Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor

Zombie Attack In Leeds (Playhouse!)

Nowadays it may seem like a movie that is best left in 1968, but dismiss George Romero’s iconic horror flick – Night of the Living Dead - too quickly, and you ignore a ground-breaking film that was key to shifting the public psyche away from Hammer horror, where something terrifying had to have two bolts through its neck or a pair of blood-sucking fangs!

So, I was intrigued, and a little excited, at the prospect of seeing Imitating the Dog’s ‘Remix’ stage version of Romero’s work at Leeds Playhouse, not sure whether I would be laughing, terrified or something in between.

Fortunately, it was only the interval ice-cream prices that terrified me, for this brilliantly crafted production left me mesmerised, momentarily bored and also wondering ‘What’s the point?’…until the second half when it started to blossom as a belly-laugh spoof, and something to be enjoyed, albeit a little late.

In the original 60’s film ‘ghouls’ – or zombies – take over mid-America, leaving Ben (Morgan Bailey) and a group of other ‘survivors’ to take refuge in a deserted house, where they attempt to fend off and escape their flesh-eating assailants.

It was controversial in that the main protagonist, Ben, was black and the leading lady, white, – hugely sensitive in segregated America – and, through the use of cinematic naturalism, the movie left people wondering whether or not mum or dad had the potential to become man-eating monsters! It played serious mind games in the same way that The Blair Witch Project left a nation traumatised!

Last night’s production was, on the one hand, ‘brilliant’: top marks to those people who painstakingly worked their way through the original film, setting out to reproduce each frame of the movie as an unfolding on-stage drama. The technical complexity of that alone is to be applauded – cameras, set-models and effects in miniature.

But, at times, it needed Cyclops to wrestle with two contiguous video screens – one of the original movie and the other of the cast – in addition to the frenetic, rapidly-moving players just beneath the aerial mounted screens. The ‘live’ people – I choose my words carefully – moved into position throughout in order to re-create the original film frame by frame, but to what end?

Was this an exercise in technical brilliance alone? Was it designed to say, ‘how clever am I’? to exclusively entertain? or was it there to remind us that what happened in the late 60’s – Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s assassinations along with civil unrest – run a strong parallel with what is happening in society right now?

Probably a combination.

For me it was less about the performance and more about technical brilliance – although collectively, this was a clever, modestly entertaining ‘piece’.

As actors worked hard to re-produce original movie shots on stage – with exact glances, words and body movements – you could see their efforts were concentrated on being ‘exact’ which, at times, compromised their ability to really grapple with characterisation, although I loved Matt Prendergast’s hammy Mr Cooper.

As Act I closed, I heard one chap comment: “If the zombie ‘ad got ‘em they’d be eaten by now and I wouldn’t have to go back in.”

But, credit where it’s due, that’s a little harsh. As Act II got into its stride, I found myself laughing loudly as the cast started to up the ante and deliver a brand of hammy humour – certainly in keeping with the melodramatic original movie - leaving rows of people belly laughing, me included.

With a production that is so dependent on ‘the technicians’ this is a play that is fraught with danger, not only because of what could go wrong, but it will also leave you wondering just how safe you are as you return to your car……now that’s quite clever!

Night of the Living Dead Remix
Leeds Playhouse
Until 15th February