Exactly a week before Night of The Living Dead RMX opened, I interviewed Artistic Director Andrew Quick and Co-director Pete Brook, co-directors for the live remix of the classic 1968 horror film.
Imitating the dog (ITD) is a touring theatre company whose work has been enjoyed worldwide. The company adapts novels and films into theatre by using stage and digital technology, focusing on telling stories with important messages. Their team of creative directors includes Andrew Quick, Pete Brook and Simon Wainwright.
NOTE: If you’re not familiar with the story and you intend to see the performance, you may wish to read this afterwards!
As a filmmaking graduate, I am familiar with this film as one of the cult classics. What made you guys want to make this adaptation?
Pete I don’t think the film is a particularly good one; but the making of the film, the art itself, is so strong. It shows us a house of people tearing themselves apart, and not by the monsters outside. A clear metaphor is used.
Andrew The film was made by a group of friends. Despite a small budget it’s a work of art. They shot it like a home movie. That unit gave us hope with telling the story.
Pete This is a classic example of art disappearing, like the novel by Cormac McGarthy, one of the most bleak novels ever written, but beautifully written. I like that. The film is sad.
Pete But there’s beauty in the fact they all die.
The characters tell the stories of several people who wouldn’t necessarily mix, forced together in a life and death situation. And it’s a devastating end for them all. What attracts you to that scenario?
Andrew It has a very Greek story to it.
Pete The brother eats his sister at the very end when he comes back as a zombie. The daughter brutally kills her mother. Then there’s the table that centres as the family unit. It gets smashed up and used at the end of the film. It Is a Greek tragedy in a way, especially when they eat each other!
Talking of characters I don’t like any of them apart from Ben. I find Barbara’s character particularly annoying.
Andrew The female characters in the film were not greatly represented unfortunately.The film is a critique of patriarchy.
Pete I think Romero was embarrassed about that, possibly why he remade the film in 1990. Barbara survives in that one.
Pete We’re talking about the roles of women and you start to unpick it all. It’s of course what we began to do in the remake. So for us it’s an already existing text that we had to stick to so we couldn’t change anything.
Andrew We did try, Like Pete said, little interventions here and there but they didn’t really work so we stuck absolutely to the film as it is, including even those shots at the end. The rhythm of the film, the editing of the film is exactly the same.
So at the end of the film when the policemen and the rednecks are congregating outside the house and it pauses on the action?
Pete That runs on a screen but we don’t do it like that, yet we’re not changing it. You still see the original; just on stage it’s slightly different.
Robyn I’d like Ben to have survived.
Andrew Of course you would, but that’s the tragedy of the movie.
Robyn Yes, and that’s good. He can’t survive, really.
How difficult has it been recreating the film on stage? Like setting the car on fire?
Andrew We bring the film world to the theatre world. When you see the stage pitch, the marginal film runs on our screen and the adjacent screen runs along side it shot in real time. Metronome. For the car scene we use a toy car and a small set.
I love that the film is black and white. Have you tried to recreate that?
Andrew Yeah, the stage is colour, but it’s filmed in black and white.
So you film it with cameras actually on the stage?
Pete All this is happening on stage with four live cameras.
Ideally, what would you want your audience to take away from the show?
Pete we want the audience to enjoy themselves, but the show cuts with footage of the big deaths of the 60’s – Two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, in a way because of the shadow that hangs over the time when the film was made.
Andrew The film doesn’t get made in a vacuum – it went to the printers the day Martin Luther King was shot. The show starts with the death of John Kennedy, then Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy who were all killed in the the late 60’s. It finishes with Martin Luther King’s speech. We are asking the audience to understand the deep below the surface of most popular culture that is in any way serious and you can see political meanings.
Pete They are there; it’s not us making it up. We’ve talked a lot to Russ Streiner, producer of Night of The Living Dead. He acted in the movie too, playing Johnny in the movie. The rights situation is complex because you don’t need rights. We are paying them some money and we’re treating it as if they do have the rights but legally they don’t, so that’s created quite a good relationship with them.
In the 1960s it was rare to have a black male lead like Ben. I was really shocked that they had him slap Barbara in the face when she attacked him.
Pete They’ve given us lots of insight into what went on. The’re not stupid – they knew when they cast a black man as the lead role that they’re not going to play it in certain states.
Andrew When he ‘slaps’ Barbara he actually punches her.
