Dean Street Brooklyn, Friday night. If you’ve been to Freddy’s Back Room in Prospect Heights you know it’s as easy to find as a trust-fund bohemian in Hipsterville. That doesn’t stop me from getting turned in the wrong direction every time I go, though I only live a mile or so away. Somehow it all looks different out the window of the bus.
If you haven’t been to Freddy’s, go quick, before developer Bruce Ratner tears it down and builds an unwanted urban-blight stadium in its place.
At the corner of Sixth Avenue there’s a congress of paleface ghouls on a cigarette break: this must be the place. It’s October, and Night of the Living Dead - The Musical is staggering around town for a few rare-scare seasonal shows. Near as I can tell the bulk of the run — or is it “stumble”? — is confined to the Greenwich Street Theatre as part of the Spotlight On Halloween Festival. How this show ended up in Freddy’s amiable cramped back room is a mystery for another divining. Number of things Freddy’s has in common with a theatre space = 1 (floor). It will be an adventure.
I opine over my drink that a musical version of this barrel-bottom bit of couture was pretty much inevitable from the word “Goargggh,” given infinite hominids in an infinite New York City (though the show first clawed to light in Detroit). Pierre tartly disagrees. “We’ve been perfectly fine without one for the last 40 years,” he sniffs. “I don’t see why we need one now.”
We’re both right. This is a howler of a show. You laugh with them, you laugh at them, you laugh at yourself for spending a perfectly good Friday night rubbernecking. And strictly speaking, it’s strictly unnecessary. Would I recommend Night of the Living Dead - The Musical? Absolutely. And you’ve been warned.
Things start properly enough, with Johnny and Barbara going to visit Mother’s grave, bickering over the radio as they drive. The classic line “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” is faithfully rendered, and right after this everything goes — forgive me — promptly to hell. If you do a low-budget live version of a low-budget cult flick, what do you get? You get the kind of night where the waitress asks you to move in the middle of Act I, because it has just occurred to everyone that your table is actually on the stage.
I thought that zombie was getting pretty close. (Trivia point: the word “zombie” does not appear in the dialogue for Night of the Living Dead.)
The live band (soon to be a dead band) chugs away at the songs, which run from second-generation Rocky Horror Lite to camp classic: preternaturally-thin Barbara scores early with the minor-key ballad “I’m Scared Shitless,” and follows up later with The Scream Song, which goes roughly like this: “EEEEEEEEEEE! EEEEEEEEEEE! Ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo. EEEEEEEEEEE! EEEEEEEEEEE!” and so forth. There’s a flash of bizarre genius when Barbara’s Dead Mother leaps up for a round of ballroom dancing with a Dead Gentleman Caller; the caller will eventually have a solo song with complex lyrics, all of which are “Arrrrrgh.”
Between the highs, Night of the Living Dead - The Musical crashes hard and often. Much of the rest feels like a straining excuse to dress cute girls in torn-up flaps of tatty costumes and drizzle them with streaks of blood and zombie mascara. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you. The cast varies in skillz and warez, as might be expected. (Trivia point: extras in the original film were paid a single cash buck for their trouble, and each one got an “I was a zombie in Night of the Living Dead” t-shirt … priceless.)
We can only hope that this show is a bit smoother in front of people who have actually paid for their tickets rather than drinking for them: late in the game tonight one character launches into a rant about American urban foolishness and girlie-men and porn on the B.I.G. HD-TV and an avalanche of like-clapping trap, after which he announces that he’s forgotten his lines, calls for the author, and explains to the meagre house that he doesn’t usually play this part. In true form, the author is off getting a drink or having a pee, or slitting his wrists. The actors shrug, and move on.
At its very worst, Night of the Living Dead - The Musical dabbles in lazy politics, which truly have no business here; while the Builders post fair notice (“WARNING: Those offended by political and religious stereotypes WILL BE EATEN FIRST”), attempts to squeeze 9/11 symbolism, Falwellesque ramblings and election-year posturing into the proceedings are jarring, misguided, badly done and incoherent. It appears that Kerry has the undead vote pretty well tied up, if you wondered.
