Dead celebrate birthdays in zombie capital of the world

In this April 21, 2018 photo, Ella Mae Smith, 86, of Evans City, P.a, poses with a publicity photo from the horror movie "Night of the Living Dead." (Jason Nark/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — In the summer of 1968, Ella Mae Smith’s skin went pale, and an unholy hunger sent her shuffling through verdant fields in search of human flesh.

Smith, now 86, said it was “pretty easy” to be dead that summer in Evans City, a blip of a town in Butler County, 25 miles north of Pittsburgh. She received a check for $25 for the work. Her late husband, Phil, was paid to be dead, too.

“We were ghouls back then,” Smith recalled at her kitchen table last month. “They didn’t say zombies at all.”

Today, the whole world’s got zombies, ghouls, walkers, creeps, reanimated corpses on the brain, and for the most part, this undead business began when the Smiths and others in Evans City agreed to be in a low-budget horror film that a bunch of guys from Pittsburgh were making: Night of the Living Dead.

“When I first saw it, I was terrified . in a good way,” Kevin Kriess said inside his Living Dead Museum on Main Street in Evans City. “I grew intrigued when I began to realize it all started in this little town.”

Kriess, who runs an online toy store, is still planning the Living Dead Weekend: Evans City, a celebration later this year to honor the 50th anniversary of the film. Known as the “City of Black Gold” for a brief oil boom in the early part of the 20th century, Evans City has learned to love zombies and the black-and-white film’s hardcore fans.

It wasn’t always like that in this little town of 1,755.

“Lot of elderly in the town, and also churchgoing people,” Mayor Dean Zinkhann said. “We have like five churches, and everybody would say, ‘Doesn’t this scare you a little bit with the ear piercings and the tongue piercings, and tattoos?’ Now, they’re used to it, and they see that these people from Night of the Living Dead are absolutely beautiful people. There’s no flak today at all.”

Zinkhann was sitting in his car on a sunny Saturday morning last month, preparing to wed a couple wearing red and black by the Evans City cemetery’s stone chapel. The film opens in the cemetery, and tourists from as far away as Japan have tiptoed between the headstones over the decades to take photos and whisper the film’s most famous line.

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”

When the chapel grew dilapidated, fans raised money to repair it.

“It was ready for the bulldozer,” Zinkhann said.

Down a hill, in town, zombie-lovers wearing fake blood and tattered clothes pose by the glossy black plaques honoring the film and its director, George Romero, that stand by the police station. On Main Street, old-timers jaw about the Penguins and Steelers over coffee beside the Living Dead Museum, where bloody hand prints, life-size zombie figures, and other beloved gore deck the walls.

“You get some strange looking characters,” resident Dave Jesperson, Ella Mae’s son-in-law, said in the coffee shop. “They dress that way every day. Holy smokes.”

Night of the Living Dead premiered at Pittsburgh’s Fulton Theater on Oct. 1, 1968 — Smith still has her invitation — and was released nationwide three days later. A clever ad for the movie in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time said an insurance company would cover any moviegoer who had a heart attack while watching it. On Oct. 11, the newspaper dubbed the film a “jackpot.”

The International Movie Database estimates the film’s budget at $114,000 and its total worldwide gross at $30 million.

Ella Mae said she and Phil, a cabinet maker, were sipping iced tea on their lawn one afternoon that summer when a car crossed over Connoquenessing Creek and stopped in front of their home on Ash Stop Road. Romero and his crew had come to Evans City because they needed an abandoned farmhouse to film in and found one nearby.

“Want to be in a movie?” a woman asked.

Phil Smith, said no, at first. Ella Mae talked him into it.

“Before you knew it,” he recalled, “they were slapping all kinds of stuff on our face.”

The film crew didn’t give the Smiths and other ghouls much direction. There was no method school for being a zombie, at least not in 1968.

“They just sort of told us to act like we were dead,” Smith said.

Their children were jealous.

In the decades that followed, thousands of zombie films have been pushed up from the graves, along with video games, novels, comic books, commercials, and a wildly popular television series. Italian directors loved them, and in South Korea, a 2016 zombies-on-a-train flick has become one of the highest grossing Korean films ever.

Romero, who remains dead after dying last year, spent most of his career in horror. In 1973, he made The Crazies in Evans City, a film about “a man-made combat virus that causes death and permanent insanity in those infected, as it overtakes a small Pennsylvania town,” according to IMDB.

Kriess hopes to celebrate Night of the Living Dead’s birthday in October, its month of release, but the closure of a city park has stalled definitive plans, and there’s nowhere else in town that’s big enough to host a horde of fans.

“I’m going to have to get creative with a venue,” Kriess said.

First, Kriess and Western Pennsylvania will toast the movie’s sequel, Dawn of the Dead, at the shopping mall where it was filmed, 12 miles east of Pittsburgh. Romero released the zombies-in-a-mall flick in 1978, and it went on to gross $55 million worldwide.

Kriess, 55, has scheduled Living Dead Weekend: Monroeville at the mall for early June, bringing back actors from the film, hosting tours and hawking merchandise. Kriess’ museum was housed in the mall for five years, but he said management moved him around too much.

“Now they want us to move the museum back,” Kriess said.

On a Sunday afternoon last month, the mall was devoid of customers, with many storefronts empty and up for lease. Employees at Zombieburgh Lazer Tag just shrugged when asked how the business got its name. At Sokool, a store that sells tapestries and incense, a woman behind the counter didn’t know the story behind the Dawn of the Dead shirt on the rack.

“You’d have to ask my manager,” she said.

Monroeville Mall honors the movie with deadpan enthusiasm. A few framed photos hang on a wall by a side entrance near a Macy’s in an alcove where real corpses could probably go unnoticed for a few hours. On this day the photos were blocked by an insurance company kiosk.

“They should kind of embrace it more,” said James Lunsford, 20, a clerk at Cash-In Culture, a pop culture store at the mall. “I guess they’re trying to be more modern.”

Cash-In Culture had entire shelves filled with shirts, lunch boxes, and some small posters. Lunsford hasn’t seen the movie.

“A lot of people come here looking for memorabilia, and this is pretty much it,” he said.

All three films — Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and The Crazies — have been remade, and at least one of the remakes was filmed in Pennsylvania. John Russo, a screenwriter on the original 1968 film, said Evans City just happened to get lucky 50 years ago — it had a farmhouse ready to be demolished and a handful of residents with spare time.

“We weren’t out to put Evans City on the map,” Russo said. “I do think Evans City should be the Roswell of zombies, though.”

By JASON NARK, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Associated Press