Zombies have arrived to Jackson High School, as the drama department performs “Night of the Living Dead” as its fall play this week. The play, based on the 1968 horror film, brings audiences into the first night of a zombie apocalypse.
The show, much like the movie, opens with siblings Barbara and Johnny (played by Abby King and Trey Lintner) visiting their father’s grave before being attacked by a zombie.
King said the first time they rehearsed the attack, she was surprised to be genuinely scared. “I personally really like horror movies,” King said. “It’s my favorite genre, and to be thrown into it, especially with all the combat and action that happens – it really does get your blood pumping and there are times where it’s actually scary.”
With no theater productions last year due to COVID-19, director Taylor Poore said they had a lot of new faces join this production. “There are maybe three people in our entire cast who have ever done a show here at Jackson before,” Poore said.
With a cast of 26 and a crew of 34, “Night of the Living Dead” is one of the school’s biggest shows in recent memory and also represents a shift from more lighthearted shows like 2019’s “Winnie the Pooh.”
“I think it’s kind of ground-breaking that we’re coming back with such a big show and one I think is going to catch a lot of people’s attention,” Billie Brady said. Brady plays Jen, a gender-swapped version of the movie’s main character Ben.
Jen leads a group of survivors stuck in a farmhouse together – including the Cooper family played by Preston Strothmann, Kate Petzoldt and Lainey Heick and a young couple played by Layton Lipke and Madelyn Keller.
The original film, directed by George Romero, is usually credited as the first modern zombie movie. In honor of the film, the set, costumes, makeup and hair is completely in black and white (except for some red zombie blood) to match the film’s look.
“It’s an underdog story,” Strothmann said. “People always like hearing stories about people trying to overcome an obstacle and see how they would react to such unusual situations. I think that’s why zombie stories are captivating and why it gets redone almost every year.”
Brady added that in addition to the external threat coming from the zombies, internal differences between the characters – specifically hers and Strothmann’s – add another layer of conflict in the play.
“The fear element is huge throughout the play, and it kind of affects how you act,” Brady said. “There’s a lot of clashing between me and Preston’s character and the fear involved affects how we interact. I feel like we wouldn’t be going at each other as hard if there weren’t that element of, ‘we could die at literally any second.’”
Stage combat was a major challenge for the cast – as the play includes zombie attacks, punches, slaps and kicking down doors. “There is a major learning curve because you don’t actually want to hurt someone,” Brady said.
“These students really stepped it up,” Poore said. “I’m really impressed with our core cast members, and the zombie cast came in about halfway through the rehearsal process and really added a whole new element to the show.
With the constant threat of the undead getting into the central farmhouse, zombie actors are seen walking down the auditorium aisles and behind the set throughout the play.
“Night of the Living Dead” will be performed at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 28, and Friday, Oct. 29, in the Jackson High School Auditorium. Tickets are $5 per person and can be bought at the box office before each show.