Pittsburgh is very much ground zero for the zombie phenomenon

They are as much a part of the Pittsburgh culture as pierogies and chipped-chopped ham. That's right, it's Halloween and there's no better place on Earth for "zombophiles" than the 'Burgh.

Those shuffling, gurgling deadheads are more popular than ever, thanks in part to a hit television show and our long-standing fascination with the undead.

Pittsburgh's love of zombies, of course, began with the "godfather" of the genre himself, George Romero, and his locally filmed "Night of the Living Dead" in 1968.

But since then, the cult phenomenon has skyrocketed in popularity.

The AMC series, "The Walking Dead," averaged 16.1 million viewers last week -- more than any other scripted or reality show on TV, according to USA Today. More American viewers tuned in to see the creaking, rattling limbs of the post-apocalypse than to Sunday night football.

Closer to home, paintball entrepreneur Richard Bianco says he can't fill seats fast enough on his ZEVs, or Zombie Extermination Vehicles, as part of the Pittsburgh Zombie Outbreak, the only haunted -- and interactive -- paintball ride in town.

"We sell out every single night," he said of the haunt held on the former grounds of the Dixmont State Hospital in Emsworth. "The phone never stops ringing."

Mr. Bianco and Dan Thomson, his business partner, opened the haunted ride Sept. 26 on the 300-acre site off Route 65. For $20, visitors get a ride through zombie-infested territory on a military vehicle equipped with mounted paintball guns. Each visitor gets 50 rounds of glow-in-the-dark tracer ammunition and a chance to "eradicate the infected and keep the world safe from a global pandemic."

"People love this," said Mr. Bianco, who also operates Steeltown Paintball Park year-round. "I have to turn away a couple of hundred people every night."

And, it's a moneymaker.

With Halloween now the biggest holiday after Christmas, visitors are willing to shell out big bucks for a chance to kill the undead, and "who doesn't love to shoot zombies?" Mr. Bianco asked.

He estimated that by the time the ride closes Sunday, it will "easily" gross more than $100,000 in sales.

"People have become very fascinated with zombies," he said. "When the economy gets bad, we like to do things close to home."

Spending on Halloween has reached record levels in recent years, with a nearly 55 percent uptick since 2005, according to the National Retail Federation.

Expected to reach $6.9 billion this year, much of that spending is related to zombies, which have been in the top 10 costume choices for children and top five for adults for almost a decade.

But why the fascination with zombies? Why not vampires or ghosts?

Sarah Lauro, a visiting assistant professor in English at Clemson University, thinks she has the answer.

"It's become our most modern monster," said Ms. Lauro, who completed her doctoral dissertation in "The Cultural History of the Zombie" two years ago. "Whatever we as a culture are afraid of, the zombie is very malleable so it can take on different things, like a virus or the threat of a global pandemic. The zombie allows us to work out what scares us."

After spending 10 years researching the subject, which she believes started as Haitian folklore, Ms. Lauro said she's working on turning her dissertation into a "readable book."

"People have felt they could intervene in that mythology more," she said of zombies. "People felt this was something they could pick up and change."

And Pittsburgh is very much ground zero for the zombie phenomenon, she said.

"The city of Pittsburgh gave us one of the most important movies of the 20th century with George Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead,' " she said. "It was such a landmark moment. I think the zombie will always be linked with Pittsburgh in a way."

Although Ms. Lauro sees zombie walks and haunts as a way to "exorcise our fears," local filmmaker Cody Knotts said that's overthinking things.

Fascination with fear

"People just love to be scared," said Mr. Knotts, the former publisher of a small weekly newspaper in Washington County who began making horror films several years ago. "Some of it's just for fun. Don't think too deep."

Mr. Knotts' film, "Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies," features famous wrestlerssuch as "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Shane "the Franchise" Douglas and local wrestler Kurt Angle, among others, battling hordes of zombies with classic wrestling moves and zero special effects.

"They all play themselves," Mr. Knotts said of the wrestlers. "It's a reality show within a movie."

Mr. Knotts got the idea for the movie from his teenage son and his friends, who love both genres.

And they aren't the only ones.

"The No. 1 shows on cable television are about wrestling and zombies, so we took the top things on cable television and put them together," said Mr. Knotts, who filmed most of the movie in Parkersburg, W.Va. "We thought it made sense."

A trailer for the film has had more than 100,000 views on YouTube.com, and the film opened last week at an international horror festival in Whitby, England.

The flick is set to premiere locally Nov. 22 at the State Theater in Uniontown and will be featured at several other upcoming festivals in Germany, Rome, New York and Brazil.

Mr. Knotts believes our love of being scared began with European folklore hundreds of years ago.

"We've always loved to tell tales," he said. "The idea of the dead rising started in the 12th and 13th centuries. People want to be entertained. There's no lesson to be learned in my film. It's just fun."

Zombie aficionado Patrick Konopelski of Reading agreed with Mr. Knotts.

"We humans love to kill our zombies," said Mr. Konopelski, owner of the Zombie Mud Run, a fun 5K race held in various U.S. cities each fall. This year's event on Saturday in Cadogan, Armstrong County, will be the first for the Pittsburgh area. The race pits humans, who must struggle through obstacles and mud, against "zombies," who try to capture flags carried by the runners before they reach the finish line.

Mr. Konopelski has been in the haunt industry for more than 20 years, and he attributes our love of zombies to the expectations of this generation.

"They're looking for participatory entertainment rather than passive entertainment," he said of visitors. "They want to be the players -- the stars. The Mud Run does that. It doesn't require a lot of skill."

Marketed on its website as a post-apocalyptic "obstacle Mud Run teeming with zombies infected with the living dead virus," the event is unique in each city -- and popular, he said.

"I think everyone's living in this sterile world in their cubicle," he said. "This allows them to push their limits a little. It's this generation's Dracula and mummy."

As for the relationship between zombies and the 'Burgh, Mr. Knotts said, Mr. Angle summed it up best in his favorite line of his film, after killing a series of zombies by flinging metal chairs and with body slams:

"Pittsburgh knows how to kill the undead."

For more information about zombie fun this season: Zombie Mud Run, www.thezombiemudrun.com; Pittsburgh Zombie Outbreak, Facebook page or www.pghzombieoutbreak.com. For tickets to the upcoming U.S. premiere of "Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies": Facebook page or www.brownpapertickets.com/event/453549.

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.

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