Zombie walk celebrates Pittsburgh’s horror history

Zombies face great obstacles when trying to breach a city like Pittsburgh. With its three rivers, Pittsburgh becomes almost zombie-proof — for everyone knows that zombies cannot swim... or so goes the lore of George Romero’s 2005 film Land of the Dead. But as fans of the movies know, we may not be as safe as we think.

The Monroeville Mall, which was the set of Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead, will again be home to a host of undead on October 29.

Mark Menold, who hosts the local horror program The “It’s Alive” Show on WBGN, will lead what he hopes to be a record-breaking number of zombies into the mall — if all goes well, the place will be swarming with them. He is attempting to gather enough zombies together to break a Guinness World Record for most decaying corpses gathered in one place; so if you were planning on a new pair of Pumas to go with your Halloween costume, you may want to bring along your AK-47.

On second thought, leave the arsenal at home. The zombies in the mall this time around will be relatively harmless — just a group of horror fans dressed to kill. Or rather, dressed to eat brains. This will be the second zombie walk to take place in Pittsburgh lately; the last was in the South Side on September 22.

There is no word yet on how many zombies will have to appear in order for Menold’s minions to enter The Guinness Book of World Records. “This idea is so new that our message board committee is still trying to find out if this is a new category or if there is an existing number we have to meet,” said Menold. “I’m sure if there’s an existing number it will be beaten.”

There may not be a world record for most people posing in zombie garb, but walks like the one hosted by Menold have taken place in cities from Toronto to Atlanta. All that is required for a zombie walk is a few people dressed and made up to look like living corpses. Usually they stumble around a city or another urban area.

Looking at the success of the South Side walk in September, it shouldn’t be too surprising if Monroeville Mall is successfully inundated with the undead. “It could be 250, it could be 1000, I don’t know,” Menold said. “This is going to be all ages,” he said. In the South Side walk, no one under 21 could attend the event held at the Rex Theatre after the walk.

“There’s no such thing as a lame zombie walk,” Menold said. “As long as it’s more than one guy it’s okay. Because that’s really what they are: It’s just a few nuts who will show up somewhere unannounced and freak people out.”

Pittsburgh: Land of the zombies

It’s not just nuts who appreciate zombies. Though not everyone wants to recreate burn marks or decaying flesh with the use of household products — oatmeal gives you a “crusty” look — lots of people will go out to watch a horror film. Romero’s four zombie films, for instance, have a wide following that spans generations; Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, and Romero’s most recent film Land of the Dead came out just last year. Aside from Land of the Dead, all of the films in Romero’s zombie tetralogy have been filmed in or around Pittsburgh; and though Pittsburgh isn’t the name of the city in Land of the Dead, the city in the film bears strong (and intentional) resemblance to it.

Romero has also used Carnegie Mellon as a setting for his films: His movie Creepshow was partially filmed in the basement of Margaret Morrison. If you’ve felt chills run up and down your spine on the way to studio, now you can tell your friends it’s not just paranoia.

Romero attended college here, and though his education was delayed, he finally graduated in 1983. Suddenly it makes more sense that Ted Danson has a role in Creepshow.

Because of the Romero connection, several faculty members at Carnegie Mellon had the opportunity to take part in the films, too. College of Fine Arts Dean Barbara Anderson and her husband Cletus Anderson, a professor emeritus of drama, both worked on several Romero films; he served as production designer and she as costume designer. Both were involved in Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead. Judy Conte, another drama professor in the college, said that it was Cletus and Barbara Anderson who urged her to take a small but memorable role in Romero’s film Day of the Dead.

She chose to be a zombie ballerina “because [dancing] happens to be my expertise,” she said. By this time, Conte said, Romero was giving more recognizable roles to his zombies, such as a bride and groom pair or an undead construction worker. Conte explained that it took four hours of makeup to transform from woman to ballerina to zombie.
“They give you what they call appliances,” said Conte, “which are these latex rubber-made things to make it look like you have been gnawed at.” Conte’s appliances included an addition that made it appear that she had had a chunk taken out of her cheek, she said, and she also received a bullet hole in her neck.

