Zombies rise from Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh has been home to a lot of scary things; see, for example, the haunted Dormonth library or the Pittsburgh Pirates’ season records. But, with all of the haunted houses and ghost stories in this city, many fail to realize the incredible impact that Pittsburgh has had on the Hollywood horror industry. In fact, because of its history, many would be surprised to know that Pittsburgh is commonly referred to as the home of the modern American zombie.

The concept of the living dead has been present in global culture for centuries now. In communities all over the world, folklore and legends consistently mention the resurrection of the dead. These cultural concepts birthed a modern-day notion, an infectious and highly contagious virus that wakes the dead and allows them to walk among the living as “zombies.”

Before these flesh-hungry, angry beings made their literary debut in Ambrose Bierce’s The Death of Halpin Frayser, the concept of the living dead had subtly appeared in many earlier publications. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, is a story of resurrected life that can be traced back to early 1700s European folklore. Even before this, religious stories collected in the Middle Eastern classic One Thousand and One Nights reference ghouls and the undead within their text. By the 19th century, zombies had successfully crept their way into the gothic poems of Edgar Allan Poe and the plots and storylines of countless supernatural novelists.

Predictably enough, it didn’t take long for the zombies to invade popular culture. Zombies were soon featured in movies and television programs all over the world.

It was George Romero’s 1968 independent black-and-white release of Night of the Living Dead, though, which truly revolutionized the modern zombie. Romero’s film was subversive and ground-breaking. In the film, the protagonists, played by Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea, find themselves trapped in a rural Pennsylvanian farmhouse attempting to survive a night through a sudden zombie conquest. It was a concept unlike any seen before it: The dead could actually come alive and eat us all.
Romero, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus, quickly became known as the father of the “Zombie Apocalypse” and, conveniently enough, he based his zombie empire right here in Pittsburgh. Not only were a majority of his movies filmed here, but his production company, The Latent Image, and industrial film firm, Hardman Associates, worked out of Pittsburgh as well.

Because of its incredible popularity, Night of the Living Dead spawned countless imitations, and Romero’s work became the source from which most modern zombie elements were borrowed.

As time progressed, Romero’s zombies evolved. No longer would they just be flocks of decomposing, flesh-hungry people. In his next films, Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead, also filmed here in Pittsburgh, Romero’s zombies appeared capable of learning and adopting methods of communication. Soon, zombie culture would make its way into comedy (Shaun of the Dead) and children’s media (in Disney’s Fido, the main character keeps a zombie as a tame and friendly pet).

Thanks to Romero and his band of corpse-loving creeps, Pittsburgh will forever be the birthplace of the modern zombie. So, this Halloween, instead of wrapping yourself in gauze like a mummy or poking holes in your bed sheets to dress as a ghost, maybe try to show some Pittsburgh pride and don a face of the living dead.