When “Night of the Living Dead” premiered in the fall of 1968, no one knew what hit them. It was famously shot on a $114,000 budget and earned more than $30 million worldwide, making it one of the most profitable horror films of all time. Today’s standards for visual gore are high and perhaps have inured a modern audience to a film that was once deeply subversive and horrifying. This is precisely why Kentucky Shakespeare’s savvy decision to mount a radio play version of this cult classic is so effective, making their production a satisfying Halloween treat.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, a radio play is performed in front of a physical audience with live, simulated sound effects. The less-is-more approach of this format serves as fodder for the imagination. It simultaneously adds a sense of throwback whimsy and fuels a 2019-desensitized mind with visuals that approximate writer and director George Romero’s original intention.
Laura Ellis and Gayle King “chew” the scenery with a ghoulishly fun 30-minute preshow of zombie-themed lounge music (personal favorites including a more on-the-nose interpretation of “Zombie” by The Cranberries and a waggish renaming of “The Girl from Ipanema” to “The Boy from Pennsylvania.”) that adequately sets the mood.
Gregory Maupin’s Sterling-esque voice is well-suited as narrator, guiding the audience through a tale of a woman named Barbara (Laura Ellis) who narrowly escapes a zombie attack to find herself in a seemingly abandoned Pennsylvania farmhouse. There she meets Ben (Dathan Hooper) who appears limitless in his resourcefulness. He works feverishly to fortify the house against an impending zombie attack with little to no help from a seemingly catatonic Barbara.
Eventually Ben and Barbara encounter others who have hidden themselves away in the home’s cellar. There’s young Tom (Matt Street who also plays Barbara’s ill-fated brother) and his girlfriend Judy (Laura Ellis again). In addition, there’s Harry Cooper (Jon Huffman) whose captious remarks function as one of the play’s main sources of conflict as well as Harry’s wife Helen (Abigail Bailey Maupin) who serves as a voice of reason.
Ben is the show’s primary protagonist and Romero’s decision to cast the role with an African-American man was a controversial move in 1968. Fortunately, the integrity of that decision is maintained here. It’s definitely less fortunate that the social commentary afforded by that casting is still relevant. Ben is written as a clever, capable and rational man imbued with unceasing endurance and all the other aspects that make up a worthy hero. The film’s commentary on gender roles has aged, perhaps, not quite as well, but it is something that is appropriately kept intact here as a relic of the time period.
“Night of the Living Dead” famously ends bleakly, with virtually no hope for any of the story’s main characters. The sound effects created throughout the production by the actors via the “foley” technique of the golden age of radio of the 30s and 40s – cold spaghetti squished in jars to simulate entrails, snapping celery sticks to approximate broken bones, popped balloons instead of gunshots and the actors own voices to mimic the dull groans of an ever-encroaching zombie hoard to name a few – offer a rare, almost tactile experience to the audience member.
There’s a sense of inclusion in the experience that is next to impossible in other viewing mediums when done correctly, and it is the masterful execution of these techniques under the studied direction of Amy Attaway and the talents of the dedicated acting ensemble that really serves that famously gut-wrenching ending. In fact, it seems possible to listen to the entirety of the show with one’s eyes closed without missing much of Attaway’s intent.
However, to close one’s eyes means missing out on the delightful period costumes of Donna Lawrence Downs. And while absolutely secondary to the successful enjoyment of the evening, there is certainly a show within a show when it comes to watching the actors utilize their foley skills. It is only the second year that Kentucky Shakespeare has produced a radio play in October, but one can hope that this becomes a long-standing tradition as stalwart as the company’s summer season.
“Night of the Living Dead: The Radio Play” runs throughout the month of October, so there is no excuse to miss out on setting the mood for the Halloween season.
Performances run until October 31, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. with a special Halloween performance at 7 p.m.
Presented in Louisville Public Media’s Performance Studio: 619 South Fourth St, Louisville.
Tickets are $20 ($18 for students/military/seniors 65+) and can be purchased here.
Disclosure: Kentucky Shakespeare is paying Louisville Public Media for the use of the building’s performance space. Actor Laura Ellis is a WFPL employee and Director Amy Attaway is a fill-in host on WFPL. Various WFPL staff members also have cameo appearances in the performance.