Zombie zealots amass to save cemetery chapel from 'Night of the Living Dead'

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Forty-four years ago, Gary Streiner was a 17-year-old kid standing in front of a ramshackle chapel building in an Evans City cemetery, helping to film a movie called "Night of the Living Dead."

These days, Mr. Streiner still visits that spot in the cemetery, in front of the same ramshackle chapel. But now, he's the leader of a growing band of horror fans hoping to preserve the chapel building as a piece of movie history.

In September, the Evans City Cemetery Association granted Mr. Streiner's request to try to save the structure, giving him one year to raise the estimated $50,000 required to repair the chapel -- the backdrop for Johnny (played by Mr. Streiner's brother, Russ) to utter the iconic line "They're coming to get you, Barbra," in the opening minutes of the film.

The effort has drawn nearly 2,000 people to a Facebook page, where they share and execute fundraising projects including T-shirt and poster sales, customized zombie portraits and sales of pieces of the decaying chapel roof. About two months into the campaign, they've raised nearly $7,000.

"People just want to be a part of this," said Mr. Streiner. "It's cinematic history."

Ron Volz, president of the cemetery association, said board members wish Mr. Streiner luck but said that if the effort falls short they will have no choice but to tear down the chapel. He acknowledged its iconic cinematic status, noting the chapel is the last remaining building featured in the zombie classic.

"We have people in town who want to keep it, but we need the money to restore it. He's come up with great ideas to raise money but 50 grand is going to be tough to raise, I think," Mr. Volz said. "But if he gets zombies from all over the United States to contribute ... he can raise it. It will be a great improvement over what's standing there now."

After a career in advertising in New York City, Mr. Streiner returned seven years ago in semi-retirement to a farm that he'd bought in Evans City.

In 2008, the town historical society asked him to put together a commemorative event for the 40th anniversary of "Night of the Living Dead."

When he heard this summer that the chapel was slated to be demolished "whenever somebody has a backhoe that was available," he put out the word on a Facebook page that had been organized for the Living Dead Fest anniversary celebrations.

The response was overwhelming, with more than 100 people a day signing up to donate money and help creatively with the cause.

The fundraising effort seems to have reawakened interest in zombies generally and the chapel specifically, Mr. Volz said, noting that recently a man traveled from Michigan just to see it.

Mr. Volz, owner of Kinsey-Volz Funeral Home in Evans City, good-naturedly acknowledged the oddity of a funeral director discussing zombies.

"I don't have a choice," he said with a laugh.

The chapel was built around the 1920s and was actually used for religious services on only a couple of occasions, Mr. Streiner said. It had a much longer lifespan as a maintenance shed but is no longer used even for storage.

The chapel has boarded up windows, as it did for the movie shoot, rotted gutters and damage to the foundation.

The cemetery association has historically been reluctant to allow official celebrations of "Night of the Living Dead" out of concern for desecration of graves, but is now on board with the fundraising effort.

Mr. Streiner said that he hopes to restore the chapel just as it always was -- no running water, no electricity, no gas hookup, just a potbellied stove. He hopes that it can be rented out for use at events such as zombie-themed weddings or graduation parties and maybe even function as a mini-museum.

Mr. Streiner considers himself blown away by the response from fans and the fundraising success thus far. Fundraising efforts on the group's website, www.fixthechapel.com, are just getting under way.

Posters designed by one Facebook group member are already for sale online and Mr. Streiner expects T-shirts to be available soon -- in time for the holiday season. A movie screening and benefit will be held in San Francisco in early December; there will be appearances on Internet radio shows.

"In 20 years, people will see that this group of really hard-core fans came to the rescue," Mr. Streiner said.

There are also plans to sell merchandise in the spring at various horror conventions and Mr. Streiner is awaiting a letter from movie director George Romero as an official fundraising kickoff.

One of those fans, Joe Barbarisi, has moved temporarily to Zelienople from his home in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., to make a documentary about the efforts to save the chapel.

Mr. Barbarisi, 47, remembers the first time he saw -- or rather, listened to -- "Night of the Living Dead." Then 5 or 6 years old, he snuck up a set of stairs at a theater to listen to the movie, which his mother allowed only his older siblings to watch.

"I remember the chills on my arm," he said. "I wasn't scared, it was more of a love for the genre."

"Night of the Living Dead" was one of the movies that inspired Mr. Barbarisi to try making his own movies, starting when he was a teenager with a Super 8 camera.

The efforts are a testament to the power of the movie, he said. It defined the zombie genre that is still alive (or dead!) and well in productions such as AMC's popular series, "Walking Dead."

"It's a passion for the film, for history, for the zombies" that drives those invested in the effort, he said. "To them, it's a very important part of their life, as it is with me. It's something to feel proud about: I helped save Evans City chapel."

Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308. Staff writer Michael A. Fuoco contributed.


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