Ricky Church chats with Dulé Hill about Night of the Animated Dead…
The Night of the Living Dead is such a significant piece of movie history not just for creating the zombie genre, but for the way it was filmed and the focus on the horrific experiences the characters go through rather than the pulse-pounding action the genre is known for now. The film has been remade or reimagined a few times, not to mention how it has influenced many other horror films, with the latest being Night of the Animated Dead, an animated remake which follows the same story but includes a few elements the original either didn’t have or could not do at the time.
We got the chance to sit down with actor Dulé Hill, who takes on the role of Ben in the animated remake. We spoke about Ben’s iconic role as the film’s central hero, the film’s themes of survival, trauma and more. Hill will also be starring in the upcoming reboot of The Wonder Years, which premiered the day after Night of the Animated Dead‘s digital release, and we opened with the surprising connection he makes between the film and the reboot. Check out our interview below…
Ricky Church: Okay, I’m very curious. How does Night of the Animated Dead and The Wonder Years connect to each other?
Dulé Hill: Besides the fact one of them is coming out the 21st and the other one is coming out on the 22nd, they’re back-to-back, it’s really interesting that they both use storytelling to make a statement on the human condition, on the African-American experience in this country, in different ways. One uses humour and heart and another one uses horror, but they both take you on an emotional storytelling journey to make a statement about where we were in 1968 and where we are now. It’s kind of interesting to me that they’re coming out back-to-back because they really are the other side of the coin on the same issue.
Yeah. That’s cool. That actually really is interesting.
You wouldn’t think it, that’s not what you’d think that there’s a connection to Animated Dead and The Wonder Years, you know? (Laughs) Here’s the thing: in the late 1960s, early 60s, some would consider that could have been a horror too during that time for people who look like me. However, the joy of The Wonder Years in the midst of that is if you stay connected to each other, and we listen to each other, we still can create our very own wonder years. That’s what the joy about The Wonder Years is. Now with The Night of the Animated Dead, I think one of the issues with the characters is they don’t stay connected. They don’t listen to each other. So that’s why this is the outcome they experienced in this movie because if they did take the effort to lean into each other maybe, just maybe, it could have been a different outcome. Maybe they could have had a brighter tomorrow. I’m not saying they would have, but maybe. I know that because it was so much yelling at each other, for lack of better words, and not enough to listening to each other it made navigating this horrific nighttime that much more challenging.
Yeah, for sure. Now of course The Night of the Animated Dead is an animated take on the original film. What is it that sets this animated version apart from other remakes, versions or even other zombie films?
Beyond the obvious fact that it’s animated, which brings a different lens to it and allows for a different way of storytelling, I think what that allows us to do is highlight things that were not able to be done in the original and often times even in any other remakes. I think just because that’s not as feasible outside of, you know, when you’re dealing with live action for example, being able to actually see what happened at Big Ben’s Diner reveals a little bit more about the trauma that Ben has gone through and what is happening not only right where they are right now, but also in the world at large around it. I think that adds something to the story. At least it colours the story a little bit more. It gives a wider view of what is happening in the story. That’s what we were able to do with Night of the Animated Dead that you weren’t able to do with the original.
Night of the Living Dead has such a groundbreaking legacy to it. Why do you think that original film is so loved and impactful to this day?
I think one, because it really was a launchpad for the horror genre. It really set the tone of what can you can do with not using gore and the type of emotional journey you can take people along. I think it obviously, you know, it made a statement in terms of where we were at the time. Whether it was intentional or not it made a statement about society and our perception of each other, our perception of people who look like me and how does that all play itself out. In some parts of the film it was done in subtle ways and in some other parts it was done in very overt ways, but it made statements about that. I think that resonated because, especially, I think whenever you were telling a story that is saying something about the time that you were in that it has a chance to really have a greater effect and looking back on it, that’s what I feel the original did. I hope that even this reimagining of it, The Animated Dead, I hope it can have a similar effect of making statements about where we are. Even though it’s set back in 1968, it is very relevant to where we are today and a lot of the nuance of what was going on in the film is still very prevalent in our society today.
For sure. Like you mentioned earlier, you play Ben in The Animated Dead. You kind of touched on it a little bit, but can you expand your thoughts on what it’s like to take on such a iconic role?
I mean, taking on the role of Ben is challenging and daunting, but it also is exciting and liberating. I mean, Duane Jones did a wonderful job with his version of it and to be able to have the opportunity to lend my voice to this world really was humbling. But you know, when you’re stepping into a role and a project that is so iconic, you want to make sure you get it right. You want to make sure you don’t mess it up because my thought is always, especially when you’re dealing with something that’s been done before, if you’re going to do it then have something of value to add to it, move the ball forward a little bit, expand the lens a little bit, have a different point of view or something to say, otherwise leave it alone. The thing I carried with me was trying to bring something of value to the role that maybe was not there before because of the different artists. So if I’m going to do it I’m going to try bringing something of value into it that would take the story that much further and expand the world that much more and for fans of the original would hopefully be a nice addition to this world of The Living Dead.
It’s challenging though because doing the voice, you don’t have all the tools in your bag. Normally if you’re on film you have the camera and this and that, just gaze over here and blah, blah, blah. All you have here is your voice. It’s you and a microphone and that can be daunting, but for me it was exciting when you work with someone like Jason Axinn [director] and Michael Luisi [producer], I trusted their artistry, I trusted their vision and they really were great leading the ship to bring the film into the harbour really. It’s crazy because you’re not in the room with them, but I loved working with all of these actors. Jimmi Simpson, James Roday Rodriguez, Katharine Isabelle, Nancy Travis, Will Sasso, Josh Duhamel. I love all these all these actors. I’ve been on the same set as some of them, but I never worked with them on this project. Jimmi, James and Katharine, I’ve worked with them on Psych, but on this we were all separate. So it was a whole unique thing, but it was exciting to me! To me we should always be trying to grow as artists by doing different things. So even though it was challenging, it was also very exciting.
You touched on it earlier talking about connectedness and being able to listen to each other. The story focuses a lot on the themes of survival, trauma and morality. What else attracted you to the story the most?
You already took the words out of my mouth. What attracted me really was the trauma of Ben which was in that scene where he talks about being at the diner. We got the chance to peek into that side a little bit more, we see a strength on display, we see his determination on display, but oftentimes during those challenging times, which I think is very reflective of life, we don’t take the time to acknowledge the trauma of it all. Playing that for Ben, I was very excited to play this strong character and this determined character because in the past I haven’t often had chances to play roles like that on screen. Other characters have been a little more, I guess, reserved in there in their strengths. I was really, really excited to play that, but also in life when we’re going through challenging times and we have the strength to keep on pressing forward, we don’t oftentimes take the time to acknowledge the traumatic effect that is having on us and that was something I was excited to explore and I guess balance in telling the story.
Thank you very much to Dulé Hill for speaking with us!
Night of the Animated Dead is available on digital now and will be released on Blu-ray October 5th. The Wonder Years has premiered on NBC.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.