While “Zombieland” endures box-office success and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” tops the New York Times best-seller book list, one Tampa theater company seeks to bring the popular undead phenoenon back to the basics.
Jobsite Theater, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center’s theater company, is featuring an onstage adaptation of George A. Romero’s iconic 1968 zombie film, “Night of the Living Dead.”
Though the show just opened this month, director Chris Holcom said he first proposed producing the play “probably about three or four years ago.” He stumbled upon the project by chance, finding the script while browsing a drama publishing service.
“It’s one of those pivotal films, and it’s been a favorite of mine for many, many years,” Holcom said. “So I thought, ‘Well, let me a buy a copy to see if it’s any good,’ and actually it’s a very faithful adaptation.”
In fact, the play’s dialogue is taken nearly verbatim from the original film. Like the movie, the majority of the action takes place in a single house set. With one very notable exception – not to be spoiled – almost every scene from the movie is in the play. The onstage adaptation also stuck with slow-moving and violent zombies, rather than the dynamic ones seen in most films today.
To carry out the show’s zombies and its numerous other effects, Holcom enlisted special effects artist Danny McCarthy. A graduate from the Tom Savini School of Special Effects, McCarthy utilized various effects for “Night of the Living Dead,” just as Savini, the founder of the school, provided for several of Romero’s zombie films including “Dawn of the Dead.”
McCarthy made the zombies’ face casts using mostly stone molds, but he also employed fiberglass chests, foam latex and life casts for the show’s other special effects and hundred-plus appliances.
“It’s been two months we’ve been working on props and prosthetics,” he said. “And for me it’s been night and day, living this show.”
Holcom claimed he didn’t want to make the play too comedic.
“There have been too many productions of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ where it kind of turns into that real tongue-in-cheek, cheap, nostalgic sort of thing,” he said.
Holcom said that early audiences found certain lines humorous, perhaps because of some of the 1968 movie’s anachronisms in the script and zombies based on an era before “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland.”
“They were laughing at certain spots that I hadn’t really anticipated anyone laughing,” Holcom said. “But I’ll tell you what, it really set them up for moments when they were supposed to be scared. They were really scared.”
One attendee was USF student and self-proclaimed Romero movie fan Matthew Liller, a freshman majoring in political science.
“I thought (the play) was really good,” he said. “I thought it added a lot of humor.”
Liller also said that outside of comedy, “the makeup was done really well” and “the acting was great.”
Actor Dayton Sinkia, who plays the protagonist Ben, said that so far every audience has reacted powerfully – whether it was by laughing or gasping with fear.
“The crowd is explosive,” Sinkia said. “They’re very engrossed in what’s happening.”
As for acting in his first play about flesh-eating creatures, Sinkia found his own ways to approach the unusual material.
“Before imagining the zombies, I replaced them with something I’m actually afraid of, like rabid dogs or something,” he said.
Above all, those involved with “Night of the Living Dead” said they hoped to create a faithful and scary show for the October season.
McCarthy said that it brings out the spirit of the season.
“It’s definitely a Halloween sort of thing,” he said. “I hope what we did with the effects was make it so people who are into movies are going to be able to enjoy it as much as people who love to go to theater.”
“Night of the Living Dead” is playing at the Shimberg Playhouse in the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and runs until Nov. 15. Tickets and times can be found at jobsitetheater.org.