How did they get away with that?
Pete The actor Duane Jones who played Ben had an argument with Romero. He didn’t want to do it. One of the reasons that’s in there was when they cast him, the original version of his character was a white trucker.
Oh, so he didn’t write the character for a black man?
Pete They started to re-write the script during the filming process and some things stayed and some didn’t.
Andrew An educated black protagonist rather than a redneck white man punches a white woman. It was controversial, but we’ve kept it in. We did have a moment when we should cut now and the actor playing Ben turns to the camera and says well Duaine didn’t want to hit the woman playing Barbara either. But it didn’t work for us.
(Pete had to leave but invited me to come and watch rehearsals after I finished up the interview with Andrew.)
Why this film? I know you say you’re making a statement about the people in England and America tearing each other apart.
Andrew Yes, it’s about the world, really. How do you solve the global problems that we’re facing, whether economic or ecological? An obvious answer is for you and me to work together, and the counter-argument I suppose to that is brutal capitalism is individual economic pursuit and technology might solve the problems, but there’s not much hope for that. We’re not overtly political, really, but I suppose coming back to why this movie, the movie is a great story. It’s a good story, it’s a classic sort of horror story in the genre, people trapped in the house, whether it be zombies, vampires, haunted ghosts, it goes back to a very old-fashioned storytelling thing, people in a place being attacked, what you think from the outside is really from the inside where the real problems are. The problems are us, not the monsters.
Andrew I think also the way the film is shot, it’s very clever, almost documentary, really well constructed and has a great rhythm.
Did you watch the film as a child or as an adult?
Andrew My brother is a bit of a horror fan and sat me down to watch it. I realised it’s more of an art film really than a conventional horror film.
They don’t use the word zombie in it at all, do they?
Andrew They are ghouls, flesh-eating ghouls. That was one of the first zombie films. There was a zombie film set in Haiti in the 1930s/40s but this was the first real zombie film as we know them.
Now, it has a world obsession, because at uni 90 per cent of students are writing scripts about zombies. But it’s not really about zombies.
Andrew Romero is very interesting, because his following films explore the same themes.
It’s a cult film. Are you worried about the cult fans disliking anything?
Andrew I’m really hoping they’ll like it because it’s so faithful to the original. In a sense we’re not really taking the mickey out of it or camping it up or turning it into some sort of theatrical gorefest. It’s not about that, it’s about going to the heart of the original to find what new meanings for us might circulate. So I think if they know the film and know the lines and the shots…. (Robyn – I think they’ll love it) it’s about bringing the dead body of a film back to life – it feels appropriate, really.
We wrapped up the interview at that. Andrew walked me through backstage where I saw the toy cars and tiny set imitating the opening graveyard scene. Where the famous Johnny quote sits ‘’They’re coming to get you, Barbara.’’ They had thought of everything. I can’t explain my excitement at being allowed into rehearsals, the most mysterious space of any art production. Close to the car scene, a group of questionable Barbie dolls positioned intentionally but probably not part of the show, were set up. I swallowed my laugh.
Even though I knew in just a week the actors would be performing in front of hundreds of people, my presence felt intrusive in their space. I tried to hide in the shadows. I could have stayed there all day watching Pete coordinate, with great patience, several sequences on stage. A camera crew was filming the actor playing Ben rehearsing his lines on some steps in the middle of the stage, while the movie was playing behind him. Martin Luther King’s speech was playing out loud. Actors at both sides of the steps read out their lines. So much was happening. It was mesmerizing, but so distracting for me. I needed to take pictures so I slowly made my way closer to the stage, wishing I was invisible but in reality an obvious paparazzi moment.
My instinct from watching some of the rehearsals and conversing with Pete and Andrew is that The Night of The Living Dead is not going to disappoint. Cult fans should only respect how imitating the dog has managed to remix to the 1960’s film, re-enacting the film shot by shot without changing it.
The low budget classic film changed horror movies forever. Night of the Living Dead was filmed at a time when America was collapsing, when the world was falling apart. Its remake today is to help us as a society understand the past and compare it with our own complex times, which in my heart opens an innate truth of my familiarization with the story.
Night of the Living Dead is at Leeds Playhouse until 15 February.
Feature photograph is of Andrew Quick by Ed Waring. All photographs are of Night of The Living Dead Remix in rehearsal.