If you wanted to find a metaphor for the often trumped-up fear of the Ebola outbreak, you could do a lot worse than Night of the Living Dead, now at Blank Canvas Theatre. Zombies are roaming the world in this play and, like Ebola, you need an exchange of bodily fluids with one of these shuffling creeps to be killed and then transformed into one of them.
This hour-long theatrical adaptation of the famous George Romero flick by director Patrick Ciamacco hews very close to the original blood-soaked material. But this one isn't played for laughs, like BCT's plasma-spurting staging of The Texas Chainsaw Musical in past years. No, Ciamacco is after real chills in this one. And he gets some in this performance (which was seen at its final dress rehearsal), even if there are unavoidable chuckles due to the over-the-top carnage being played out on stage.
Johnny and Barbara are the first two unfortunate people to encounter a zombie — in a graveyard, of course. And when the zombie grabs Johnny (a sleazy Matthew Ryan Thompson), Babs runs off to a nearby farmhouse to seek safety from the gathering and drooling hordes. There she meets Ben and slips into a mostly catatonic state when she isn't screaming her lungs out. As Barbara, Amber Revelt yells up a storm and looks appropriately vulnerable.
The 1968 movie managed to create some controversy around both Barbara, who was seen as unpleasantly passive, and Ben, who was played by an African-American actor. Staying true to that casting, DeVon Settles Jr. takes on the role of Ben and he seems stalwart enough, although his imprecise enunciation turns some of his lines into word salad.
Of course, there's not much to miss word-wise in this very basic script since it's all about the blood and gore. And BCT does stage blood as well as any theater in town. The blood sprays and gurgles and drips from various victims, even exploding out of one person's head. And when a zombie is beaten by Ben with a pipe wrench early on, and his body is dragged out, it leaves a smear of blood that looks terrifyingly real.
There is a second family living in the farmhouse, the Coopers, who are tending to their sick daughter Karen (Makenna Weyburne). Jonathan Kronenberger manages to assemble a believable character as Harry Cooper, which is amazing given the threadbare lines he has to work with. And Theresa Dean manages fine as his wife Helen, although her murder later on is perhaps the least convincing of all.
The audio landscape created in the moment by Lawrence Wallace adds immeasurably to the ghastly fun. The electronic effects can do everything from rumble ominously to shriek in terror, and you do feel goose bumps at times.
But director Ciamacco maintains (perhaps involuntarily) the low budget look and feel of the Romero epic. At the time the film came out, this level of graphic violence was unheard of and many little kids went home with their pants wet and their brains fried. This is not likely to happen to any current theater goers, who have likely been thoroughly immersed in much more violent entertainments than this for decades.
So in 2014, Night of the Living Dead has become a fairly tame curiosity that holds little dread for willing observers. Even the ending, which is a serious downer, is a conclusion we've seen many times over. And it's a tribute to Ciamacco and his cast that they can generate the trembling that is there.
Night of the Living Dead
Through November 1 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, W. 78th St., 440-941-0458.