It would be hard to name five films from the latter half of the 20th century that have proven as influential as George A. Romero’s 1968 microbudget horror flick Night of the Living Dead. Produced for less than $115,000, Romero’s modest drive-in shocker repackaged the Haitian Creole zombie concept into one of the most pervasive horror staples of the last four decades: the lurching, contagious, flesh-eating undead. Night went on to become an enormous hit that spawned five Romero-directed sequels and two remakes, and inspired more knock-offs across the film, television and video game media than can ever be counted.
So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that this month, writer-lyricist Stephen Gregory Smith and composer-lyricist Matt Conner (Nevermore, The Hollow) are bringing this celebrated tale to New Line Theatre in St. Louis as…a musical?
Okay, that is surprising. But perhaps even more surprising is the manner in which Smith and Conner—partners in life as well as art who married in June—approached adapting this iconic film. In our arch, post–Evil Dead–and–Toxic Avenger era, one might expect zombie kicklines, but Smith and Conner have opted for a more somber, downbeat approach. Their Night stays resolutely inside the farmhouse in which much of Romero’s film was set. And not only do the zombies not appear, but the specific nature of the threat outside remains undefined. Instead, the focus remains on the seven trapped survivors, and the different ways they process and cope with a paradigm-shifting calamity.
Romero, who always deploys his undead for maximum allegorical impact, would likely appreciate that Smith was inspired to adapt the film by an authentic real-life terror: that of the Beltway Sniper attacks of 2002. D.C. dweller Smith recalls one night during that scare covering his windows with blankets, then killing time flipping between local news updates on one channel and Night of the Living Dead on another. “They were just saying the same thing on the news over and over again—which wasn’t giving me much new information. I resumed watching the film during the scene where the six strangers are gathered around a television set, after they have boarded up the windows. The parallel was not lost on me.” Indeed, three of Night’s principal numbers revolve around vague, maddening news broadcasts.
Conner approached the adaptation more as a play with music rather than a conventional musical. “I really wanted to embrace the language of the film,” he explains. For example, the eerie solo “Johnny and Me” potently reproduces the legendary Barbara character’s frenzied, nearly incoherent recollection of her brother’s death. “Rather than trying to turn it into a ‘song,’ I tried to maintain it as a monologue and a scene with music.
“I think the biggest difference in writing this piece and a conventional musical was already having an existing book and characters and story to draw from,” Conner continues. “I think in that way we really did honor the fear found in the film.”
After an initial production at Kensington Arts Theatre in Maryland, Night of the Living Dead makes its professional premiere at New Line under artistic director Scott Miller. Raves Smith, “Scott was very enthusiastic about the show from the start, and has been a great supporter and ally all along the way.”