Some might question the wisdom of digging up George Romero's seminal horror film, Night of the Living Dead, and resurrecting it with an animated adaptation. But Warner Bros. Animation and director Jason Axinn saw Night of the Animated Dead as an opportunity to create a "love letter" to the original, while also expanding on the narrative and giving this generation a new entry into the world that Romero created.
And, there were plenty of artists who agreed and were actively excited to participate including actors like Katee Sackhoff, Nancy Travis — and Josh Duhamel as Harry Cooper and Dulé Hill as Ben. SYFY WIRE recently spoke to both actors about the creative challenge of adapting the classic to another medium.
Night of the Living Dead is sacred to many horror fans. What were your thoughts about touching something so beloved?
Dulé Hill: I always say, if you're going to do something that has already been done before, if you want to endeavor to step your toe into that, then have something to add to it. Have a point of view. Otherwise, leave it alone. It is an iconic film that means a lot to the fan base, and to fans of the horror genre at large. It was daunting for me. It was challenging for me, but also was exciting.
Josh Duhamel: I'm not a hardcore horror fan. I didn't really feel a tremendous amount of pressure to deliver it. But I do like the idea of the challenge of trying to do something that has already been beloved for so many years. If you're going to take a shot at it, sometimes you miss and sometimes you lose. I think that people ultimately appreciate the effort, whether they even realize it or not. And so for me, it's not life or death. It's just me out there trying to do something fun and new and a different spin on something that's already been beloved for so long.
How did you approach voicing your characters?
Hill: I was honored to step into the role that Dwayne Jones had originated so wonderfully. But I was excited to expand the lens a little bit in terms of peering into Ben's journey. We know Ben's strength. We know his courage. We know his determination. But I felt that I could add a little peek into the trauma that was happening inside of him during this. That was the linchpin that I was able to hold onto to say that is what would be interesting, just to expand that a little bit more. Oftentimes, when we're going through challenging moments in life, whether it is a zombie apocalypse or a pandemic, we're just trying to make it through. But we don't take the time to acknowledge the trauma that is there and how it affects us individually.
Duhamel: I just felt like I wanted to try to play this guy as realistically as I could, considering the situation. He was the guy who was under a tremendous amount of pressure, uncertainty, stress, and fear, of not knowing what these things are wondering if his daughter has been infected by whatever these things have. And then, just trying to get through the night and trying to save his family, from whatever this is. From that came a guy who was opinionated and agitating and prickly. But in my opinion, I don't judge him for that. I just feel like, who wouldn't be in that situation? If you've got a daughter who may or may not be dying in the basement, you're gonna do whatever you can to save them. And that's where I played it from.
Did you watch the original for prep?
Hill: I watched the original as a refresher and to get a launchpad. But, I didn't study the original because I didn't want to do what Dwayne Jones did. You change any dynamic in something, any ingredient, then it's going to be a different cake. You pick out this one ingredient and put in another and it's going to taste different. And I am not Dwayne Jones. Dwayne Jones was phenomenal in the movie, but I'm not him. So for me, I didn't want to try to be him. I saw the original and then I left it alone. From that point, it really was taking my point of view, my experience, my energy into these moments and see what came out.
You all recorded separately so was that daunting knowing there was no cast to work against?
Duhamel: I just remember wanting to go in and try to elevate, as best I could, what was going on. I was the first one that recorded. Unlike being on a set somewhere and being around other actors, or having zombies actually on set there with you with special effects and blood, all that stuff helps create a performance. This is purely in your imagination. I had the original movie to go off of, but that was about it. I tried to elevate as best I could and make it as interesting and combative and conflicting and beautiful as I could.
Hill: In the recording, it was understanding what Jason was saying about what the world was and where we should be. It's a lot of trust, which is different. It was challenging, but that is also what is exciting about creating. That's what you want to do. You want to keep jumping off the ledge. That's what we should be doing as artists.
Do you have a favorite scene in this adaptation?
Hill: There is a scene inside the movie when Ben is talking about Beekman's Diner and I thought that we can really try to open it up for the audience a little bit to be able to connect to what's going on inside of Ben. He's been very strong and very determined, but this is affecting him. It's really messing with him on the inside. He is having a very traumatic moment. And that's going to go with him in his tomorrow. That was the thing that I thought that I could hopefully extend a little bit.
What were your thoughts on seeing the final film?
Hill: I really loved it. I was impressed with how engaged I was as a viewer. I was on the ride. I felt the tension. I felt the highs and the lows. And it's strange, because I knew what was happening because I recorded it and I read the script and I've seen the original, but I was along for the ride. There's powerful things that the animated world can do like the gore was more specific. It was expanded but more specific and that resonated. Some of the shots that they were able to do really jarred me and affected me. I hope that the viewing audience will enjoy it as well. I believe that they will. Again, Jason did a really magnificent job putting the whole world together. And I think if you're a fan of the original, I believe you will appreciate this expanded view of the story. It'll give you some insight into some insights into things that were not there.
Duhamel: I was pleasantly surprised by how eerie it was. I was thinking, "It's an animated version so it can't be that scary." But I was really into it. I love that Jason didn't feel like he had to fill every pause with a sound effect or some sound. I think too often, especially in modern stuff, we feel like we got to edit quickly to keep the audience's attention. But the truth is that we don't give them enough credit. And people's attention spans will stay for those silent moments that are full of tension, and just as interesting as anything you blast the audience with all the stuff that we can do with modern technology. Sometimes it's as effective to just let things breathe. And I thought he did a beautiful job of letting this movie breathe and letting the natural tension build. I was really into it. I liked the movie a lot. I was scared. I was sort of taken aback by how gruesome it was at times. They didn't hold back in that regard. And I was like, whoa, this is something I'm not going to be watching with my son. Kudos to them for having the balls to go for it. I love that.
Night of the Animated Dead is available now on digital and Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Bros. Animation.