Spawning numerous sequels, remakes and homages, George A Romero’s micro-budget 1968 movie changed the horror genre forever. His vision of a relentless horde of the recently deceased feeding on the flesh of the living seeped into the American unconscious. While his later films would be more overtly satirical, the black-and-white original is a taut, raw piece of filmmaking – with one of the bleakest endings in cinema history.
Imitating the Dog’s shot-by-shot recreation is in many ways audacious. Two screens hang above the stage. Romero’s original is projected on one; the other shows the live version the audience watches taking place underneath the screens. This is filmed by the cast members themselves, who enact each close-up and long shot using handheld and standing cameras. The precision is staggering. They capture every nervous glance, every gasp, every scream. With a handful of props, a radio, and a rifle, they replicate every shadow-steeped image, every blood-smeared cutaway.
As with some of Katie Mitchell’s more technically intricate work, the choreography of all this is fascinating to watch. The sight of the actors dashing around the stage and positioning themselves in front of various lenses is captivating, and the level of coordination required to pull it off is impressive.
Directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks intersperse their recreation with footage of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy. An image of the American flag occasionally flickers across the back wall. The production tugs out the racial politics and social commentary of the film, resonances that Romero has said was never his intention.
The film’s protagonist, level-headed Ben, was not originally written as African-American, though he ended up being played by Duane Jones – and is played here by Morgan Bailey – but the power of the film’s final minutes is arguably intensified by the casual way Ben is dispatched by a white man with a gun.
What Quick and Brooks have created is essay on cinema and an exercise in simulation. It forces the audience into a more active mode of watching. The production heightens your awareness of the construction of every shot.
It also brilliantly illustrates how certain images have permeated popular culture. The moment in which the “ghouls”, as the film refers to them, lumber around with their arms outstretched brings to mind Shaun of the Dead.
Half a century on, some things have inevitably dated. The female characters are at best maddeningly passive, at worst catatonic; hysterical women can be subdued by an open-handed slap. But the scene in which an undead daughter attacks her mother with a trowel remains genuinely unpleasant.
This is a fascinating theatrical experiment, one that invites the audience to celebrate and analyse Romero’s film, and yet, as with Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho, while the level of effort and care involved is impressive, at times it feels like an academic exercise rather than something with a pulse.