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How Pittsburgh became the home of zombies through legendary filmmaker George A. Romero
With the recent assurance that Pittsburgh has ranked in the Top Ten 2022 Best Cities for Surviving a Zombie Apocalypse, this is a great time to review the folklore and filmmaking around the undead to keep us safe through another spooky season.
More than 50 years ago, film director and Carnegie Mellon University graduate George A. Romero released a movie that would become a horror classic of independent filmmaking, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Let’s take a minute (or a much slower-moving zombie minute) to remember the inspiration and impact of Romero’s creature features, along with how his work is still being celebrated today.
While Romero may have brought the undead and their insatiable appetite for brains to the forefront of the second half of the 20th century, the storytelling appeal of the undead began much earlier in history, highlighted by an intriguing discovery in 2015.
An archaeologist from the University of Pittsburgh, Carrie Sulosky Weaver, studied two sets of human remains that were discovered in the remnants of a 2,000-year-old Greek village in Sicily called Passo Marinaro.
LiveScience and Weaver note that, “The ancient Greeks believed, ‘to prevent them from departing their graves, revenants must be sufficiently 'killed,' which [was] usually achieved by incineration or dismemberment. Alternatively, revenants could be trapped in their graves by being tied, staked, flipped onto their stomachs, buried exceptionally deep or pinned with rocks or other heavy objects."
The University of Pittsburgh has also fully embraced the fictional side (we hope) of zombie history with its comprehensive guide to Romero’s work, found online and in-person at their George A. Romero Archival Collection on campus.
Two millennia later, with the advent of film, tales of the undead would reach a worldwide audience. Beginning with short silent films, such as 1896’s The House of the Devil, often considered the first horror film, 1910’s Frankenstein, and the 1922 full-length Nosferatu, horror films would establish a profitable audience market.
Interestingly, it took some time for what is often recognized as the first zombie film to make its debut with 1932’s White Zombie. It wasn’t until Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, made on a shoestring budget, that a definitive zombie legacy was created.
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Often acknowledged as a famous Pittsburgher, Romero was actually born and raised in the Bronx, New York. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon in 1960, he started work in film and television, even working on a show that may be considered the antithesis of his famous work, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Despite working with one of the ‘nicest guys in the business,’ his personal work was often dark in content.
With the release of Night of the Living Dead, followed by 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead, he’s delivered a different legacy than our guy Fred Rogers. Romero’s movies became one of the most profitable franchises in film history.
And even though he didn’t set out to make an intentional zombie movie—no character utters the word ‘zombie’ in the original—Romero adopted the term for his future films, after referring to the creatures as only ‘ghouls’ in the first film. His work with make-up and special effects master and Pittsburgh native Tom Savini, who worked with Romero on the latter two Dead films, would continue throughout his career.
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Today, much of Romero’s work is celebrated as inspiring a new generation of horror filmmakers, and he remains a beloved figure in Pittsburgh pop-culture.
Most recently, the Carnegie Science Center's popular miniature railroad has given a humorous nod to his local work in 2022. The Science Center worked with the Evans City Historical Society to create a near-exact replica of the church and cemetery located in Evans City, PA, where much of the film was shot. It may be a small tribute, literally, but figuratively reflects the continued celebration of Romero’s massive legacy as an honorary Pittsburgher in film history.
Additionally, the Science Center is hosting two showings of the original Dead on Oct. 28, 2023, at the Rangos Giant Cinema.
And, if IMAX-sized zombies still doesn’t satiate your need for nightmare fuel, take a day adventure to the Monroeville Mall where the second movie was filmed and check out the The Living Dead Museum, featuring interactive experiences, memorabilia and even a bronze bust of the filmmaker.
In Evans City (the site of another classic Romero, 1973's The Crazies), The Living Dead Weekend from Oct. 20-22, 2023, celebrates the 55th anniversary of the film with celebrity appearances, film site tours and cosplay—providing a truly immersive experience in your never ending search for more ‘braaains!’
Just remember to stay quiet, move fast, and aim for the head. Zombies are pretty slow…most of the time!