There is no doubt that George A. Romero is an icon in the horror world, specifically for his Of the Dead series that launched the modern zombie apocalypse in fiction and films. His first installment, Night of the Living Dead, debuted in 1968, and the black and white classic did more than just introduce the concept of the shambling walking dead. It marked a transition from classic movie monsters to a new way of telling scary stories. The film also drew inspiration from racial and political tensions of the time, creating metaphors that are powerful without being overwhelming.
Even though the film has been remade before, it has never gotten the animated treatment until now. Presented by The Long Game in association with Hemisphere Entertainment, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s Night of the Animated Dead has an all-star cast lending their voices to the classic characters, including Josh Duhamel (Harry Cooper), Dulé Hill (Ben), Katharine Isabelle (Barbara), James Roday Rodriguez (Tom), Katee Sackhoff (Judy), Will Sasso (Sheriff McClelland), Jimmi Simpson (Johnny), and Nancy Travis (Helen Cooper). The thriller is directed by Jason Axinn and produced by Michael Luisi.
The film, which includes never-before-seen scenes, is available on digital and has a Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack set to release today, October 5.
The Beat got the chance to speak with the director and some of the cast. In part 1, check out what Axinn and Isabelle had to say about taking on the iconic film.
Deanna Destito: What makes this version unique?
Jason Axinn: Well, this is more or less a very faithful remake of the original movie. We made it in color and we added a lot of gore and violence, and maybe the pacing is a little bit faster, but otherwise, it’s very, very faithful…it’s a love letter to the original film.
Destito: Why were some of the added scenes necessary?
Axinn: In the original film, there’s a scene where Ben tells the story of how he got his truck. And we thought that in the original maybe [because of] budget reasons, they just couldn’t afford to show that sequence because it involves a lot of action and violence and zombies. So we thought that we could show it because we had that ability to now.
Destito: There is something very creepy about the grainy black and white of the original. This is in color, which is unsettling, but in a different way. How did you transition from black and white to color and still keep it creepy?
Axinn: Well, thank you for saying that. I appreciate that. What’s really weird about the original movie is the movie came out in 1968, but since it’s in black and white, it feels like it came out in the ‘40s or ‘50s. So there’s something strange about a movie that’s 50 years old and seeing it in black and white. I mean, Night of the Living Dead came out the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s just strange to imagine that so when we came to putting in the color, one of the things we wanted to make sure was that all the gore be as visceral as possible. I think we’re all used to the fact that in black and white, maybe all the gore is like chocolate syrup or something. And here we have to show the gore and its glory. It’s visceral and as crystal clear as possible.
Destito: What does animated offer that live-action does not?
Axinn: Animation and live-action are very different animals. I guess you could say in animation, you can really do anything you want. You can have any angle you want. You can have any kind of gore and violence that you want, and you can update it or change it as you make it. Whereas live-action, whatever you shoot, that’s what you get. And maybe you can fix them post. Maybe you can’t. So for us, we have the ability to kind of strategize the themes and the sequences, try to make them work as storytelling points the best we could, and maybe that would be the most specific thing that’s the benefit of it.
Destito: Did you let the cast add anything to this version or was it strictly kept to Romero’s vision and script?
Axinn: Well, the cast did the script we gave them, but James Roday Rodriguez, who is possibly the funniest person I’ve ever met, gave us a performance of Tom, where he would do, of course, the performance we see in the film, but he also gave us, like, an alternate version where everything was hilarious, a really funny adlib. So we’ve got a whole version of that where he’s just killing it. But obviously, it didn’t really totally fit it. I would love to have used some of it, but it would also have just killed any kind of mood and certain things a little bit. There might be a blooper reel somewhere.
Destito: Romero is so influential but what did you bring that is yours?
