Welcome to House of the Dead. Billed as Pittsburgh's "premier zombie store," this Lawrenceville shop is a veritable brain stew of all things zombie. And, it's a bloody blast.
The t-shirts, the signs, the posters, the books, and - because what would a zombie store be without it - zombie flesh. All here in a corner store that's a gruesome display of horrific fun.
T-shirts read: "Eat locals," "Pittsburgh Bureau of Zombie Removal," and, in homage to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, "Monroeville Mall: It'll cost you an arm and a leg!"
"So, what do you know about Pittsburgh's connections to zombies," I'm asked by Stu Neft, one of the co-owners of HOTD.
"Uh," I stammer, eyes darting from a Shaun of the Dead poster to an alarming collection of bloodied stuffed animals (more on that later).
"Um... I know that my dad's cousin played one of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead," I say feeling proud of my blood, if you will, connection to the cult classic film. "And I know that one of my old boyfriends in high school played a zombie in the sequel, Dawn of the Dead." There. Two zombie movies, two connections!
But, I didn't know-until Stu told me, that is-that the Night of the Living Dead director, George Romero, attended Carnegie Mellon University and went on to work at WQED... And, if Wikipedia is true, filmed a short segment for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in which Fred Rogers underwent a tonsillectomy-perhaps the impetus behind Romero's claim to fame in the blood-and-guts-go-awry genre.
"The birthplace of zombies as we know them today is Pittsburgh," affirms Stu. He goes on to fill me in on more ‘Burgh connections to the Hollywood gore scene. Greg Nicotero, who is co-executive producer and Special FX Designer for The Walking Dead (and has directed a dozen episodes), is from Pittsburgh and attended school with Stu at Sewickley Academy (must've been something in the water). Stu also mentions that make-up artist extraordinaire Tom Savini, who hails from Bloomfield, has visited HOTD.
I sure would've liked to have been there for that visit because the conversations that take place here are almost as good as all the merchandise.
"The maggot barrettes are gone," says Stu. "The kids love them!"
When I point out the zombie gnome, Stu tells me with authority: "That will keep anything out of your garden."
I happen to stop by when the creator of Zombears (think: once cuddly stuffed animals covered in blood with their guts leaking out, and you'll get the picture.)
"The Winnie the Poo bear scares the parents," Stu tells the Zombears maker, who goes by the name of Doctor J. Apgar, and who's friend calls him the "Martha Stewart of Death Metal." Doctor Apgar buys stuffed animals at thrift stores - which he calls the Teddy Bear Morgue - and takes them back to his lab (a.k.a. his Highland Park living room) to doctor them up, so to speak. Doctor Apgar will hand sculpt other components into the remains (think: bones, organs, teeth), with some models even featuring electronic sounds and movements, so it's no surprise that the Zombears creations range from $15 to $200.
"We're down to six bears left," Stu tells him, noting that the "Daryl Bear" from The Walking Dead fame just sold. But don't worry, a Shaun of the Dead Bear is coming soon!
"Don't bring the clown here," Stu warns Doctor Apgar. "That'll freak Chuck out. Clowns are the one thing that freaks him out," Stu says of his partner, and HOTD co-owner Chuck Cramer.
I glance up at what appears to be a bloodied nightgown and think... Clowns? Seriously?
Doctor Apgar's friendly girlfriend, who is with him in the store, declares that she's hungry. To which Doctor Apgar responds: "All of these brains making you hungry, honey?"
I laugh as I look over the collection of children's wear, including little zombie bibs. There's a white one that's splattered in what looks like blood with: "Keep calm. It's only ‘sgetti sauce" imprinted.
I continue to peruse and stop at the collection of books. I see "Zombies Have Issues," and "Zombies Hate Stuff." Clearly, even zombies have issues beyond being dead and all.
P.S. Check out the Pittsburgh-made Zeke's coffee special blend: "Night of the Living Blend." Guaranteed to keep you up all night!