and 115 photos and 8 videos
Video: NY Times Critics' Picks: A.O. Scott on 1968 NOTLD, published October 28 (2:31)
extensive article on NOTLD on Wikipedia
NOTLD on Internet Movie Database
full streaming video of NOTLD on Google Video, 95 min.