"They're coming to get you, Barbara!"
With those words, spoken in a passably good Boris Karloff impersonation by Russell Striener, movie history was changed forever. I set out to discover that history.
I gassed up my Jeep (The U.S.S. Nostromo) last night and made the decision to brave the impending storms, rain, and 50 MPH winds to make a long overdue pilgrimage to the Evans City Cemetery. Yes, verily did Doctor Zombie bravely enter Zombieland, a land of Steelers fans and - it's been rumored - cannibals. (Seriously. I hear Steelers fans eat their own young. Gruesome indeed!)
Anyway, I drove halfway to Evans City yesterday evening and spent the night at my family's hunting camp on the Ohio/Pennsylvania border.
I woke early, having slept unwell because of the rain and winds, and was on the road by 7:30. By 8:45 - I was in Evans City. Today was a great day to make the pilgrimage to what could - arguably - be one of the holiest meccas for a horror fan EVER. It was a perfect October day. Cool, stormy, and the wind blew and swirled the fallen autumn leaves like disembodied spirits. I couldn't have asked for a better day!
Evans City is - for those of you joing us late in our programming - where George A. Romero filmed his 1968 zombie masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead. I'm fortunate that I live so close to Pennsylvania and, if you'll remember, last summer I made the pilgrimage to Monroeville and the Monroeville Mall.
You can read about that adventure by clicking here!!!
At that time I vowed to return and visit the holy land of zombie films itself. Evans City. Romero's Night of the Living Dead changed the face of horror movies and also changed how we saw zombies. Rather than there being portrayed as the magically or chemically voodoo'ed victims of Haitian sorcerors - they became the ravenous, undead monsters we all know and love today.
And it all started here.
You can imagine my geekish joy as I drove southward out of the small town (where Romero also filmed his paranoid, government conspiracy film, The Crazies , a few years later. The Crazies was a good movie, but its recent remake is one of the rare exceptions to the rule in that the remake was exponentially better than the original)... and suddenly I was there.
That iconic road cutting up into the forest.
Here's a picture of it from the original movie...
And here's what it looks like today. Note the new sign just to the right of the Nostromo.
Here's a closer look at the new(ish) sign...
I made my way up the hill with anticipation and, as you round the curve at the top of the hill, you see two newer signs on the drive in. The first replaces this sign from the movie...
It now looks like this...
Further up the road is a nice new Evans City Cemetery marker that is really, really new.
Just past this sign, following the curve of the hill, I was suddenly there. Immediately as you enter the cemetery, you pass the famous chapel. I swung around and, based on these shots from the movie...
... used the Nostromo as a fill in for Johnny's groovy blue coupe!
Then it was a matter of finding the other graves. At first I was a bit anxious about it. The cemetery's actually quite big, especially seen from the chapel near the entrance. But then I realized that, based on where I was standing when I took the shot of the chapel, I was already there. All I needed to do was turn around because Romero filmed everything in the same area. Seriously - he literally turned his cameras around and shot the follow up scenes.
So I set up capturing the sights on film. First, I found the grave that stood in for Johnny and Barb's dearly departed old man.
Here's them approaching it in the movie...
...and here's Doctor Z doing the same! (In his snazzy Night of the Living Dead t-shirt! Bonus points for the 31 Days of Horror T-shirts!)
Here's a better shot of the grave. I should note that many of the trees in the original movie were blown down in a tornado several years ago, so there's very little of the shade that you see in the original film.
Here's one of Barb from the other side (as she walks away from Johnny when he delivers his famous line), and also how it looks now...
That last shot may look familiar. Although I moved the camera maybe three or four feet, that's also the same place where Bill Hintzman's Zombie # 1 makes his first appearance.
And, today... what a nice beautiful sunny sort of day in this nice cemetery...
Wow. It got awful dark. I just got a chill...
Wait... is that something moving up there?!?
Look's there's one of them now! They're coming to get you... Aahhhh! It's Doctor Zombie!
And of course, this is the point where the zombie attacks Johnny... and Barb cowers in fear...
Not as pretty, but just as scared...
This next part was, I thought, going to be difficult. I looked around for the grave that Johnny was killed on, but all of the graves looked so much alike I was afraid I wouldn't be able to find it. Luck struck out of the blue and I turned from the grave where Barb cowered above, to see the one the next row up. To refresh your memory. Johnny gets attacked, and he is pushed to the ground, striking his head on a gravestone and - presumably - dying.
