Images of rusty bridges, ketchup bottles, and football seem to come to mind when people think of Pittsburgh, PA. While we certainly are proud to be home to Heinz Ketchup and love our Steelers here in the Steel City, we’re also working hard to leave our rust belt image behind us. The city of Pittsburgh has become a small tech hub, and the healthcare industry has replaced the steel industry as the main jobs provider. Football is something that seems to be forever here in Pittsburgh, and you’re likely to see many people around town wearing t-shirts proclaiming that Pittsburgh is a “drinking town with a football problem”. But there’s something else that the city of Pittsburgh is very proud of. If you go into souvenir shops around town, you may find another t-shirt reading “Pittsburgh PA: Zombie Capitol of the World”. While in town on a speaking engagement, film critic and horror host Joe Bobb Briggs proclaimed Pittsburgh as the birthplace of modern independent cinema as we know it thanks to the efforts of a director named George Romero and a little film called Night of the Living Dead (1968).
I was 7 or 8 years old when I first saw Night of the Living Dead (NOTLD). At that point, I already knew that I wanted to be a filmmaker and I was consuming a steady diet of classic, black and white horror films. Before I had ever seen a frame of film, I knew the classic line “They’re coming to get you Barbara!” and had seen black and white still images of the shambling, undead hordes. NOTLD was unlike any of the other black and white horror films that I had grown accustomed to watching. There was something raw about it, the characters felt more real and human, and the zombies felt scarier and more threatening than the stop motion monsters from other films I had seen. The ending (in which the hero, Ben, survives, only to get shot after being mistaken for a zombie) traumatized, depressed, haunted, and infuriated me. Despite all this, I couldn’t get enough of the film and watched it again, and again, and again.
Finding out that the film had been shot in Pittsburgh gave it an added mystique. Suddenly the rural hills outside of the city became places of quiet, foreboding mystery where anything could happen. Years later, I found out that the sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), took place in Monroeville Mall, a place that I was quite familiar with as a child. Watching these horror movies set in locations that I was intimately familiar with made them seem more tangible and haunting. There was something else though too, a feeling of pride and inspiration that such formative and influential films had been made in Pittsburgh. As I grew older and became more serious about pursuing filmmaking, the films of George Romero were always front and center in my mind. But I wasn’t the only person, and throughout my childhood and teen years, I began to meet more and more aspiring filmmakers like myself that were also inspired by the Living Dead films or even downright obsessed with them.
Pittsburgh is a small town. We often joke that our subway system is probably only about a block long, and generally, everything in the downtown area is within walking distance. Everyone in Pittsburgh seems to know everyone, which only adds to the small-town feeling. If you mention Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead to someone, then odds are that they’ll tell you how they have a friend of a friend who played a zombie in one of those films. The iconic farmhouse from NOTLD has become something of a legend around here, and I’ve lost count of how many people have told me that the real farmhouse is located “right around where I grew up” or “right by my grandparents' house.” Both the cemetery from the opening of NOTLD in Evans City, PA, as well as the Monroeville Mall from Dawn, have become Meccas for local horror film enthusiasts.
Times have changed since Romero first made his little zombie film. At the time, NOTLD was unique as a film shot locally in Pittsburgh, but thanks to tax credits, Pittsburgh has now become a major production hub. If you mention a movie that was shot here, then it’s highly likely that someone will cut you off and boastfully proclaim “That was filmed here you know!” The Silence of the Lambs (1991), another iconic horror movie filmed in Pittsburgh, is another hometown favorite but isn’t spoken of with the same reverence as NOTLD.
A low-budget horror film going on to have a major cultural impact for decades perfectly encapsulates the scrappy, can-do attitude of Pittsburgh. The spirit of George Romero lives on in a tight-knit community of filmmakers that call this city home, and much like the Godfather of the zombie film, what this group of indie filmmakers lacks in budget they make up for with resourcefulness and heart. There’s an equally expansive community of special effects and make-up artists working in tandem with this group of filmmakers who have also been inspired by films of Romero and his collaborations with fellow local legend, Tom Savini.
Pittsburgh may be a football town, but we’re almost as much of a “horror” town as well. A museum dedicated to zombies and the works of Romero is now located in the Monroeville Mall. Annual “zombie walks” and “Living Dead Weekends” in which fans make themselves up like the undead and shamble about have been occurring annually since the early 2000s. Both the Monroeville Mall and Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood have also been home to shops dedicated to zombie merchandise at different times. Multiple horror film conventions are also held throughout the city, and if you attend any of these then you’ll be able to get a picture (and/or an autograph) with a cast member from one of the Living Dead films or maybe meet someone who portrayed one of the zombies.
In Pittsburgh, we love zombies almost as much as we love football. Romero’s films have become part of our identity here: he’s a local boy who made it big but never forgot his roots. It fills us with pride because not only has he influenced the art and culture of Pittsburgh, but his reach has extended well beyond our small city. Like Bram Stoker creating the archetype of the vampire that persists today, Romero didn’t create the zombie film, but he did create the iconic archetype that will continue to inspire and terrify for years to come. While we love zombies here in Pittsburgh, it’s the man behind the zombies that we love even more. Romero showed me, and others like me, that all you need is heart and the right idea, and a little film shot in a little city can have ripple effects long beyond what you ever imagined.
James Reinhardt is a screenwriter and podcaster with nine years of experience in the film industry and four years of experience scaring people professionally in the haunted house industry. Follow him on Twitter @JamesReinhardt.
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