San Jose Stage Company’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is relentless Halloween homage

Nigh of the Living Dead
Caitlin Keller/Staff

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As the Halloween season ends, it is impossible not to recognize “Night of the Living Dead” as a pioneer in the horror genre, being the first zombie film and the first major horror film with a Black leading actor. San Jose Stage Company’s “Night of the Living Dead” seamlessly turned the 1968 classic horror film into a virtual theater production based on the film’s original screenplay, perfect for closing out the spooky season. 

The play opens with quarreling siblings Barbara (Sofia Costantini) and Johnny (Davied Morales) as they travel to a cemetery to visit their deceased mother, and suddenly changes for the worse as living corpses begin attacking them, relentlessly in pursuit of the humans. This leaves Barbara to take refuge with Ben (Rondrell McCormick), another worried townsperson she runs into during the commotion, in a nearby farmhouse. They fend off the attackers with the rest of the household’s help as a full-on zombie outbreak consumes the town, picking them off one by one until the night is over. 

The eerie story took place entirely in black and white, the actors both minimally lit and heavily shadowed. This made the show read like a campfire ghost story, as if it were being told over a flashlight. In this way, the production was consistently suspenseful — a legend being retold after a huge travesty. This kept the audience closely following the plot until its shocking end, knowing an unfortunate climax was coming since the show’s last 20 minutes were undoubtedly the most engaging. 

Unlike the original movie, the virtual stage play included an on-screen narrator (Randall King), the most prominent change between the film and this live show. This character vocally laid out what would ordinarily be shown visually onstage, meticulously describing the setting and character actions as they would normally occur. 

In each scene, he effectively set the mood, building suspense. Often accompanied by sound effects such as gunshots and shrill screams in the play’s most dramatic scenes, the narrative elements helped replace what was lost in the virtual transition. King’s narration was essential to the show’s eeriness and realism — even if we couldn’t see these scenes happen from the same room, as the actors couldn’t physically perform together, it was easy to put the picture together because of King’s spooky plot direction. 

The most remarkable character portrayal was that of McCormick, as he led the cast with ease. While we could only see him from the waist up, his performance was still immensely physical, drawing out as much tension as he could in his physical mannerisms. His dialogue and the urgency behind it were what really allowed the material to make an impact. As he begged Costantini’s character to take action, leading the rest of the group to survival, he demonstrated steadfast bravery, unwavering in his portrayal as he kept the audience engaged in the scene. 

In short, San Jose Stage Company’s “Night of the Living Dead” was a sufficiently suspenseful rendition of the original source material. While the physical aspects and closeness of a zombie outbreak couldn’t be portrayed safely, the emotional responses were as intense as they would be if the actors were physically together. The dialogue and atmosphere remained authentic, making for a successful homage just in time for the Halloween season’s digression.

Caitlin Keller covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @caitlinkeller20.