Zombieland star Woody Harrelson wields a unique weapon in Hollywood's unending "war on zombies": a banjo.

Somewhere Quentin Tarantino is groaning: "Damn! Why didn't I have Travolta use a banjo in Pulp Fiction?"

Sure, Woody Harrelson is having great success in his starring role as a survivor of rampant zombieism in the new send-up of the movie genre, Zombieland. What everyone forgets is the grandfather of all zombie movies was filmed in the region where I grew up: central Western Pennsylvania. The creator and director of Night of the Living Dead, George Romero, launched the cannibal zombie-flick genre in 1968. Back in that year, the sight of undead zombies (they were called "ghouls" in the Night of the Living Dead) devouring the living caused quite a controversy. Readers Digest published a contemporary article condemning the movie for showing gore and having the hero, an African-American man, killed at the end by police who mistook him for a zombie. Today, after zombie movies have become more sophisticated with special effects, Romero's slow-moving, clumsy, shuffling zombies don't scare too many people. All anyone has to do is run away from them. The zombies are too slow to catch them. What got the hero killed in Night of the Living Dead was staying in the remote Western Pennsylvania farmhouse. Staying in one place just gave the zombies time to swamp the farmhouse with sheer numbers and take away the living people's advantage of speed and quickness. As slow as Romero made the zombies move I'm surprised the huddled defenders didn't starve to death waiting for the zombies to show up and eat them. Not to be outdone, Romero had the zombies attack the huge shopping mall in Monroeville, Pennsylvania in Dawn of the Dead (1979). Romero explained that Dawn of the Dead was intended as a message about rampant consumerism in great shopping meccas like the Monroeville Mall. Yeah, right, George, and The Fast and the Furious is a message film about safe driving. George of the Jungle was a vehicle for animal rights advocacy, too. George, you made a zombie movie and snapped up a couple of mill for an investment of peanuts. It isn't any more complicated than that.

"Yeah, they're dead all right. They're...they're... all messed up!"

--An extra in Night of the Living Dead, playing a heavily armed sheriff being interviewed for a local news broadcast. Just an example of the quality of the dialogue.

George Romero attended film school at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, moving on to direct many episodes of the famous Pittsburgh-based children's show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood ("Can you say 'zombie,' boys and girls? How about 'ghoul?'" ). Romero raised $114,000 in 1968 to shoot his zombie flick in black-and-white in the Evans City area of Butler County. Today, this area is built up into strip malls, mega-convenience stores, and cul-de-sac housing tracts. Someday, the old Evans City farmhouse in which the surviviors took refuge from an army of zombies will make way for a Taco Bell. I can imagine George Will lamenting about how Americans have forgotten their history and neglected to preserve the historical site.

One of the local celebrities Romero got to appear in Night of the Living Dead was Bill Cardille (aka "Chilly Billy Cardilly"), a news reporter and host of Chiller Theater and Studio Wrestling on WIIC-TV, channel 11 in Pittsburgh for many years. The guys from my high school who went to see the movie, and treated it as a longer and more sophisticated slapstick Three Stooges comedy, cheered whenever Cardille reported about one of the towns in our school district, Allegheny-Clarion Valley, being under attack by ghouls. The mention of Foxburg, Turkey City, Emlenton, and Parker would cause eruptions of applause. Nearly all of the undead action in the movie took place in rural, small town areas north of Pittsburgh. Romero didn't have the zombies attack his hometown of Pittsburgh until he directed Land of the Dead in 2004. This time the fugitives were huddled inside the walls built around Pittsburgh instead of inside a farmhouse near Evans City. As usual, the zombies milled around aimlessly outside, building up numbers, until they surged into the city eating everyone they could swarm over. How long, oh Lord, how long, until the zombies eat Congress?

"Kill the brain and you kill the ghoul."

--Staged television news broadcast in Night of the Living Dead.

With Zombieland looking like a big success, it was high time to make people remember that Western Pennsylvania isn't just famous for steel, aluminum, Steelers, Penguins, and as a breeding ground for pro-quarterbacks (Namath, Montana, Unitas, Marino), but is also the birthplace of the modern Zombie Movie. So, after you enjoy Woody Harrelson slaying zombies with his trusty banjo, you might want to make a pilgrimmage to the land where it all started. Just make sure you remember not to "hole up" somewhere if zombies appear. Just run, or grab a banjo.



October 31, 2009

Yes, the Grandmaster of Zombie Movies was the host of two showings of the 1968 classic zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead. Mr. Romero was still claiming that he used zombies as a way of conveying social messages in his movies. I still don't get that as almost no one I've met, who is a fan of zombie movies, got much of a message from any of those movies, whether Romero made them or not. They are just zombie movies, and that is why people go to them.

I sat through one of the showings of Night of the Living Dead so I could see the opening sequence in the cemetery near Evans City, Pennsylvania. A brother and sister visit the cemetery to place a wreath on their father's grave, only to get attacked by a lone zombie who looks like a stand-in for Boris Karloff. At one point, the sister takes off, gets in the car, and puts it in neutral to get it to drift down the hill to get away from Boris, who is hanging on to the car. The entire time this music was playing on the soundtrack. It sounded familiar. "Da-da-da...DA!" kept being repeated by the trumpets. After a couple of repeats of the music, it hit me: it sounded like the theme from Get Smart. Then, I thought of Don Adams' Maxwell Smart being the hero of Night of the Living Dead. "Chief, that ghoul missed me by that much!"

Such are the unintended humorous moments in a zombie flick.



Poster of the original George Romero zombie movie. Apparently, the "They Won't Stay Dead" quote applies to zombie movies, too.

Poster for Zombieland. Woody is a little better armed with a sawed off shotgun rather than a banjo.

Abigail Breslin: Her character is probably the real brains of the little band of survivors in Zombieland