“The interesting thing about doing it and being on a set ... is that you’re being refreshed every so often,” Conte said. “People are coming around and saying, ‘We have to put more blood in your bullet hole.’” Perhaps the most unique aspect of Conte’s ballerina zombie was the way she walked: She achieved a limp by walking with one foot flat and one foot en pointe. What’s interesting about Conte’s choice to stand with one foot en pointe is how much sense it makes, said Tina Shackleford, a professor in drama as well as a B-movie aficionado. Shackleford explained that if we assume zombies have lost a part of their will and a part of their brain power, what might be retained are habits — such the feet positions in ballet, which to a dancer come naturally.

The appeal of the (partially) dead

While it took four hours to transform Conte into a pirouetting undead for Day of the Dead, it doesn’t take nearly as long for Menold to become “The Professor,” the character he plays on his weekly show. “My makeup is very hokey and I can put it on in three minutes, but that’s a good thing,” said Menold. “I have to be able to play music with it on; it’s really the classic horror host makeup rather than zombie makeup.”

Menold’s love of horror began as a kid; at age eight he bought a monster makeup book that helped him perfect a scary look. “I would do crazy faces...,” he said, “and not just at Halloween.”

Part of the excitement of coming out for zombie walks such the one to be held on October 29 is getting to dress up as something truly ghoulish. That’s some of the appeal for English doctoral student Rebecca May, who attended the walk in the South Side. May said she has had a love of horror since her father accompanied her to haunted houses as a child, but this was her first zombie walk.

“My earliest memories are of haunted houses,” she said. After some time, though, May found herself more afraid of the spooky structures: “I would make my dad go through them, but then I would make my dad scrupulously tell me every detail,” she said.

It’s apparent that fright has its appeal; why else would we return again and again to horrific films like The Ring or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

According to drama professor Michael Chemers, Sigmund Freud had a theory about the soothing properties of frightening images, zombies in particular. Chemers explained that in Freud’s theory, humans suffer intellectual discomfort when they cannot tell whether the object of their gaze is alive or dead. The confusion, said Chemers, is horrific in the moment but therapeutic at the long run according to Freud’s view. “The zombie particularly engenders this crisis about this confusion between the living and the dead,” said Chemers. “The zombie embodies tensions about death, about the barrier between death and life.”

Zombies’ appeal could be rooted in complex theory, but it might come from something as simple as their quirky characteristics. As far as horror monsters go, zombies are a bit different. The appeal for Shackleford comes from their speed. “The slowness of them is something that levels the battle a bit. You actually can outrun them,” she said.

Whatever their appeal, zombies have been a large part of movie-making throughout the years. Films like The White Zombie, made in 1932, helped to begin the tradition of the undead in film. From there it has grown, and today video games like Resident Evil, and the Sega Genesis game Zombies Ate My Neighbors have taken up the chant for brains. So at the time of Night of the Living Dead, walking corpses were not particularly new. Interestingly enough, the creatures in Night weren’t even called zombies; according to Chemers they are referred to as ghouls throughout.

He explained that traditionally a zombie is controlled by a person or some other force from outside the actor. This, he said, has its roots in Haitian voodoo beliefs that told that priests or priestesses could wake the dead, at which point the walking dead would be completely under the will of the priest or priestess. Ghouls, conversely, come from Arabic folklore that defines a ghoul as a creature that humans are transformed to when they eat the flesh of the dead.

The lines between zombies and ghouls are no longer distinct, it seems. “Arabic folklore meets the Haitian folklore and becomes Americanized with Romero,” Chemers said.

Walk like a zombie

The genre of zombies in film and popular culture may have culminated with Romero’s films, but the zombie walks take the creatures out of the movies and into the streets.

Menold, for one, believes that since Romero’s genre-defining films took place here, Pittsburgh is also a prime location for the zombie walk. Even if he and his zombies fail to break the record, they will be carrying on a Pittsburgh tradition; this is a city full of rich zombie history. Whether you’re going to hunker down with a scary movie or dress up and call for “brains,” remember to give a toast to Pittsburgh: a football town with a zombie problem.