Less than 5 months since its successful debut, “Night of the Living Dead Live” is back on Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille stage for a limited 3-week engagement starting from Oct 8-27! It’s brought to you by the good folks at Nictophobia Films and Co-Writer/Director Christopher Bond, who brought us the super-fun “Evil Dead: The Musical” a few years back. When I spoke with Bond at the Fan Expo, he enthusiastically told me how they went back and re-wrote the show, adding more humor. To be honest, I was nervous that they would go overboard and spoil a show that I already felt was excellent to begin with. Well, did they? After revisiting the show at its premiere, I’ve added a couple of paragraphs at the end of my original review, highlighting my thoughts on the retooled “NOTLD Live”.
In 1968, a little indie horror film by the name of Night of the Living Dead introduced moviegoers to a brand new monster; the zombie or as they were referred to by the filmmakers; the ghoul. Now, the zombie has been seen before in such films as I Walk with a Zombie and White Zombie but Co-Writer/Director George A. Romero redefined them not only by their look and performance but as well as their taste in food. NOTLD set such a strong template that even 45 years later, we’re still smitten by them. Presently Zombies are bigger than ever. From countless video games (Dead Island, Resident Evil 6), films (World War Z, Zombieland), television (The Walking Dead) to even zombie walks all across the globe, they’re a permanent fixture in pop culture.
NOTLD has been re-imagined and ripped off on the big screen on countless occasions. Cut to 2013; theatregoers are treated with the first officially-sanctioned stage adaptation, Night of the Living Dead Live, brought to you by Nictophobia Films (Devil’s Night) and Director Christopher Bond (Evil Dead: The Musical). I’ll admit that I was taken aback when I first heard they were playing it comedically. Now as much as I adored Evil Dead: The Musical, it wasn’t a remote stretch to imagine a humorous take on the material. On the other hand, NOTLD is as serious and as sacred as they come.
During the first act, Night of the Living Dead Live faithfully and entertainingly sticks to the source but in a slyly tongue-in-cheek sort of way. All the iconic moments from the film are recreated here and the pace is zippy. So much so that by the end of the first half, I was stunned to find out that they’ve just pulled off a brilliant sleight of hand on fans and gone through the original film in its entirety, leaving Christopher Bond and his team free to take NOTLD into uncharted territories. I’ve never been so anxious to see an intermission end. The second act is an unpredictable, fun-filled barrage of “what if” scenarios that’ll have you laughing out loud. It has the feel of an improv session. As deranged and silly as it increasingly gets, it never insults the things we love about Romero’s film. If anything Bond and his Co-Writers Dale Boyer and Trevor Martin (who both also star in the show) dig deeper into its themes as well as making clever and thoughtful commentaries on late 60’s stereotypes, as well as human nature.
The play is made all the more successful because of its uber-talented cast who all play multiple roles. I was blown away at how they managed to keep their energy level up, on top of adding wonderful little nuances in each of their characters’ series of incarnations. No matter how off-the-rails the show gets, the characters stay true to the original. Like all great theatre, it can fool an audience into thinking that the show’s scale is much larger than it actually is. In the case of NOTLD Live, I felt totally duped when only a six-member ensemble came out at the curtain call.
Bond has put together an impressively-mounted production that’s sheer creativity trumps most big-budgeted shows I’ve seen. As a nod to the original, the aesthetic is black and white. The staging and blocking is particularly cool since it takes place in various locations throughout the theatre. There’s also some effective use of video presentation to enhance the experience especially during the finale which will no doubt get a chuckle out of hardcore fans. The fight choreographing is some of the most engaging I’ve witnessed on the stage. Considering that this is a PG, family-friendly show, gore is kept to a minimum. This is not a determent whatsoever since The Butcher Shop’s Carlos Henriques’ utilizes those few moments very satisfyingly. Judging by the huge pop from the audience, it proves less can be more.
Christopher Bond has not only devised of a show that’s worthy of the Romero classic but also to his previous success. Night of the Living Dead Live is every bit as enjoyable as Evil Dead: The Musical …possibly better. It’s a bigger, more ambitious undertaking that delivers as a spectacular piece of entertainment, as well as a social commentary much like the original. From the very moment it’s concludes, you’ll be eager to return in a heartbeat and want to re-experience NOTLD Live all over again. Hoping this is the beginning of a long and successful run. Genre fans worldwide need and deserve to experience this instant classic firsthand.
Now, concerning the revamped show, I was worried they would go all indulgent and ruin an already fantastic thing. There’s only so far you can go with something as sacred as Night of the Living Dead. When it comes to comedy, it’s a very delicate balancing act. This new version pushes the humour further which is especially noticeable in the first act. NOTLD Live originally played a little straighter. Thankfully these additions work….actually kick it one notch up! NOTLD Live‘s funny bone is more prominent yet not overly so that it gives the audience too much of a good thing. The tone of the entire show feels more consistent now, as well as giving it a snappier pace which was already snappy to begin with. Most importantly, it helps giving NOTLD Live a more distinct identity while still staying respectful to its source. Even with a greater emphasis on comedy, it still avoids self-parody territory which is what I was initially worried about. I also noticed a few additional effects gags which was icing on the cake.
In hindsight, I feel foolish for ever doubting the brilliant Christopher Bond, his team and Nictophobia Films. The love and affection poured into NOTLD Live is super-apparent. I was concerned overconfidence might play in and mess with something that’s already grown rather treasured to me, much in the way I felt going into this adaptation as an avid fan of the Romero classic. Night of the Living Dead Live is even better the second time around. I got to appreciate and marvel over the tour de force feat by the extremely gifted cast all the more. I can’t stress enough how much fun this show is. Don’t miss NOTLD Live when it hits your town!
Special thanks to Christos Kalohoridis for the photos!