Let's Learn From the Past: 'Night of the Living Dead'

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The cult classic "Night of the Living Dead," filmed in and around Western Pennsylvania, was one of the highest grossing films in 1968 and helped to revolutionize the horror movie genre.

The film's director and producer, George Romero, attended Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) University in Pittsburgh and later ran a small production company in Pittsburgh. Among Mr. Romero's early projects was filming segments for WQED's "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" before the show launched nationally in 1968.

Looking to move beyond TV and commercial production work, Mr. Romero and his business partners John Russo and Russell Streiner sought to create a horror film.

Mr. Russo and Mr. Romero initially wrote two drafts of the movie's script, but Mr. Romero's third draft -- which featured reanimated human corpses terrorizing a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania -- was ultimately used for the film. While Mr. Romero described these living corpses as "ghouls," fans of the movie would later call them "zombies," despite the fact that the latter term was never mentioned in the script or movie.

Most of the scenes in "Night of the Living Dead," which was shot in 35 millimeter black and white film, were filmed in and around Evans City, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh in rural Butler County.

With a small budget just over $100,000, Mr. Romero utilized simple props and tricks to create gory special effects. For example, blood was Bosco Chocolate Syrup and the consumed human flesh was roasted ham donated by a local butcher.

The cast consisted of relatively little-known actors, many of whom were stage actors.

Major movie distributors such as Columbia were interested in releasing "Night of the Living Dead" only if Mr. Romero made the film less gruesome and reshot the final scene with a "Hollywood" ending. He refused and the film was released independently.

"Night of the Living Dead" premiered Oct. 1, 1968, at the Fulton Theater (today's Byham Theater) in Downtown Pittsburgh and became a huge success, eventually grossing $12 million domestically and $18 million internationally.

The movie spawned five subsequent "Living Dead" films directed by Mr. Romero, including "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) and "Day of the Dead" (1985).

Today, "Night of the Living Dead" remains an influential film. Television shows such as "The Walking Dead" and movies such as "Warm Bodies" help to carry on the zombie legacy created here.

On Friday, the Heinz History Center will host a special screening of "Night of the Living Dead" in honor of the film's 45th anniversary. Prior to the screening, visitors can take docent-led tours of the History Center's new exhibition, "1968: The Year That Rocked America." The History Center is partnering with The Scarehouse and House of the Dead to crown "Pittsburgh's Best Zombie" before the film begins at 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.heinzhistorycenter.org.

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