Axinn: I would say that in all the places that we upgraded all the gore you can kind of see my sense of humor. There’s a scene in the movie where, and I can’t imagine this is really a spoiler, where Tom is in a truck, and a ghoul comes up to try to grab him on the shoulder, and Tom closes the door on that ghoul’s hand snapping off his hands at the wrist. So my sense of humor is sort of like Sam Raimi’s sense of humor in Evil Dead 2. I enjoy that kind of gore in horror. So I try to use that kind of sense of humor and tone throughout the violence in the movie.
Destito: Favorite character?
Axinn: It’s hard to choose because everybody has their own perspective. Like the character that Josh Duhamel plays, Harry Cooper, is a really interesting character because he’s someone who’s protecting his family. His daughter’s been bitten and she’s in trouble and she’s in the basement and he’s there with his wife, and he has to make sure everyone lives. And so you understand his motivation for that. But at the same time, he’s also the villain, and he’s also aggravating everyone else and putting people in danger. And it’s like a really tough character. It’s a really tough performance. But Josh Duhamel really walks that line and makes that character fascinating.
Destito: One of my favorite scenes is Karen in the basement. It’s very unsettling, both in the original and in this version. Do you have a favorite scene that you wanted to really bring to life and put your stamp on?
Axinn: I would say without talking about spoilers, the very, very end of the movie. The way the film ends. The last couple of minutes of the film are something I spent a lot of time designing.
Destito: It is a little bit different from the original. What happens is similar, but the way that it plays out is a little different. Did any present-day stuff influence that decision?
Axinn: There’s no overt racism in the original film. It’s all kind of under the surface. So since they did that so well, we wanted to just make sure we did exactly what they did in the original film in regards to that. The thing I like about the ending of the movie is in the original film, the ending, it’s just an abrupt ending. That thing happens and they cut to stills and then the movie is over. And I wanted the audience to have a chance to kind of sit in that for a little bit before the credits roll, feel it, and have to stare at it so they can feel bad like it’s a tragedy. And I really wanted that to sink in a little bit before it ended.
Destito: If you had the choice to revamp another classic, what would you choose?
Axinn: Oh, man, that’d be amazing. I always think, what animated would I make live-action, which would be Fantastic Planets, by the way. I would say Raiders of the Lost Ark. Also anything George Romero. I’m a big George Romero fan.
Destito: How did you get involved in this project?
Katharine Isabelle: Things just fall out of the universe, and I really have no idea. I worked with Michael Luisi, the producer, on a few things before, so I was grateful I was thought of for this, and I jumped at the chance. And of course, I worked with Dule and James Roday before. So I was just, like, cool my friends are in it. Sounds awesome. I’ll do it.
Destito: Were you by yourself when you were recording or did you guys actually get to work together?
Isabelle: No, we were by ourselves. It was my first animated project, and I wasn’t sure whether in some animated projects people are all in the room or if it’s always separate. And that was fine. I mean, for most of it, poor Barbara is just hyperventilating anyway.
Destito: Barbara is pretty pivotal to the story even though she’s kind of in a catatonic state for much of it. You still have to act. You still have to give her a character. How did you manage that with just your voice?
Isabelle: All of my props and all of my crutches are stripped away when you go into the sound booth. You don’t have that a couple of hours of hair and makeup and that process of really putting on this character and really stepping into their clothes and their shoes and seeing the sets and seeing the blood and the zombies. All those things that kind of just naturally drive this character out of you are all gone. You’re far too comfortable. You’re far too warm and safe in a studio. And for me, it’s a lot of breathwork.
I have watched the movie several times. It was even magically on TV the morning when I was having my breakfast when I was going to go to the studio. I don’t really have any kind of process that I could speak to. I just absorbed what poor Judith O’Dea was going through and what poor Barbara was having to deal with. And I went in there and just did my best to sort of recreate that terror and that catatonic state and that shock.
You can hear when someone’s breathing changes. I mean, that’s what polygraphs are about, right? You can really learn so much by how someone’s breathing or when they hold their breath and when they tense up and how they exhale. Unfortunately, doing animation, you do all your lines, and then I save my screaming for the end because I can lose my voice very easily. I’ve been previously intubated on life support from a different viral lung infection. I save all my screams for the end. Just being intubated damages your vocal cords, so I can lose my voice easily.