My concern was that I couldn't read the name on the screen captures I had with me. At no point can you see the name on the tombstone... but then, as I said, I turned and saw the headstone. If you look above, there's a very distinct circle pattern in the marble on its side. That what I saw and I breathed a sigh of relief...I'd found it!
But then I had my skull bashed in by another passing zombe. How rude!
Here's some more shots of Johnny's car driving...
And my attempts at recreating them...
Some further comments on these. In the second one, with the power lines... this is in a newer part of the cemetery and there are tons of new tombstones that - obviously - weren't in the shots from 1968.
About the one with flag... how fucking cool is that?!? I managed to get a shot with a flag as well. Near as I can tell, that is a flag placed on the same grave for the same US Vet. I took a picture of the tombstone because I thought it was cool that he contributed to Night of the Living Dead, and could also help me in my geeky idiocy almost 45 years later. Plus - Doctor Z. loves graveyards and the stories they tell. And Staff Sgt Elmer McClelland must have had a great story.
And so, as I finished those last shots, I logged into my Kindle and geekily announced my whereabouts. And then, sadly, I bid adieu to the Evans City Cemetery.
I made two more quick stops on the way. First, I drove further south from the cemetery and - again by pure luck - found another shot that I'd hoped I could find. About 4 miles down the road is a distinctive curve from the intro..
How it looks today...
Then, as I turned around and headed back towards Evans City, I decided to stop at a convenience store because I required the sort of sustenance that every road-tripping zombie needs - human flesh. Unfortunatly, they had none, so I had to settle for some spicy beef jerky and a diet Coke Zero. The thing is, I walked in and immediately saw a big Night of the Living Dead poster by the Coke cooler. You see, the chapel in the cemetery is falling apart. Sadly, Evans City has decided the cheapest way to deal with it is to knock it down.
So, several of the people involved in the movie are working to save it for its historic value. I couldn 't agree with them more.
To that end, there's a charity event next weekend in Zelionople (which is about 5 miles away).
Being the geek I am, I asked the lady behind the counter of I could take a picture of it. She said abolutely and commented that it was funny how many fans of the movie visited the town because of the cemetery. She also laughed and said that George Romero himself visits the store quite often (I imagine it's to replenish his cigarettes. The man is a smoking fiend!). Apparently he lives nearby. Even funnier, she said she had no idea who he was until she saw a news story about the chapel a few weeks back.
I thanked her, bought my beef jerky and coke (and threw in a couple Reese's Peanut Butter Pumpkins. Mmmmm!) and ran and got my camera. I snapped a picture of the poster and seriously debated whether I should camp out in the parking lot of the convenience store to stalk down and meet the master himself, George Romero. Cooler heads prevailed and the logical part of my undead brain won the argument with the calmly constructed argument that Mrs. Zombie'd probably divorce me if I didn't get back home soon.
The funny thing is - in a strange twist of fate - I'd snapped a quick photo of the theater where the benefit's being held when I'd driven through Zelionople earlier in the day. I snapped it because I thought 'How goddamned cool! An old time theater playing classic horror movies in October.'
So I left Evans City behind. But I didn't leave alone.
Like I said, the chapel's falling apart. While I was walking around it, I found several old pieces of mortar laying around. I couldn't help myself... I grabbed one off of the ground. I'm not sure what I'll do with it, but it is a piece of horror cinema history, and it will hold a place of honor amidst the other memorabilia I've collected over the years. Moreso if they fail to save the chapel. Sad, indeed!
Some final words:
The Strand Theater in Zelionople has information on the benefit to save the chapel.
Check out the Save the Chapel Facebook page for ways you too can help save the chapel.
And if all of this has you jonesing to see the original movie - or at least the parts that I talked about - I've attached a clip of the entire cemetery scene. Enjoy!
(Note: I used a mix of screenshots of the original Night of the Living Dead for the comparison photos in this story. Some of them are black and white, and others are color. I know some of you out there may consider the colorized versions borderline blasphemous, but truthfully, the updated and colorized version is a much better copy and made clearer screen grabs.
In other words, don't get your panties in a bunch, Nancy... Dr. Z.)