Music, Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. This time, Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman joins him to pay tribute to the late, great filmmaker George A. Romero.
I hate scary movies. And I’m far from the only one. There seems to be two camps: those who find the sensation of violent chills running up and down their spine enjoyable and those, like me, who instinctively cover their eyes when the monster finally appears and won’t even dare to spread their fingers for a peek. I’ve always chalked it up to having an overactive imagination. For instance, as a child, when I first saw Hannibal Lecter bid Clarice a fond adieu over the phone and walk off and disappear into a shifting (could be anywhere) crowd, I swear I saw that analytical cannibal behind every door, drape, and shower curtain for weeks. Even typing this now makes me anxious to look over my shoulder. Gulp.
Maybe that’s just how my brain is wired – my nature. As for nurture, well, there wasn’t any of that growing up, not when it came to scary movies, anyway. My parents never watched horror movies – at least not around me or my sister – and being the oldest sibling, cousin, and friend in my group, I didn’t have older males around to introduce me to the gory pleasures of Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers … or zombies. Yes, zombies. You see, I grew up a few short miles from the town and cemetery where the late George A. Romero invented the zombie genre with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Evan’s City, Pennsylvania. Of course, not knowing or caring to know anything about horror films, I had no idea that my childhood stomping grounds had once been trodden across decades earlier by rural locals portraying cinema’s first modern zombies.
I didn’t learn that I had grown up in the Land of the Living Dead until Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman and senior writer Justin Gerber – total horror nerds — came to visit my parents’ home early last August. I soon found out that the birthplace of zombies was a short drive away, a slightly longer walk, and that I had even worked security at the same mall Romero had used as the setting for his 1978 zombie follow-up, Dawn of the Dead. Again, you can see that dichotomy: the thought of zombies being within trudging distance of where I once had laid my head to rest every night resembled a Christmas morning revelation for Michael and Justin. To me, I figured, had I known, I wouldn’t have slept a single night as a child.
But, horror film buff or not, there’s some undeniable pride in knowing your hometown is responsible for putting something horrifying out into the world that’s actually positive. Tagging along to Evans City Cemetery, a local zombie museum nearby (who knew?), and Monroeville Mall, I came to appreciate that a creative spark struck here long ago continues to burn brightly around the world and acts as a guiding light for horror films not only being exhilarating escapes from mundane life but also being a medium through which thoughtful artists can offer insightful commentary on our daily lives.
In a small town just north of Pittsburgh, where we use the term “neighbor” affectionately, in part due to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood having also been filmed nearby, it turned into a long overdue pleasure and source of pride to discover that Mr. Romero had long been a neighbor of mine.
To celebrate the life and work of George A. Romero, Michael Roffman and I will share some of our thoughts and pictures below from our stay in the Land of the Living Dead.
Michael Roffman (MR): Matt, it is absolutely hilarious you lived your entire life not knowing about the horrors that actually surrounded you. The fact that you were even a security guard in Monroeville Mall — coincidentally, one of the first zombies we actually see inside the mall in Dawn of the Dead — was enough to leave me reeling on the floor when you first informed us a couple of years ago. Having said that, I do agree with you that not knowing was probably for the best. I’m not one to get easily scared from films, but Night of the Living Dead still gives me recurring nightmares whenever I revisit it, namely because there’s something so downright chilling about being out in the open … out in the darkness. The way that Romero makes this little, rinky-dink house like a filter for the walking dead is something I’ve never been able to shake. It’s a situation that, to me, seems so inescapable, and that’s certainly the case for the characters in that first film.
So, yeah, if I had seen the film as a kid, while living only miles away from the actual locations, I probably would need to see my therapist more than once a week. Then again, maybe I would have romanticized the whole affair and hung out in the cemetery. After all, I grew up across the street from a large sprawling cemetery in South Florida and loved it. Who knows. Matt, what were your thoughts seeing it as an adult? It’s funny. You finally saw the film after visiting all the locations and reading about it in the Living Dead Museum. How surreal was that for you? Did it feel more like a time capsule? I wonder if it’s sort of how I respond to old Miami Vice episodes, snazzy glimpses of a time I was too young to see and feel and understand. If I recall, we were all pretty spooked sitting there in your living room last August, and I think we even went inside after hanging out in your backyard. That darkness … it was just waiting for us.
Fortunately, we had Kirby, your sheep dog, by our side.
Matt Melis (MM): It’s definitely strange to learn that arguably your community’s greatest export was zombies. And looking back, it’s odd to think of so many pleasant, mundane childhood moments and retroactively insert zombies into those memories. I ate ice cream at a parlor just down the hill, played some of my little league baseball games nearby, and went to a local comic book store that took me past that cemetery on many occasions. Now, I imagine the undead waiting online for a scoop or staggering into the outfield as the umpire insists that we still “play ball.”
It’s always surreal to see your hometown or locations you know in a film. The irony, of course, is that it adds a desirable glamour to everyday, humdrum spots (a cemetery or a farmhouse or a mall) that makes them exciting, and yet what you really want to let the world know is that you pass that otherwise boring place regularly or have been going there your entire life. A little research into some of the local extras would also be interesting. I’m curious to know if some of those “zombies” still live in town and ask how they look back on that once-in-a-lifetime experience. What an unlikely community bond to share.