So we keep all the screaming for the end and then they’re like, okay, now we have to do all of the breathing and hyperventilating, but because you record the sound long before you get to the animated part, it’s just hyperventilate and breathe in different patterns for a while and then they pick and choose what they need to apply to each shot and in each frame.
Destito: You are considered one of the top scream queens but now you can’t scream like you used to anymore. That has to be tough.
Isabelle: I could still scream. I can’t prolong it. I can’t do it for two hours. I do it at the end of the day, just in case it does get a little weaker, then we have what we need. But, yeah, I mean, if I go out drinking for a night of karaoke, I might not be able to scream as well the next day. So I just don’t do things like that. I definitely protect my voice and drink a lot of peppermint tea with honey and stuff like that.
The scream queen thing has been such an unexpected moniker. I never intended to be in horror movies. As an actor, a working actor in Canada, you just do whatever you get hired for. You don’t have a choice to carve your career path in one direction or another. You just do what you end up doing. And for me, I had no idea that such amazing, strong, iconic characters would land in my lap through the horror genre. I’d already sort of dismissed it before as just gratuitous torture porn. And I hadn’t been exposed to all these wild, wonderful facets of the horror genre that I’m now deeply entrenched in and am absolutely in touch with and love. I will take the scream queen moniker and I will gently scream.
Destito: So you’ve embraced the horror genre?
Isabelle: Absolutely. And you don’t find as enthusiastic a fan base in anything else. You get conventions for comic book movies, superhero films, and sci-fi and horror. You don’t get them for romantic period pieces and romcoms. Starting out as an actor, as a female, I just sort of figured that’s what I’ll probably end up doing. And so this family that is grown out of horror for me has been absolutely just precious. I’m obsessed. I love it.
I’m still scared to watch most horror movies. They are such a dedicated loyal fan base. I’m very connected with them, and I’m deeply appreciative of their acceptance of me in any way.
Destito: Was there a bit of apprehension to take part in a remake of such an iconic movie?
Isabelle: That is always a fear when you’re revisiting and you’re changing something. I mean, our film is so true to the original. It’s basically shot for shot. I tried my best to really take Judith O’Dea’s performance into consideration and to take even the transatlantic accent. But it’s always scary when you’re trying to renew something or reimagine something. You don’t want to upset people and you don’t want to insult the original performance and the original creators, but you want to bring something new and fun to it.
It’s scary. It’s much scarier than just being allowed to do whatever you need to do and invent something and hope that people like it. People already love this and they’re very protective about it, and you don’t want to freak them out. You don’t want them mad at you. I was nervous about it, and I’m happy with it. But it’s always scary to put that out in the world and see what kind of reaction you’ll get. Hopefully, people like it.
Destito: If you found yourself in a zombie apocalypse, which role would you be?
Isabelle: Off the bat, in a crisis situation I will go into military mode. I’m pretty good in a crisis. But at the same time, I could also just lie on a couch for a few minutes and have a quick nap. You know what I mean? I could just have a quick catatonic break. I think I could encompass various aspects of all of the survivors’ personalities. I think I’m ready to go hog wild and drive over a horde of zombies and light their asses on fire. And I’m also totally fine with curling up in the back of a truck under a blanket and crying.
Destito: If you got to pick a role to recreate and redo what would you choose?
Isabelle: It’s so hard! I want to play Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, which is weird and bizarre and very hard to even do a Crime and Punishment type of production. But, yeah, I’m obsessed with the Scarlet Pimpernel, which is a really old movie starring Leslie Howard. I’m also obsessed with Betty Davis, like I would do any kind of Betty Davis film or role, although I would be absolutely terrified to do that because I could never live up to that.
Check out Part 2 of our interview tomorrow!