By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Darn those neighborhood busybodies. Night of the Living Dead has returned for a Halloween season run at Dallas Children's Theater, and the zombies just won't take no for an answer. They're all over the porch of the farmhouse filled with terrified townsfolk, and they're not leaving till everyone's dead. And then undead.
Adapted by Lori Allen Ohm from George A. Romero and John Russo's classic 1968 low-budget horror film, the hour-long stage version slows to an almost meditative pace as the zombies (played by teen actors, many making their DCT debuts) close in on their prey. A germ from space has infected the dead with a craving for living flesh. Once bitten, a victim dies, only to come back to join the gang of walking cadavers playing "bone" appétit.
The play begins in a cemetery, where Barbara (Meridith Morton) and her brother Johnny (Matt Savins) are visiting their father's grave. Johnny's jumped by a gray-faced zombie (John Biggan) who rises from the attack with a bloody mouthful of Johnny's neck. Barbara escapes and makes it to the farmhouse, where the first thing she finds is a rotting corpse on the staircase. A man named Ben (Equity actor Darius Warren) takes refuge in the house too and tries to stave off the ravening hordes by hastily boarding up the joint.
But mere lumber is no match for the undeterred undead, who shuffle menacingly around the outside of the house on scenic designer Randel Wright's realistically detailed set. Their attacks on the vulnerable doors and windows are chiller-dillers. Nothing will keep the persistent beasts from barging in and turning every last living human into finger food.
In the production directed by Artie Olaisen and staged in DCT's smaller Studio Theater, it's all played in carefully measured doses of high camp and old-fashioned, edge-of-seat horror. Unhurried scenes build tickly suspense. Long stretches of silence are broken by the spooky step-shuffle-moans of the zombies and by the abstract screeches of Marco Salinas' eerie sound effects.
Trembling in the basement of the house are members of the Cooper family (Equity actors Karl Schaeffer and Trisha Miller Smith). Daughter Karen (Charlotte Showalter at the performance reviewed) lies ill, having been nibbled on earlier by one of the zombies. Friends Tom (Johnny Sequenzia) and Judy (Jennifer Middleton) cling to each other as they listen to the stomps and squeals of the mayhem going on upstairs.
When the cellar dwellers emerge, instead of joining forces with action man Ben and with Barbara, who's nearly catatonic and not much help, they argue with each other. Their failure at group dynamics leads to a brief and unsuccessful battle against the zombies.
Things move a mite slowly in Night of the Living Dead, but when it seems as if something needs to happen to shove the show along, it does. By the end, the audience is itching for that last big jolt. It comes, complete with fright-flick shrieks, erupting loudest from the thrill-seeking kids in the crowd (the show is part of DCT's young adult series, and because of the violence and gore, it's recommended for theatergoers age 12 and up).
Just as we get our breath, here comes another scare just for fun. When they get in your face, and they will, check out the zombies' terrific makeup by Tom Jaekels.
As a mythological figure, the zombie—a dead person who returns to exact revenge, often for their own murder—was mentioned as early as the Sumerian "Epic of Gilgamesh," the oldest known written story in any civilization. Legends in the Middle Ages told of haunting by restless souls. Norse mythology, Native American stories and centuries-old tales from India, the Pacific Islands and the Far East depict zombie-like creatures who return from the dead to devour the flesh of their victims.
American horror author H.P. Lovecraft wrote about them. Long before Romero, other filmmakers made movies about zombies related to African and Haitian voodoo rituals. Romero's first Night of the Living Dead spawned a slew of sequels and remakes. Among the most recent homages are the satirical horror comedies Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days... and 28 Weeks Later. The new ABC television series Pushing Daisies features a lead character with the power to reanimate corpses in order to solve murder cases.
Light on plot but dripping with the mood of the original movie, Night of the Living Dead onstage makes creative use of 3-D film sequences (cardboard glasses are provided) and authentic-sounding radio and TV transmissions of "news reports" about the zombies' nationwide murder spree. The black-and-white TV newscasts, shown on a movie screen in front of the stage, have that unpolished 1950s feel. Actors Steve Jones, Patrick Lynwood Henry and Shayne Brawner lighten the tension playing rural constabulary being interviewed by a twitchy reporter (Ken Teutsch).
It gets pretty Rocky Horror. Any minute, you think somebody's going to launch into the Time Warp. But a big part of the fun in DTC's Dead is that they play it with deadpan B-movie sincerity. As Barbara, Morton, doing a real Tippi Hedren turn, never drops her glazed look except when she's letting out one of those eeky horror film screams. In a strong performance by Warren, the Ben character becomes truly heroic. Trisha Miller Smith, in her pencil skirt and bouffant wig, is a Donna Reed on the brink of hysteria.