Against the sociopolitical tensions of the 1960s, zombies ate brains in George Romero’s 1968 film night of the living dead.
UTA Maverick Theater Company will present a modern theatrical interpretation of the film. The production runs at 7:30 p.m. October 5-8 at the Mainstage Theater in the Fine Arts Building, with a special late-night screening at 10 p.m. on the 7th. There will also be a matinee at 2 p.m. on October 9.
Gender-swapping characters, satirizing the original work, and incorporating a Tim Burton-esque color palette into the visuals are some of the ways the production is looking to adapt the film without being overwhelmed. move away from the original content.
Understanding the social context of the film will help shed light on its contextual significance.
The 1960s are widely considered a tumultuous time in US history, according to History.com. The decade was a time of intense political conflict, dealing with the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the War on Poverty and many other events majors.
It was in the midst of this haze of misfortune that Romero night of the living dead came out, becoming an apocalyptic cult classic.
While the movie didn’t invent zombies, it did transform them from the hypnotized drones of Victor Halperin’s movies into the cannibalistic undead we know and fear today. The choice marked the industry’s transition from classic horror to modern horror, according to the British Film Institute.
While the zombie has always been a blue-collared monster, portrayed in movies like white zombie, The Zombie Uprising and The plague of zombies as symbols of the exploited working class, Romero went a step further and turned them into carnivorous beings. This is often seen as symbolizing society devouring itself from within, according to the British Film Institute.
This theme resonated in the American consciousness in 1968 because the country was at a precarious moment in history.
In adapting the film to a play, there are choices Felicia Bertch, director of production and head of the performance program for the Bachelor of Fine Arts in the Department of Theater Arts, said she was made to stay faithful to the original part.
The film’s most direct take on it comes at the very beginning, where the exposition is delivered via black-and-white film.
The production incorporated a soundtrack to reproduce the underscore of the film. However, this music is one of the ways Bertch has modernized the content, as the underlining consistently draws from a techno-camp theme.
Another way Bertch modernizes the series is to portray strong female characters.
“The movie is definitely a product of its time and in my opinion when you watch it, the gender of the women in the whole movie seems pretty powerless. They don’t have a lot of agency or power to do what whatever, and they often cause problems,” Bertch said.
To represent the large female demographic at UTA, Bertch said her decision to gender-change some of the characters was the primary way she adapted the series for 2022.
Performance manager Alexandra Johnson, who plays the character of journalist Billy Bardot, said it was frustrating to see so many one-dimensional female leads.
“In this modern world, in this kind of situation, I don’t want to play like, ‘You’re just a stupid stereotype of a woman who doesn’t know how to help herself.’ I want to look at it through a lens of, ‘You are a capable human being and you could potentially survive this outbreak,’” Johnson said.
Lead and junior performance actress Nyla Hodges said she played a female version of the role of Ben.
Ben, originally a male lead, is a strong character whose only goal is to survive. Throughout the play, Ben’s morals are on display as he rushes to help others and criticizes those who act selfishly. An action-oriented character, Ben doesn’t tolerate nonsense and has a loving heart, Hodges said.
She said one of the biggest challenges for her as an actress was the amount of effort that went into her character. Not only is she on stage for most of the show, but she also has to border on a state of panic the entire time while remaining very active in her fight scenes and survival tactics.
Another aspect of the character that Hodges faces is the reality of race in the ’60s.
The film made a remarkable choice by casting a black man, Duane Jones, as one of the main protagonists. It was the first time a black actor had played a leading role in a horror film.
“I understand where I stand and what I stand for, and also how to relate that to my interaction with the characters,” Hodges said. “When they ask me about my character development, it’s not a challenge because I understand how people felt then because I feel it now.”
While race remains a pervasive factor in life, many aspects of the film that were prevalent upon release have faded. Now, when the audience watches it, the intentional fear has turned into laughter. This is one of the reasons why Bertch chose to amplify the absurd nature of their interpretation.
“Everyone in this production gets the chance to play a caricature of what they’re playing. So you get a masterclass in comedy and also how to build character and how to make it larger than life,” Johnson said.
Leaning into this satirical nature of their production, Bertch said his main goal was to let audiences relax and laugh about a pandemic.
With production originally slated for 2020, Bertch said she had a feeling it might not be received well amid a pandemic.
“We backtracked and said, ‘It won’t be in our season’, and I think that was wise. It wasn’t a good time to make fun of a pandemic, but I have the feel like we’re in such a different place now. I think we have to laugh,” she said.