Night of the Living Dread

The cemetery in Evans City, Pennsylvania served as a backdrop for Night of the Living Dead.

Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania is a quiet little town which sits in the westernmost part of the Keystone State. Current census numbers list the shrinking city as having 8,581 occupants.

Though perhaps best known today as the setting for the television comedy Mr. Belvedere, Beaver Falls is most famous as the birthplace of Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath. It’s also home to Geneva College – a Christian liberal arts institution founded by Reformed Presbyterians in 1848.

One more important thing to know about Beaver Falls is that it sits directly west of Evans City, Pennsylvania. The eighteen mile drive from Beaver Falls to Evans City (via 588 through Zelienople) takes a mere 30 minutes if the traffic is light. But it’s a six-hour walk when you go cross-country – slightly longer if you’re loping along like a stiff-legged, carnivorous zombie.

Sherry Harp was my first post-high school girlfriend. As bad luck would have it, she was also the first girl to hear me pop the question.

United Presbyterian Church in Beaver Falls, Pa.
The United Presbyterian Church in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.

Sherry was book-smart with a seemingly chaste Christian spirit, which scored her a partial scholarship to Geneva College. My popping the question a week before her freshman-year departure was a deal-maker meant to keep us both in line while I was holding the fort in Baltimore and she was off tripping the light fantastic in exciting Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

Owing to the antiquity of the times (no cell phone service, internet or email) Sherry and I stayed in touch with cards and letters. She’d sneak in the occasional reverse-toll call when her lone dorm phone was available, but even then no calls were allowed after 10 PM. Combined, this amounted to perhaps one personal interaction every 2-3 weeks, which was taxing, to say the least.

Sherry was gone til Christmas — a real dagger in the heart of my Friday night fun — but by then the three years I had been out of high school had seen a lot of other changes in my social life. My closest friend had abruptly gotten married and would become a father some six months later. Other friends were also in college or away in the service, leaving me as a circle of one. On the upside, I was working full time and had the means to afford my own place and a new Thunderbird.

I was twenty-one going on forty-five, though I didn’t know it at the time.  The Thunderbird was a dead give-away.

When a guy at that age is left on his own, one of two things can happen. He can throw caution to the wind, play around like there’s no tomorrow, and settle down — either once he runs out of options or his girl is out of college. OR he can be his serious self, dive headfirst into a stack of books, and broaden his horizons with independent and foreign films. I chose the latter, and went through numerous tomes at a breakneck pace. (What twenty-one year old reads Manchester’s, The Glory and the Dream?)

I also started to make the rounds of the local art-house movie scene, favoring the eclectic offerings of the Charles Theatre in the days when they still only had one tattered screen.

The Charles was where I fell in love with Laura Antonelli – the seductive Italian actress of such titillating treasures as Malizia, Wifemistress and Till Marriage Do Us Part. It is also where I chanced upon Eraserhead – the surrealistic horror film by David Lynch.

Ben giving the shocked Barbara a pair of slippers in Night of the Living Dead.

It was at a midnight showing at The Charles that I first encountered the genius of George Romero. The picture that night was his landmark classic, Night of the Living Dead.

What I knew of the film going in was it contained a host of gory ghouls. Not really my bag, but I was flying solo and in a groove. Besides, I had seen most of those Roger Corman “Poe” adaptations. Just how gory could Night of the Living Dead be?

What I did not know was the setting of the film – rural western Pennsylvania. In fact, the flick opens up with a scene in a graveyard outside bucolic Evans City.

Six weeks earlier, the terrain around Beaver Falls was totally unknown to me. Now I was watching a film replete with familiar place names torn from the pages of Sherry’s rambling letters.

My box of buttered-popcorn slowly collapsed in my hand as the meat-eating action on the screen unfolded.

Beset by zombies (though if memory serves me correctly, that term is never used in the movie), a small cadre of strangers hole-up in a farmhouse while the local authorities try to make sense of the eerie onslaught.

Cut off from humanity, the seven strangers turn to televised news reports emanating from WIIC-TV in Pittsburgh. Outlandish as it sounds, the black and white news broadcasts make it all appear very real. Youngstown, Sharon, Mercer, Butler – the zombies were on the move.

A girl zombie feasting on her victim in Night of the Living Dead.

With the drama bouncing back and forth between the farmhouse mayhem, man-on-the-street interviews and the official TV news reports, the film took on a quasi-documentary feel. A graphic finally flashed across the screen: a secure shelter had been set up in Beaver Falls.

Could Sherry get there? Where was she at this hour? Was she running for her life? Her last letter mentioned some hazing rituals which would include a walk through the woods at night.  The film was growing grimmer by the minute and there wasn’t a damned thing I could do to get in touch with my girl.

Then there was a low, guttural noise somewhere in the darkened theatre.

Searching in the flickering light, I could see that the guy seated to my far left had inexplicably fallen asleep; his snores echoing the grunts of the hungry ghouls on the screen. Others around us started to snicker. Not me. I was transfixed by the cinematic horror at hand. Say what you will about a Martian invasion – Orson Wells had nothing on George A. Romero.

Around 2 AM, Night of the Living Dead finally reached its crimson crescendo. I was petrified as I realized the house lights had failed to come up once the movie ended. And if that wasn’t enough, I still had to get to my car, which was parked on the roof of a seedy garage across the street, then drive home through a sea of strung-out Baltimoreans.

I didn’t sleep well once my head hit the pillow, as clawing cadavers devoured my dreams. But by the morning it all seemed so silly. Come what may – Pittsburgh would always be there.

Zombies in Beaver County?

All I ever said to Sherry about that night was that I had seen a horror movie set around Beaver County. I’m not sure she was even paying attention. While I was sweating bullets in Baltimore, my frolicking fée told me she’d caught flack on that walk through the woods for not donning her freshman “dink” cap.

The promise of flesh-eating zombies notwithstanding, Sherry wasn’t cut out for life in Beaver Falls. At the academic dean’s suggestion, she quit college after one semester.

Sherry also quit me a short time later.

I was heartbroken, of course, but it could have been much worse. At least I still had Laura Antonelli.

It is said that Night of the Living Dead, “became a defining moment for modern horror cinema.”

I totally agree.

I grew up with Dark Shadows, lots of sci-fi pictures and shows, and the Universal Studio monsters. But never had a horror story seemed so strangely personal to me. If there is anything more frightening than being chased by unrelenting fiends, it’s the thought of a loved one in peril when you are powerless to help.

Other film makers may have scared the bejesus out of me. George A. Romero was the one who filled my soul — with dread.

(“George A. Romero, who died July 15, was a very gentle person who happened to change film history.” ~ Variety)