Sharp. Witty. Thoughtful. Sign up for the Style Memo newsletter.
As you might imagine, there’s a lot of wide-eyed shrieking and dead-eyed haunting going on in director Lilli Hokama’s antic production, which gets right the movie’s paucity of sophisticated technique. An audience, though, must veer here into a tolerant lane for the sophomoric, not expecting a Freddy Krueger level of fright or performances evaluated on a Jamie Lee Curtis scale.
If you’re simply seeking an appreciative encounter with the primitive values of low-budget horror, “Night of the Living Dead Live” will be a diverting two hours, and a noteworthy flashback to when movies discovered that zombies mean money. (Produced for less than $120,000, “Night of the Living Dead” took in $30 million at the box office.)
An overhead screen with videos by Kylos Brannon is “Night of the Living Dead Live’s” one concession to technology, on a set by designer Frank Labovitz that approximates the ramshackle Pennsylvania farmhouse in which the “Living Dead” survivors barricade themselves. Zombies are running amok “in the eastern third of the nation,” killing and eating people: TV news reports say the cause may be radiation from outer space, or a secret government plot or some other figment of paranoiac imagination. Theories that, come to think of it, fit in generally with the current level of social media discourse.
The 10-member cast is led by James Stringer Jr. as Ben, a natural-born leader whose orders never seem to prevent zombies from wiping everyone out, and Mollie Greenberg as Barbra, a Barbie-esque ingenue who plants her feet, splays her fingers, and caterwauls on cue. A cute but clueless pair of young lovers, played by Ivan Carlo and Sydney Dionne, don’t grasp that opening the front door or standing with their backs to the windows are invitations to dinner for the undead, and a bickering married couple (Karina Hilleard and Erik Harrison) place a higher value on scoring bitter points than saving their own necks.
The production values run to the kinds of disembodied limbs and heads one finds amid the jack-o’-lanterns on front lawns this time of year, which is of course part of the fun with a lampoon like this. Only in a protracted second act do things grow a bit wearisome: the “movie” repeatedly rewinds, to spin out alternative madcap plots that incorporate contemporary political and social themes. “Ladies Versus the Living Dead” and “Shootout with the Living Dead” conjure feminism and gun control as backdrop issues. And then there is “The All American Living Dead,” which disapprovingly substitutes a Black hero with a White one. These attempts at broader commentary fall a bit flat.
Dionne is especially good as Judy. She intuits just when to shoot us the kind of look that tells us she knows we know what degree of zaniness this all is. Everyone onstage, though, plugs into a current of innocence that seems almost jauntily sentimental. That even goes for a monster played by Andrew Huff, who, in a moment of absolutely gratuitous pathos, reveals that all zombies really want is to be understood.
Night of the Living Dead Live, adapted from George A. Romero’s film by Christopher Bond, Dale Boyer and Trevor Martin. Created by Christopher Harrison and Phil Pattison. Directed by Lilli Hokama. Set, Frank Labovitz. Costumes, Julie Cray Leong. Sound, Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Lighting, Emma Smith. Video, Kylos Brannon. With Adrian Iglesias, Taylor Stevens, Andrew Quilpa. About 2 hours. Through Nov. 19 at 1020 Connecticut Ave. NW. rorschachtheatre.com.