As Act I bellies in for an emergency landing, the zombies tackle the willing band, dragging them into the street for an animated-corpse makeover. They play dead (haw haw) for the rest of the night. For a finale, after gun-totin’ bikini-fu action, buxom angelic intervention, and a pile-up of corpses worthy of Hamlet, the cast shambles toward the audience, moaning. There isn’t much room. After a few steps, Barbara’s Dead Mother shrugs and clasps my shoulders, leaning down over me as the music dies out. As zombie girls go, she is dead foxy under her grandma wig, and her face lingers toward mine.
She smells lovely.
Previously Peppered at Freddy’s:
Know Your Zombie Lore: Night of the Living Dead is the Ur-movie of the zombie genre. There are two original sequels, and two of the three originals have been remade (so far) with greater or lesser success. Creator George Romero is now working on the fourth film of the trilogy. The 1968 original was shot on a $114,000 shoestring budget in a donated house that was about to be demolished. It famously starred a black leading man and a white leading woman in a period of deep racial conflict. Ironically, Romero was far ahead of his time: he cast Duane Jones not because of his skin color, but because he did the strongest audition. The part of Ben was softened from its original coarse trucker tone to take account (and advantage) of Jones’s sympathetic intelligence and poise.
Because of a titling error on the original masters, the 1968 Night of the Living Dead is now in the public domain. The movie can be legally downloaded for free, and one group of wags has re-recorded the soundtrack to the film, creating a parody called Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh-eating, Hellbound, Crawling, Zombified, Living Dead: Part II (In Shocking 2-D). I haven’t seen it, but in this version (which is said to be pretty scattered) it transpires that the reason they’re all so desperate to get out of the house is that they really, really, really want to get some pizza.
There are many versions of the film available on DVD, and most of these are dismissed as low-quality crap. The two you are looking for are the Special Collector’s Edition or the Millennium Edition, both from Elite Entertainment, which are transfers from the original negative and have commentary by cast and crew including Romero himself. The edition to avoid at all costs, they tell me, is the Anchor Bay release, which adds 15 minutes of scenes shot in the ’90s. Anchor Bay has done excellent work with other films, so I assume they thought they’d try something different here and ended up with a whoops.
On December 5, 1968, The New York Times ran the following backhanded review by Vincent Canby, who really should have known better. Canby does not even deign to mention director George Romero by name. In its entirety:
Night of the Living Dead is a grainy little movie acted by what appear to be nonprofessional actors, who are besieged in a farm house by some other nonprofessional actors who stagger around, stiff-legged, pretending to be flesh-eating ghouls.
The dialogue and background music sound hollow, as if they had been recorded in an empty swimming pool, and the wobbly camera seems to have a fetishist’s interest in hands, clutched, wrung, scratched, severed, and finally — in the ultimate assumption — eaten like pizza.
The movie, which was made by some people in Pittsburgh, opened yesterday at the New Amsterdam Theater on 42d Street and at other theaters around town.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (MOVIE)
With: Judith O’Dea (Barbara), Russell Streiner (Johnny), Duane Jones (Ben), Karl Hardman (Harry Cooper), Keith Wayne (Tom), Judith Ridley (Judy), and Marilyn Eastman (Helen Cooper).
Links of the Living Dead:
- The official George Romero web site
- The IMDb roundup on Night of the Living Dead is full of filming information and trivia
- Night of the Living Dead, in depth and to the point in the Wikipedia
- Home Page of the Dead, your source for all things Zomboid (avec des scary music)
- House of Horrors, a loving fan resource for Night of the Living Dead
- Kyra Schon, who played young Karen Cooper (the Sickly Little Girl in the Cellar Who Comes to the Predictably Bad End), runs a chipper first-person Night of the Living Dead site called Ghoul Next Door
- Much as I love The Zombies, they don’t belong in this post.