I Can Hear the Screaming

I'm thinking about so many things as we unpack this fascinating and complex adaptation of Night of the Living Dead.

Last night I was reading an interesting book called The Horror Film: An Introduction, by Rick Worland, and the author makes a distinction between horror and terror, which I had never really thought about before. I've already blogged about the horror film genre, and its sub-genres, the slasher film and torture porn. But much of what's true about horror films is not true of both George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead and this stage adaptation. The biggest difference is that there's very little gore in the movie. We do get that one quick shot of the dead old lady, but beyond that it's mostly just scary looking, gray-skinned zombies stumbling around.

Worland makes the case that horror is about disgust, about gore, blood, dismemberment, all the fun effects that fill all of Romero's later zombie movies. But terror is about fear and the suspense of anticipating that fear, and that's what Night of the Living Dead is about. Most of the classic horror films – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Mummy – are really terror films. Almost no gore. Horror is about the monsters; terror is about the people trying to avoid the monsters. Romero's later zombie movies were both.

St. Louis audiences will have an opportunity to compare and contrast the two in October. While New Line produces a "terror" musical this fall, Night of the Living Dead, at the same time Stray Dog Theatre will be running a "horror" musical, Evil Dead, with tons of fake blood and gore. It's not a totally fair comparison because Evil Dead is one of those parody musicals, but the distinction will nevertheless be on display: gross-out vs. fear.

But I've also been thinking about a fundamental difference between our show and its source film. The Romero film is almost documentary in its style, just observing and reporting. The stage musical is expressionistic, representing "reality" only so far as it expresses emotion. The film lets us read the faces of the folks trapped in this farm house up close, but the musical takes us inside their minds, their memories, their fears, their guilt, their despair, and in Barbra's case, her shattered consciousness.

Working with Marcy on Barbra's songs in the show, and remembering the vivid performance by Judith O'Dea in the 1968 film, it seems so obvious to me that Barbra herself is the living dead. She's catatonic. Her mind, at least for now, is dead for all practical purposes. She can't really function and she obviously can't take care of herself. Her brother Johnny is turned into a zombie in the first scene of the film (before the action of the musical starts), but watching either version of the story, it's hard to see a difference between Johnny and Barbra.

They're both zombies.

Then again, aren't all these characters the living dead? They're alive, sure, for now. But they have no future. They all know (or at least suspect) they will not survive this. For all practical purposes, their lives are over, and isn't that what death is? But they're still breathing.

Maybe the title doesn't refer to the zombies as much as to their victims, as dead as the old lady, but they just don't know it yet. It brings to mind plays like Waiting for Godot, No Exit, and Steambath.

I've been reading several books about horror and horror films, and I notice that the authors mention dreams a lot – dreams and nightmares. And it occurs to me that theatre and the other storytelling arts are kind of like reality's subconscious, our cultural dreamlife. Our stories do for our society what our dreams do for each of us, allowing the ordered, conscious mind to drift, to stroll through bits and bites of reality, bringing together elements that may not come together in reality, but which reveal reality nonetheless. And maybe that makes horror society's id. It's always struck me that though dreams don't always make sense, they usually can reveal what's on your mind, what may be gnawing at you without you realizing it.

Surely High Fidelity revealed much to our audiences that they wouldn't have consciously accessed about themselves. The same may be true of bare, Next to Normal, Love Kills, Spelling Bee, and other New Line shows. That's what art does. That why lots of people think art is dangerous and why it should be controlled.

I've also been thinking lately about reality and unreality, and the relationship between the two. That's always swimming around in my head since I make a living telling stories, but it's been more front and center these days. It's partly about the whole point of horror stories, to get at actual truth through fantastical stories, in this case truth about America, about the way we see Others, about the fractures in our cultures. This show does not show us reality, but it tells us a lot about our real world.

But really, this story deals even more directly with this relationship between real and unreal. Within this story, these characters live in "the real world" but find themselves facing what seems so profoundly "unreal" – a zombie apocalypse (and back in 1968, before anyone would have ever used the phrase zombie apocalypse or even the word zombie to refer to these monsters). Notice how often the characters address this – Ben repeatedly sings, "No, this can't be happening..." and the younger couple sings, "We'll be alright" over and over.

They refuse reality. And yet ironically, we'll have the most realistic set we've ever had for this show. More than usual, our set will pretend to reality, because unlike most shows – and despite its premise – this is a story about the nature of reality, about what's real and not, about real and perceived danger, and about fear of the real world that's being shown here only in metaphor.

So much going on in this show, so much to ponder, so many choices still to make. I've always loved horror movies and it's such fun getting this opportunity to study and understand them on a much deeper level. But there's lot of hard work still ahead.

I love my job.

Long Live the Musical!