Zombies to invade theater from all directions

Jeffrey Furchner practices his gutteral noises and drunken, wild stagger for his role as a zombie in the Historic Mounds Theatre’s production of “Night of the Living Dead.” (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Piper Geving, 7, practices a part of the play where she’s abducted by a zombie with veteran “undead” actor Jeffrey Furchner. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Director Derek Dirlam, left, goes over a scene during a rehearsal at the Historic Mounds Theatre on Tuesday, Oct. 22. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Some prop zombies sit in the Historic Mounds Theatre during a rehearsal. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

The original zombie, back to undead

If you go ...

The “Night of the Living Dead” theatrical play is on at the Historic Mounds Theatre, 1029 Hudson Road, at the following times:

• 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, Nov. 1, 2, 8 and 9

• 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Sundays, Nov. 3 and 10

Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and students, and $6 for children 12 and under.

If you can’t handle an onslaught of zombies -- a zombie from the left, a zombie from the right, a zombie from behind and a zombie head on -- you may want to stay at home, rather than go to the Historic Mounds Theatre’s production of “Night of the Living Dead” on Halloween weekend.

Scares, gore and a sense of claustrophobia are what Derek Dirlam and Sal Niteo are hoping will pull you into their immersive, live production of the classic 1968 zombie horror flick.

Rather than stage a production on a stage, like any practical director might do, Niteo and Dirlam’s production instead uses the entire Historic Mounds Theatre building as a stage. The whole building is ripe for zombie invasion, they explain.

They say the place is a bit spooky, and yearly haunted tours of the facility could leave some people to believe there are ghosts lurking back stage.

Dirlam and Niteo figure their production stays true to the original feeling of the movie, and they hope theater-goers will feel as if they’re “experiencing the movie firsthand.”

The original film was an independent feature made on a shoestring budget of just over $100,000, and was the brainchild of director George Romero. His series of three zombie movies, including “Night of the Living Dead,” made him an icon among horror aficionados, and saw significant commercial success.

“Night of the Living Dead” was a pioneer for zombie flims, and featured what’s arguably one of the first on-screen “undead” creatures.

For those not studied up on horror films, zombies are dead humans who are reanimated after death into a hypnotized, brutish state wherein they crave nothing but human flesh.

As with many of Dirlam and Niteo’s thespian efforts, they’re hoping to capture the classic vibe of the early horror flicks, with their own subtle twists.

They figure with Halloween coming up and zombies on the brain with the start of the new season of the TV horror drama “The Walking Dead” and the recent “Zombie Pub Crawl” event in Minneapolis, the time for the classic production is ripe.

Pulling theater-goers into the space

According to the Internet Movie Database, the movie begins with siblings Johnny and Barbra visiting their father’s grave.

In the eerie dusk they are suddenly attacked by what seems to be an “undead” human body, walking in a trance towards them. Johnny is knocked out and left for dead, but Barbra manages to flee to a nearby farmhouse.

To pull the audience in, Niteo and Dirlam schemed the intro sequence to be exactly, shot-for-shot, like the original and made a film, which reproduces the original, to show as the introduction to the play. But when Barbara flees to a nearby safe place, instead of the farmhouse, it’s the Historic Mounds Theatre itself.

The film projector “fails,” and Barbra enters the theater through the front door.

The idea, Dirlam says, is that the audience all of the sudden feels like “it’s the movie coming to life.”

From there, viewers are in for a ride -- the whole theater is included in the production. Zonked out, gory, flesh-craving zombies do their best to get at the cast, and even the audience members can’t be ensured of their safety. After all, they’re right in the thick of it.

Barbra holes up in the retro theater with a cast of other zombie-fleeing humans, who team up to survive as the zombies seek out their flesh. The dynamic cast of characters includes Barbra, a spiteful couple, Mr. and Mrs. Cooper and their young daughter Karen, and a blue-collar type of guy named Ben.

And, in a way, the audience itself is also stuck in the theater, surrounded by the horrors of zombiedom.

“The audience isn’t just watching things happen; there are chances that they can actually become part of what’s happening,” Niteo explains, eyebrows raised. “There are things that happen that take away that safety net.”

Pure Zombie

Jeffrey Furchner portrays the very first zombie to appear in the play. And it’s a very special zombie. From the original 1968 movie, it’s more or less the first zombie ever to appear in horror movie culture.

Furchner is a bit of a zombie expert. He’s got ample experience acting as a zombie for haunted houses for over a decade. So it was right up his alley to play perhaps the most iconic zombie of all.

Furchner says his technique is more or less to act completely inebriated, stumbling every which way. But it also goes beyond that -- “you make nice gutteral sounds,” he explains, and “tap into the depths of your soul.”

The goal is to be “just a souless, mindless, walking flesh-eating machine,” he says with a chuckle.

Kid zombies

While the zombies could be a bit spooky for some kids, Tatum Geving, 10, and her sister Piper, 7, aren’t freaked out.

Tatum, a young zombie fan, enthusiastically tried out for the part of Karen Cooper, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Cooper. Karen is sick for much of the play, for mysterious reasons that reveal themselves at the end of the production.

Her little sister is content to play the part of a zombie, and goof around on the set under the supervision of their mother, Sarah. Piper’s favorite part is during the intermission, when she doesn’t break character and gets to eat beef jerky and chicken, which is supposed to resemble something a little gorier.

Sarah Geving says the intermission is among her favorite parts.

And while it offers a breather from the weight of the play, Furchner says, it stays in the immersive character of the production.

Social struggles

As the group members find themselves stuck fighting off zombies, they also fight amongst themselves, Niteo says.

Beyond being a horror play with campy moments and serious frights, the plot brings out “the people dynamics -- how people don’t work well together, or how do they work together, and how does that help them survive the zombie menace,” Niteo says.  “It’s less about the zombies and more about how the survivors get in their own or each other’s ways to survive.”

And with that human-interest base for the horror madness surrounding the production, Dirlam and Niteo are hoping for a well-rounded production that can scare, gross out and compel their audiences all in one fell swoop.

The intensity of the zombies and possibly some gore should round it out, they say.

When asked if there were detached limbs involved, Dirlam, the director, and Niteo, the tech guy and producer, grinned and refused to answer.

“We cannot confirm nor deny,” Dirlam says, but then a zombie actor jumps in to add to the intrigue.

“Zombies get hungry,” explains thespian Tom Larson.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.


"Night of the Living Dead" at Historic Mounds Theatre

Jeffrey Furchner practices his role as a zombie in a production of "Night of the Living Dead" at the Historic Mounds Theatre. For more info on the production visit www.moundstheatre.org. video by Patrick Larkin / Review

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