Stage adaptations of Night of the Living Deadaren't unusual; in the past few years, audiences from Gainesville, Florida, to San Francisco have packed theaters to watch George Romero's 1968 cult classic, widely acknowledged by those who fancy themselves experts as the first genuinely modern horror flick.
Based on the sold-out, rapturous audience that devoured the Maverick Theater's reprisal of its 2006 hit production last Friday night, it's a slam-dunk of an idea. Much like the built-in audience for the other half of the Maverick's Halloween "sci-fi double feature," The Rocky Horror Show, there's no shortage of people enamored with this film. The audience ate it up as ravenously as the flesh-eating monsters terrorizing a band of refuge-seeking strangers.
Director and adaptor Brian Newell treats the story much like Romero and his crew did: absolutely seriously. Campiness and tongue-in-cheek irony are absent in Romero's unrelentingly dark 90-minute film, and the Maverick's production follows suit. But while serving as great homage, this 80-minute staging's authenticity unfortunately underscores why marrying cinema to theater—which Newell and his theater embrace as much as any venue in the country—is so problematic.
There's just nothing scary to this show. It's not just that 90 percent of the audience probably knows every scene intimately; it's that what makes the original so terrifying (grainy, black-and-white texture; brooding atmosphere; nihilistic hopelessness) can't be matched by a live production. At least not this one.
Onscreen, the slow-as-molasses zombies (a term never actually used in the film) are as terrifying as a College Republican "Catch an Illegal Immigrant" day. That's because what we don't see of them is just as important as what we do. But theater can't utilize cinematic trickery, no matter how low-budget the film is—close-ups, cuts, drastic lighting changes. Instead, this production has to rely on the audience's willing suspension of disbelief to buy into the notion that the legion of cannibalistic undead aren't actors merely playing the part.
Live, we see the zombies far too often, shuffling on- and offstage. We see them hit their marks, do their grisly business, then politely exit to wait around for their next entrance. Instead of a director's vision as told through the omnipotent eye of the camera, it becomes a collective vision told in real time by real people, and while it's a lot of fun for the enthusiastic people who are already fans, it lacks suspense, grit and gore.
But those who wildly cheer when our hero Ben (the always-intense Scott Johnson) and his disintegrating band of humans successfully dispatch one of their gruesome tormentors don't care about any of that. It's a classic case of preaching to the converted; if you want to see something that amplifies the film in some way, or manages to successfully translate the oppressingly claustrophobic world of the movie into the three-dimensional realm of a theater space, you won't find it here.
Night of the Living Dead at The Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-7070; www.mavericktheater.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through Nov. 3. $18; students with id, $10.