Pittsburgh Embraces a Renegade Filmmaker | Modern Society of USA

Pittsburgh Embraces a Renegade Filmmaker

Pittsburgh Embraces a Renegade Filmmaker

In 1968, decades before zombies laid waste to the American landscape in “The Walking Dead,” they imperiled Pittsburgh in “Night of the Living Dead.” Directed by George A. Romero, it was a game-changer in the horror-movie genre. Shot in low-budget black and white, it was a zombie film (the undead threaten a house full of strangers) with a social conscience (led by a black character, the era’s racial unrest is an ever-present menace). The movie is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

The spirit of Romero’s flesh-eaters and imperfect heroes is what’s fueling Romero Lives!, a new citywide initiative aimed at celebrating Romero and drawing devotees to Pittsburgh. If a group of horror-movie fans have their way, Romero will be to Pittsburgh what John Waters is to Baltimore: a director whose visionary (and offbeat) filmography is a cultural tourism generator.

It’s worth noting that Steel City already has two famous artistic sons, Andy Warhol and August Wilson, who are a draw for tourists. Warhol has his own museum, and Wilson is the namesake of an African-American cultural center. But George Romero? In this ambitious and unusual undertaking, organizers are convinced that the horror-movie director will have plenty of appeal for cultural tourists in a city of hills and often overlooked charms.

“Pittsburgh cannot only own George’s accomplishments and legacy, but it can instruct and educate and delight others about that as well,” said Adam Lowenstein, a professor of film studies at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the main coordinators of Romero Lives!

A must-see for Romero devotees is the bronze bust of Romero at the Monroeville Mall.CreditRoss Mantle for The New York Times

Romero, a Bronx native, made maverick movies in and around Pittsburgh for almost 50 years before he moved to Toronto, where he died in 2017. Romero most reflected Pittsburgh in films like “The Crazies” and “Martin” with characters that epitomized the city’s working-class population, and through themes — like corporate greed and environmental trauma — that rattled the region in postindustrial America. Romero often cast his movies with locals.

The locations that will most appeal to Romero pilgrims sit far from Pittsburgh’s trendy Lawrenceville and East Liberty neighborhoods. The real must-see is the bronze, intricately sculpted bust of Romero at the Monroeville Mall, about a 20-minute drive from downtown Pittsburgh. Made by the local sculptor Christian Stavrakis and installed last June, the work is perched without much fanfare at the shopping center where Romero shot his anti-materialist zombie manifesto “Dawn of the Dead.”

The mall’s parking lot and its signage remain mostly unchanged, an instantly-recognizable detail that “Dawn of the Dead” fans will eat up on Instagram. An annual “Dawn of the Dead” fan convention, which takes place inside the mall, started in 2016. The next convention is set for June 2019.

The other main Romero attraction is in Evans City, a Pittsburgh suburb about 30 miles outside downtown, where Romero filmed “Night of the Living Dead.” At the Evans City Cemetery, visitors can drive on the road and roam among the tombstones seen in the film’s memorably terrifying opening scene. In the town center is the small Living Dead Museum, featuring props and memorabilia about the film and a zombie culture “Maul of Fame.” An annual outdoor festival celebrating the film takes place there every October.

There’s no hard data about a rise in tourism as a result of Romero Lives!, but anecdotally there’s evidence. Several organizations, including the Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival, credited Romero-related events for significant upticks in attendance, results that Mr. Lowenstein hopes will help turn Romero Lives! into an annual celebration.

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