Now that the pandemic is winding down, it’s time to party like it’s post-apocalyptic 1985!
Living Dead Weekend, the annual celebration of zombies in pop culture, takes over Monroeville Mall from July 2-4.
This year’s celebration is a tribute to two horror films released in the summer of ’85: George A. Romero’s “Day of the Dead” and Dan O’Bannon’s “The Return of the Living Dead.” There will be cast reunions, panel discussions, photo ops, movie location tours, film screenings, vendors and after-show shindigs. Tickets are available online and at the door.
Organizer Kevin Kriess, who runs the mall’s Living Dead Museum, isn’t sure what kind of turnout to expect, but he knows fans are hungry for fun. Horror, after all, has a way of healing.
“People really want to get out and do something,” he says, noting that Steel City Con, held at Monroeville Convention Center, was packed during its three-day run in June.
Romero’s “Day of the Dead” is the third installment in his locally shot zombie trilogy that includes “Night of the Living Dead,” filmed in Evans City and “Dawn of the Dead,” which used Monroeville Mall as a backdrop.
“The Return of the Living Dead,” based on a novel penned by “Night of the Living Dead” co-writer John Russo, is a tongue-in-cheek take on the zombie genre with a punk rock soundtrack, slapstick humor and over-the-top gore.
Linnea Quigley, who plays Trash in O’Bannon’s cult classic, will host a VIP party on Friday night. The actress will recreate her infamous 1990 exercise video “Linnea Quigley’s Horror Workout.” She’ll be joined on stage by ripped zombies from Death Comes Lifting, a Pittsburgh-based company that designs fitness plans and attire for horror-loving health nuts.
This “exorcise” routine requires a separate ticket, which includes a photo op and refreshments from 9 to 11 p.m. inside the mall.
As a diehard zombie devotee himself, Kriess knows it’s an event folks will eat up.
Kriess grew up near Evans City, about 30 miles outside of Pittsburgh. In fact, many of his relatives are buried in the cemetery where Romero shot the opening scene of “Night of the Living Dead.”
He didn’t see the black-and-white flick until he was in his teens, but it simultaneously scared and captivated him. The flesh-eating ghouls were horrific, but, the cast, with their Pittsburgh accents, sounded like his friends and neighbors. It gave him a sense of hometown pride and brought the magic of Hollywood to his backyard.
“The Return of the Living Dead” cemented his love of the horror movie genre and Kriess started throwing annual Halloween parties based on the fast-paced splatterfest. Eventually, those brain bashes morphed into a business.
In 2008, Kriess opened Toy Galaxy at Monroeville Mall, a brick-and-mortar extension of his online collectibles company. In the back of the store, he erected a small tribute to “Dawn of the Dead” called Monroeville Zombies.
After a while, he realized more people were shambling in to pay homage to Romero’s 1978 masterpiece than to shop for vintage action figures. Visitors came from all over the world to bask in the gory glory.
Kriess eventually expanded the shrine into a full-blown museum, which moved several times within the mall before it relocated to Evans City, where Living Dead Fest was launched in 2008 to mark the 40th anniversary of “Night of the Living Dead.” Kriess took the reins of the annual festival in 2015. Thousands of fans have made the pilgrimage to the town to pay their respects.
Covid forced the closure of the Evans City site (and the cancellation of 2020’s Living Dead Weekend), but, in June, Kriess opened a 3,000-square-foot storefront at Monroeville Mall. He’s poured a lot of (fake) blood, sweat and tears into the project.
To say that The Living Dead Museum is a dream (nightmare?) come true for rabid fans is a 6-feet-understatement. They can buy T-shirts and collectibles in the gift shop and, for a fee, walk through the newly expanded exhibit, which is separated into themed rooms.
Norman England, a Romero historian who’s written several books about the director, provided a written history of the films, which is displayed on panels in the museum. The space houses numerous artifacts, including costumes, props, scripts and even salvaged pieces of the original JCPenney elevator and escalator, which are featured prominently in “Dawn of the Dead.”
The gallery celebrates Romero’s entire film catalog as well as other movies and television shows, including “Evil Dead II” and the Netflix series “Mindhunter,” parts of which were filmed in Pittsburgh.
“Before ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ zombies were just a part of voodoo. George Romero made zombies an official movie monster right along with Dracula and Frankenstein,” Kriess says. “I think it’s cool that it started in my little town.”