Tuesday, July 24, 2007
For Your Ears Only: Night of the Living Dead
A little over a month back I attended the National Audio Theatre Workshop, hosted by the NATF, a group dedicated to advancing the seemingly moribund art of audio drama in America (in other countries, particularly those with national radio networks similar to the BBC, the medium still thrives, even though it’s overshadowed by television.) I’ve listened to quite a few of these things, mostly old time radio programs, but the Workshop store had a lot of clearance CDs of interesting stuff. Now is as good a time as any to start in on a new medium.
Not the best choice for an opening entry, though; Simon & Schuster’s “Audioworks” adaptation of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a major disappointment, taking a story that, with skill and care, could have become a horrifying audio experience (note to self: find more synonyms for “audio.” “Aural” will provoke giggles) and instead clumsily shoehorns it into the medium, inexplicably camping it up in the process. It’s a very cheap, amateur production, the sort of thing you might expect to be cobbled together by fans or for a live Halloween show, not something produced and released by a major publisher (which may be why the whole Audioworks thing didn’t catch on so well.) As an interesting side note, the CD packaging claims this features “the original cast of the cult classic”, which as far as I can tell is completely not true at all.
The story is basically the same. A woman named Barbara visits the cemetery with her brother when they’re both attacked by a strange man; the brother is killed, and Barbara runs away, the man in pursuit, until she holes up in a farmhouse, where she slowly loses her mind as Ben, a more levelheaded survivor of this mysterious wave of mass murder, boards up the house to make it secure from the growing mob outside. They run into other survivors, a teenage couple and a young girl and her parents, and radio and TV announcements start to confirm what the title implied, that these murderers are the walking dead, risen from the grave to feed on the flesh of the living. Tensions rise and panic ensues as the small group tries to decide how to survive the night.
I knew I was in trouble when, after the opening narration (which isn’t too bad), we had the first exchange between Johnny and Barbara. Now, in the movie, neither performance is too realistic, and there are some endearingly cheesy moments before the horror really starts. But for the audio production we get performances which start at “cheesy” and quickly ratchet it up to “ludicrously shrill.” Johnny imbues every other line with sarcasm worthy of Comic Book Guy, and all the dialogue so heavily hints at the impending zombie apocalypse that “irony” just doesn’t seem a strong enough word. And this continues, from Ben’s inexplicable Southern accent to Harry Cooper’s trembling voice- it’s as if the director assumed that this being an audio production meant everyone had to play to the rafters to make up for not being seen. In the film, Barbara’s descent into madness is actually rather well-played; the audio Barbara goes into hilariously bad hysterics from the instant she gets into the farmhouse. George A. Romero is not a director known for subtlety, and I honestly thought I would never see the day in which I would call NIGHT’s performances understated, but here we are.
Not that the writing is any help. To be fair, the play runs only an hour, and so has to condense the film’s gradual buildup of information and paranoia. But this doesn’t really excuse the weirdly campy tone of the narration and much of the dialogue; nobody at any stage is taking the story very seriously, so there’s no reason we should either. I will admit there are a couple of clever lines, but the smirking tone of it all undercuts the story’s power to shock, and makes the production feel all the more amateurish. Worst of all is how the radio broadcasts are handled; in the film, we hear radio and tv reporters gradually uncovering information about the invasion, making the situation more and more horrific as we hear more. In the play, most of the information about the zombies is revealed in one long infodump by, of all people, the President of the United States, and since this was produced in 1988, that means a Reagan impersonation. Not only does this date the work more than anything in the movie, it adds further goofiness to what should be some of the most shocking and terrible revelations in the picture.
Then again, I’m thinking that even a deliberately campy NIGHT may have worked, if not for the sheer clumsiness exhibited in adapting this thing to audio. It’s a challenge, of course; zombies usually don’t talk, and the importance of shooting a ghoul in the head is kind of hard to convey without visual assistance. But for the most part the play doesn’t even try. Whenever we reach something resembling an “action” scene, the narration kicks in and describes everything while the voice actors and sound effects artists go off for a smoke. This is pretty much a textbook example of how you’re not supposed to use narration in an audio play; it needs to have a purpose beyond spackling over the stuff you can’t see. The sound effects are incredibly sparse, as well- a few gunshots and hammer noises, plus an odd echo effect when characters are outside. We don’t even get any zombie moans. Seriously, people, that should have been job number one; round up everyone you can, set up an omnidirectional mike or two, record moaning, season to taste. Sound technology was not this bad in the Eighties.
Honestly, I drifted out of this one as soon as I realized it wasn’t going anywhere interesting. The idea of doing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as an audio drama contains within it a lot of challenges, but a lot of potential as well- the use of broadcasts, the heated dialogue, the ever-growing cries of the undead. Done right it could be as intense as the Mercury Theatre’s WAR OF THE WORLDS. Instead we get the cheap and sloppy version. It’s a crushing disappointment, but then, the relative obscurity of this attempt means the door’s still open for someone else to try. I’m tempted to take a pass myself.