A winding road. Two bickering siblings in a cemetery. And a dark-suited, silver-haired zombie. The immortal opening minutes of the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead are unfolding onscreen at Leeds Playhouse. Meanwhile, scattered around the stage beneath, a small team work furiously, switching between the jobs of actor and camera operator. A second, adjacent screen above them reveals the results of their efforts to recreate, live and in real time, every shot in George Romero’s classic horror movie.
With more than 1,000 shots in Romero’s film, it’s clear that the company, imitating the dog, have their hands full with Night of the Living Dead – Remix. As the technical team watch from the stalls in this first week of full rehearsal, actor William James Holstead is playing the ill-fated Johnny, who is gnawed by a zombie in that opening graveyard scene. But Holstead soon shrugs off that role and wheels a camera around to capture footage projected through a live feed. Moments later, he’s abandoned the camera and is playing one of the flesh-eaters.
The actors take a break while some technical glitches are ironed out and Matt Prendergast paces the auditorium perfecting his Robert Kennedy impression. Kennedy’s speech announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 is part of a collage of news reports that will frame the familiar story of a group in a farmhouse facing down zombies. King’s relevance will be immediately obvious to anyone who has seen the original film, which is steeped in the racial tensions of the era and ends with the black hero, Ben (played by Duane Jones), being shot dead by a white man.
The film’s closing credits, featuring a series of close-up images of Ben’s dead body, are strikingly akin to photojournalism. Archive images and newsreel footage will be projected and abstracted on stage, and events from the Chicago riots to John F Kennedy’s assassination and the Vietnam war may all be referenced. This is similar to the company’s previous production, Heart of Darkness, which revisited both Joseph Conrad’s novella and Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, adding speeches by Patrice Lumumba and Franz Stangl to the mix.
Simon Wainwright, imitating the dog’s lead video designer, points out that Romero had only recently completed the film when King was killed. Director Andrew Quick explains that the film itself is “shot in that sort of quasi-documentary style – black and white, grainy, slightly amateurish. So you feel: ‘Are these real people? Are they actors?’”
Quick first saw Night of the Living Dead in a late-night horror double-bill at the Scala cinema in London. He was struck by “how much more of an art film it was, how much more complex than I imagined it would be. I’d seen other zombie films which were more conventional and schlockier.” Romero’s film would provide a new template for horror and inspire a new wave of American independent cinema. There is a parallel between Romero and his small band of outsiders, whose experimental, low-budget film held a mirror to modern society, and Wainwright and Quick’s own experiment, where the news references may be 50 years old but reverberate in our age of intolerance.
The starting point, however, was an altogether different horror film: Psycho. Wainwright explains that they played around with remaking the Hitchcock classic but couldn’t get the rights. Living Dead reared its head because of its unusual copyright situation. It was originally named Night of the Flesh Eaters but when the title was changed for distribution, the copyright notice in the film was mistakenly omitted. The movie ended up in the public domain. The production company behind the film, Image Ten, have authorised this stage version.
As part of his research, Quick interviewed Russ Streiner, the actor who played Johnny and was one of the original producers. Quick, who is co-directing the show with Pete Brooks, wants to steep the show in the film’s own production history. They are experimenting with meta techniques, such as actors reading out scholarly writings about the movie and offering behind-the-scenes stories, giving a strange parallel with the DVD commentary format. There’s a comic potential to these asides and Wainwright acknowledges the impulse to embrace the absurdity of the whole undertaking. There is an inherent wit, he says, in this Herculean task. “But we’re wary of pushing the humour too far.” Some scenes will be shot using model sets, with defaced Barbie dolls cast as zombies.
In rehearsals, they continue their discussions from the previous day about how to approach the scene in which Johnny’s sister, Barbara, slaps Ben and he punches her. Actor Morven Macbeth explains: “Duane Jones spoke to George Romero and Russ Streiner about the significance of a black man punching a white woman, [suggesting] that they hadn’t thought it through sufficiently.” It’s possible that this background detail will be shared with audiences in the final version.
Morgan Bailey is playing Ben and says he has to balance mimicking the performance of Jones, as seen on screen above him, while giving his own portrayal of the character. “There has to be an element of you mirroring the actor and the choices that were made in the movie. But at the same time, as a performer, you want to give your own personal stamp.” Macbeth acknowledges that, moment to moment on stage: “There is a lot to think about! In a conventional stage play you have to remember your lines, remember where you’re supposed to stand and your character’s arc in that scene. In this, you’re also thinking about your relationship to the camera, operating a camera, preparing for the next shot. You’re hearing the lines and the soundtrack in your ear.” It’s unlike any other acting gig, says Bailey. “What really threw me is the choreography – it’s more of a dance.” Everyone is striving to stay in sync and the original film acts as a sort of metronome for them.
Quick draws a contrast between the world on stage and what we see them create on the screen: “The actors have to move in very unnatural ways, to create a very natural moment on film.” Moreover, adds Wainwright, they need to make sure that the movements of the characters on stage are interesting in themselves, rather than just serving the purpose of capturing the film.
As they approach opening night and a five-week tour, Quick already has his mind on their next show, which will have a similarly sophisticated interweaving of storylines. It’s an adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover that will include the story of the trial and also explore issues around the enactment of sex on stage and screen in the #MeToo era. Quick says that the heart of his productions is found in this collision of multiple story strands and styles. He points from his seat in the stalls at the melee of cameras and actors: “It’s the relationship between those two screens and the vibrancy of the stage.”
The company is named after a painting by the American artist Eric Fischl. “A lot of our work has been about imitation,” explains Quick. “A lot of theatre is. You repeat and imitate what you do in rehearsal or the sources you’re looking at.” But the canine is key. “Dogs are out of control,” he says with a smile. “You can’t imitate a dog.”