Modern Robot puts new life into the Living Dead

By Ian McDowell
October 25, 2017

Forty-nine years ago, director George Romero and co-writer Richard Russo created the modern flesh-eating zombie, even though the ghouls of Night of the Living Dead weren’t called that Creole-derived word. But as soon as they shambled into pop culture, they fell out of copyright. That lapse has allowed Greensboro musician Ben Singer to re-imagine Romero’s film like Romero re-imagined zombies, and to riff on (not rip off) another creator’s work, just as Romero did.

Romero acknowledged that the main inspiration for his film was not Haitian folklore, but Richard Matheson’s classic novel I Am Legend, in which civilization is destroyed by a plague of scientifically-created vampires. In interviews, Romero called Night of the Living Dead his version of I Am Legend. Now Singer has re-imagined Romero’s reimagining of Matheson.

Copyright concerns made Romero portray his living dead as flesh-eaters rather than blood-drinkers, but they still came back to bite him. In 1968, United States law required a proper notice on copyrighted work. Romero’s original production company displayed such a notice under the titles of the gory and initially hard-to-sell film they called Night of the Flesh-Eaters. When the Walter Reed Organization acquired it, they changed the title to Night of the Living Dead but left out the copyright notice. This lapse put their hugely successful release in the public domain.

Now Singer and his group, Modern Robot, are performing a shortened version of the iconic zombie movie from which Singer has removed the original score. That music was never actually “original,” being stock “library tracks” from T.V. shows and films like Ben Casey and Teenagers from Outer Space. This allows the musicians to accompany it with Singer’s new score.

Singer recently wrote in an email that he only saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time five years ago.

“Modern Robot was an improv group then, and my drummer Kyle suggested it as movie to work with.” Singer said that he “quickly chopped it to perform like a silent film” and that he “skimmed over the story parts and didn’t give it much consideration as a movie.”

Singer didn’t think about it again until two years ago when he was performing with F. W. Murnau’s silent Faust at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was, he said, an “overwhelming” experience, as well as a very challenging one and he was hooked. Looking at a list of public domain movies, he saw that Night of the Living Dead would have its 50th anniversary in 2018.

Going back and watching it as a film, he had a different reaction than his original one.

“I loved that it was so straight-forward, logical, and bare in a way that felt documentary,” he said.

While he didn’t think everything about the original film was great, “some of it is, especially Duane Jones’ acting.”

This time, he took the editing more seriously, rather than just selecting scenes for their imagery. On the fringe circuit, most shows are an hour long, so it needed to be shortened, but he approached it thematically.

“I found that I could cut some of the cheesy parts and not-as-good acting and come out with something more focused and serious,” he said.

Because cutting music sometimes meant cutting sound effects, he took the bare effects from other parts of the film and modified and inserted them into the scenes.

His new music was no longer improvised.

“I wrote a film score to perform on guitar, and like I had with Faust, hired some wonderful drummers to play the show in each different fringe,” he said.

On Oct. 28, Modern Robot Presents Night of the Living Dead will be performed at the Producer’s Club Sonnet Theater, located at 358 W. 44th St. in New York City, as part of the three-day FearNYC horror film festival. Singer admits to having some fear himself. The festival includes new horror movies from indie filmmakers, classics, and a special tribute to Romero. “Because this is a film event, I’ll be playing the whole movie, which I’m quite nervous about.” But, he said, he’s also hugely excited to be doing it for “such a concentrated audience of horror fans, even though some might see what I’ve done as a kind of heresy.”

With luck, they won’t eat him alive.

Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.