As a horror fan hailing from the Greater Pittsburgh region I grew up discovering Romero’s films alongside their tangible shooting locations. In my youth, this man’s work was the stuff of hometown hero mythos. His library was extremely accessible, causing the local tall tales to have such a credibility that I’d listen to anyone who spun yarns of the Romero legacy. No matter how ill-founded their sources may seem to me now. George’s name was so intertwined with my adolescent years that his absence feels similar to the loss of a family friend. Even now, weeks later, I feel an emptiness in the knowledge that the “dead” franchise is now finite. The personal tragedy being: There will never be another chance, I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr Romero. When you consider my sister’s association with his college alma mater and my familiarity with local entertainment endeavors, it is almost unthinkable that a meeting never materialized. I foolishly lead myself to believe that “there’s always tomorrow.”
By most accounts Pittsburgh in the decades leading up to the millennium was an industrial mecca, jutting proudly out of the converging of three major rivers. The skyline sat confidently perched on the shoulders of coal, sweat, and iron. As it was explained to myself, at one time you had to dust off your flowers daily due to the tell-tale furnace ashes. Smokes stacks that billowed around the clock dominated the horizons. Rooftop fires littered the riverbank hillsides, like ground level stars furiously burning in an effort to dispose of byproduct forging gasses. Before the advent of special features material, that is to say before I had seen Mr. Romero, I imagined a rugged man influenced by this scenic cityscape. A gentleman who could shoulder the slow collapse of local industry, a rough necked “yinzer” able to persevere. Just like the workforce had been forced to do during the wars between corporate and union entities. While Romero was not a mill worker, the industry was instrumental in driving the local economy. Steel was in everyone’s blood in the tri-county area. Somehow he not only survived, he prospered. Managing in the interim to create some of the most thought-provoking horror films to ever grace the silver screen. He certainly didn’t start out as such a respected auteur. Some of romero’s early paying jobs seem almost diametrically opposed to the subject matters of his later successes. Whether it be horror films, commercials, or even children’s television, Mr. Romero kept his heels dug into the western Pennsylvania landscape. Consequently a certain local pride is attached to his work.
George’s early efforts in the neighborhood appropriately started with Fred Rogers. You may remember him from public television’s “Mr Rogers Neighborhood.” Rogers, whose name is synonymous with Pittsburgh gave Romero his first real job in the industry. Early short films included “Mr. Rogers gets a tonsillectomy” a piece that George called the scariest film he ever made. Prior to this paying job Romero studied at Carnegie Mellon University. A school known worldwide for its technological as well as its theatrical programs. While they seem like opposing disciplines, you can’t stage a play without lighting I suppose. His post college company, the Latent Image produced commercials for local markets. The predominant customers being brewery’s, of which Pennsylvania has an abundance. From here on out it would seem George Romero would make a comfortable, non distinguished living, that is until he asked nine of his friends to kick in some dough and make a movie. It goes without saying that Night of the Living Dead would go on to make a huge impact on the world. However it’s humble beginnings were rooted here in Evans City north of Pittsburgh. A town that without the film would have fallen into obscurity. Now the good people of “the Living Dead Museum” organize sightseeing tours to the cemetery. No matter how morbid that may seem. They also curate a museum/gift shop that caters to dead film aficionados. Located appropriately in the confines of Evans City proper.
If the ambiguous vampire story is more your taste then check out Martin (1978) filmed in Braddock PA. Braddock had fallen into a state of dereliction in the years prior to it’s celebrity mayor, John Fetterman. As of late, the city’s unconventional urban development endeavors are having an obvious positive impact. George used the semi-residential Braddock as the backdrop for the uncomfortable tale of a young man named Martin, who may or may not be a vampire. At the recent Steel City Con I had the chance to ask Tom Savini, this films special effects maestro, did he have an opinion on the matter. He began slyly “George told me once” teasing the audience with the prospect of some inside definitive answer, only to revert to his personal opinion: Martin was just a weirdo who liked blood. This lesser known film from the Romero library is an essential early effort.
From Braddock it is only a short drive to George’s own Carnegie Mellon University. This campus is the home of sinister primate experimentations in Monkey Shines(1988). I had watched this film in my youth and when my sister began attending CMU in the early 2000s, an eerie sense of deja vu was prominent in every family visit. The collegiate architecture of this distinguished school is front and center for most outdoor scenes. Offering a very realistic setting for a tale of unbelievable horror. Noted moments include a disturbing paraplegic suicide attempt, and a cliche’, but correctly executed, jump scare ending. If you haven’t seen this film I recommend pairing it with a banana smoothy and all of the lights left on.
Finally no tour of George Romero’s Pittsburgh would be complete without a stop at the illustrious Monroeville Mall. What can I say about Dawn of the Dead (1978) that hasn’t been said countless times before? I spent my teen years in this mall, as a fan and a patron. I strolled casually past those iconic marble pillars when I went there on nervous high school dates. When I was with friends I pretended I was using them for cover. Briefly imagining an onslaught of corpses and Hells Angels with an audience of suspicious parents pulling their kids away from the “crazy man.” Mr. Romero’s masterpiece about four rogue survivors manages to be exciting and scary. A difficult combination that has only been achieved by masters of the artform. I liken it to Jaws in that respect.
Now the man is gone, the series finished. Without his presence in cinema we are left with his life’s work. A legacy that has forced horror fans to think and feel, rather than jump and scream. George A. Romero’s impact has reverberated through the medium during his lifetime, his passing has struck that chord one last time, to ultimately vibrate into infinity.