As for the film, and watching it at night with a rolling fog and in what I call “country darkness,” I actually didn’t find myself that terrified, again, maybe because I was eager to point out the bits of my life that could be seen in the movie. It’s funny. Above, I mentioned that had I known about my local zombie connection, I probably would’ve been haunted throughout my childhood by the knowledge. Now, it’s a bit bolstering to see familiar sights as the horror unfolds. It’s almost another way of reminding myself that it’s “only a movie.”
What did it mean to you, as a horror nut, to visit the birthplace of zombies, Michael?
MR: Well, it was a very pleasant surprise. Let’s not forget, this trip was about you — it’s all for you, Matt! — and that the only zombie connection we really had was visiting Monroeville Mall. It wasn’t until we arrived, and I started Googling for stuff to do in and around Pittsburgh, that we discovered we were truly in zombie heaven. As a longtime fan of Romero’s films, especially Night and Dawn, it was quite a revelation. I’m a total sucker for small towns and I really love when they rally around their past. So, the Living Dead Museum, to me, was a great experience and shed some light on how small and independent these ventures were, which, in turn, made me appreciate the films even more. Granted, it wasn’t as comprehensive as most fans would likely prefer, but the love and respect for Romero’s work was palpable. What’s more, the small-scale museum felt in line with Romero’s roots, and like the late filmmaker, the whole thing oozed with personality. Hell, I’m currently wearing my WIIC t-shirt I bought from the gift shop.
Unfortunately for us, we arrived much too late for Monroeville Mall, as the place has received quite a facelift in recent times, losing most of the ’70s accouterments that made it such a character in the film. Gone is the clock tower, the little bridge, and the escalator that Roger slides down midway through Dawn. Still, the skeleton was there, and the ghosts were talking. Standing at the second-story balcony where Ken Foree’s Peter made his resounding walking dead speech was thrilling, even if we looked like a bunch of doofuses gawking and taking selfies. If I recall, though, it also made me sad to be reminded how the times are a’changing and that we’re moving further and further away from the ’70s with each and every second. Growing up, that time period always felt far but seemingly at arm’s length. Nowadays, it’s a tough pill to swallow that the distance to when Dawn first came out (1978) to when I first saw it (1998) is nearly the same length from my first viewing to where we’re at today. It’s creepy.
Yet, it’s also a reminder that no matter how iconic something is, time will keep on moving. That notion really hit me later in the evening when we were at the Evans City Cemetery, shortly after we had our fill at the Living Dead Museum. As we creeped up the hill and rounded the graves, it hit me that Romero and his crew were on these very same streets … nearly 50 years prior. All afternoon, as we walked around looking for the right headstones from the film, even running into other fans, I kept playing that math in my head, going over everything that has followed since then. Vietnam! Watergate! Star Wars! Reagan! John Lennon’s death! Thriller! My entire life. As the sun dwindled towards the horizon, an image achingly all too similar to Johnny and Barbara’s visit in the film that started it all, I had this somewhat sobering realization that it probably wouldn’t be too long until, well, I’d be buried like this. Childish and obvious feeling, sure, but a feeling nonetheless. It’s a feeling that crept up on me after hearing about Romero’s passing.
I imagine your take was a little different, no? [Laughs]
MM: Well, you and I have been friends and co-workers for a decade. If we thought exactly the same, we’d probably have turned a hatchet on each other by now. But I’m glad that you brought up seeing fellow fans at the cemetery, looking for the familiar graves. Think of that for a second: Since 1968, many thousands have driven up that windy, little entrance to do exactly what we did. I now understand that Romero’s work invented the modern zombie movie. I also know that Night of the Living Dead has been preserved in the film registry of the Library of Congress. Those are absolutely huge feats, but the test of whether or not something truly matters to people and continues to live on is if people like us and that guy and his girlfriend keep making silly, little pilgrimages out to places in the middle of nowhere.
To me, it’s absolutely magical that a small, independent film made in a little hick town 50 years ago touched people the way it did. It’s possible that 50 years from now you’ll still see people like us going to these same locations just to feel a little closer to something that matters to them.
I also appreciate that Good can come out of the least likely of places — not just a zombie film but a community that frankly can take a backwards view on the world. Seventy-five percent of my neighbors were Trump voters in a state that traditionally goes blue, but even before Obama’s first electoral victory, I recall a news program that showed rural Pennsylvanians talking about how places like where I grew up just weren’t ready for a Black president. Then I read up on Romero’s work and some of the very obvious social messages that can be seen throughout Night of the Living Dead. Let’s just say that I’m proud to come from the birthplace of zombies, but I’m far prouder that that tradition is rooted in a message of tolerance and acceptance.
That said, if you choose to visit the original Land of the Living Dead, we’ll gladly leave a light on for you — a dim, iffy, unreliable light that sways and casts shadows on both what’s there and what’s only there in your imagination. Damn, there’s something behind me, isn’t there?