Night of the Living Dead Live is hitting London this month and it doesn’t just promise scares. Halima Hassan speaks to Ashley Samuels about playing an iconic, yet criminally underrated character. 

There’s been, what I would describe as, a resurgence of the horror genre in popular media. Films like Hereditary and Us are breaking box office records. Classic horror stories, comics and novels, are being adapted into films and television series with The Walking Dead and The Haunting of Hill House to name a few. But what about horror on stage? For enthusiasts of the genre, I can only imagine the thrill of sharing the same physical space with something haunting and there have been attempts to bring it to the stage well (read our review of The Exorcist to find out more…), yet horror stories still seem to be rare in theatre.

Released originally in 1968, Night of the Living Dead, was directed, edited, photographed and co-written by George Romero, and is widely considered to be the first horror film featuring the ‘modern’ zombie. The term ‘zombie’ comes from Haitian folklore and refers to a reanimated dead body. The modern understanding of the zombie that’s familiar to most of us was, in many ways, decided by Romero and co-writer, John Russo and the zombie trope of cannibalism is reported to have come out of the writers brainstorming about what would be the most shocking thing for the zombies to do to people. That zombies can only be killed by a shot to the head is another trope first appearing in this film.

A new production, Night of The Living Dead Live, will be played on a monochrome set and features all the beloved scenes from the original film, as well as an entirely new story in the second act. I chatted with Ashley Samuels who will be playing the iconic lead character in the film, Ben and most recently seen in Fun Home at the Young Vic and Motown the Musical in the West End. He tells me: “Ben is a hero; he is always making a plan and looking for a solution. He is sort of what everyone aspires to be when they are put into that sort of position. The kind of person to look to for leadership.”

Besides inspiring the persona of the modern zombie, the original film is also considered progressive for featuring a black male lead during a time in America where racial tensions were even higher than they are today. “1968 was really a strong time for the civil rights movement. The fact that there was a black man playing the lead in a film was definitely unheard of,” Samuels comments. I checked IMDB for some stats and found the iconic character of Ben, played in the film by Duane Jones ‘was the first time in American cinema that a black actor was cast in a lead role of a major motion picture that did not specify that the part had to be played by a black actor’. Romero and Russo are reported to have written the character with no specification to race but Ben was originally supposed to be a crude and resourceful truck driver. The part was re-written after Duane Jones, a person with a calmer, erudite demeanour, auditioned for the role.

The stage production will offer something special that will appeal to both hard-core fans and those new to the story. “The first act plays homage to the film, gives you the iconic lines and the feels of a horror with big scares and blood deaths. The second act is a lot of what-if scenarios, comedy values, splatter zones and everyone dying at certain points!” Samuels remarks. The show aims to equally terrify and humour. The production will offer special on-stage seats that will allow some audience members to really be in the midst of the action, and also in the way of it. These seats will be in the ‘Splatter-Zone’ though there is no guarantee that audience members in the other ‘Supposedly Safe Zones’ will be completely splat-free!

I asked Samuels what scene from the film he is most excited to portray on stage, with him enthusiastically telling me: “When Ben is first introduced to the others and all the characters meet, around the middle of act one, this is the moment when the audience gets to meet everyone and people will relate to and dislike different characters.” This production is the only one officially authorised by the Romero estate and can be licensed by anyone who would like to put this show on for their community.

In the past and more and more now, horror has allowed creatives to explore aspects of the human condition that are often considered taboo and society’s current fears in a moment in history. Witnessing horror on stage is a way to include an audience in the sense of danger that exists for the actors. Night of the Living Dead Live promises to have audiences squirming and laughing and potentially also contemplating what it means to be alive.

“What things might we learn from those who are dead, if they find means to return to us?” – Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead Live runs at the Pleasance, London from 9 April. For more information and tickets visit the Living Dead London site.