by Lucy Leitner
Despite the fact that zombies are now popular on an international level (the Steelers of monsters, if you will), the capital of the dead is still and will always be Pittsburgh. Though we may be known for our obsession with football and our penchant for doing odd things with French fries that are less scary than poutine, our region’s contributions to zombie culture and mythology are just as iconic as the Terrible Towel. Before George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, zombies were merely exploited slaves in Haiti. Then one ambitious Pittsburgher thought to add the ghoulish, flesh-eating element to the creatures and spawned a cultural epidemic that has never been more pervasive than it is today.
Most neighborhoods in the greater Pittsburgh area have been invaded by the walking dead—Evans City (Night of the Living Dead), Monroeville (Dawn of the Dead), Butler County Fairgrounds (Run For Your Lives), Market Square (Zombiefest), the South Side (every Sunday morning). Lawrenceville, and the East End in general, has remained pristine, unfettered by the presence of hungry corpses.
Starting this Saturday, zombies will have a permanent home on the corner of Butler and Main Streets at the aptly named House of the Dead, a title that is part homage to the films of the great Romero.
House of the Dead opens this Saturday to hopefully hordes of zombie fanatics looking to gorge themselves on books, movies, clothing, art, memorabilia, and apocalypse survival supplies. Though the shop focuses on all merchandise zombie-related, owners Chuck Cramer and Stu Neft are hoping to celebrate and add to Pittsburgh’s rich history of shambling corpses.
“I always think it’s important for a city to identify and embrace its roots. For the past 44 years, zombies have been a part of Pittsburgh, starting with Night of the Living Dead. I’d love to see another zombie film based here in Pittsburgh soon. Perhaps with how popular Pittsburgh has become as filming locations for recent Hollywood films, we will see it soon enough,” Cramer said.
Opening preparations have been almost an entirely local effort. Though the merchandise was purchased from vendors all over the country, Cramer and Neft furnished the space with fixtures from Construction Junction that were subsequently artificially aged by a local artist. They partnered with the Toonseum and are currently pursuing relationships with other Lawrenceville businesses. In fact, the opening this Saturday will be part of a full day of neighborhood events that includes a fundraising party for Ahab and the opening of illustrator Matt Gondek’s Frown Crown.
House of the Dead will sell unique items from local artists, as well as humorous mass-produced zombie t-shirts, and creative oddities like the shop’s original zombie cornhole game. They hope to expand to include more general horror wares eventually, but now the focus is the local favorite.
“Zombies are the new black,” Neft said. “With the popularity of shows like The Walking Dead, they have once again invaded mainstream pop culture. Sure, there has always been a sect of people that have liked all things horror, but in the last five years, zombies really seem to have risen from the grave.”
Indeed, they are riding the crest of a high and flesh-hungry wave that hopefully will not hit its high-water mark for several years, allowing Pittsburgh to remain the Haight-Ashbury of the dead.
Cramer and Neft are hoping that House of the Dead becomes more than just a store, but a destination for zombie fans that are relegated to buying survival supplies and memorabilia from far less festive web sites. Neft sees the shop’s potential to be the place where zombie fans—like French fanatic Nicolas Garreau who chronicled his trip to Pittsburgh in the documentary Fan of the Dead—make a pilgrimage to explore our city’s rich zombie history. In that vein, Cramer and Neft have created souvenir items emblazoned with the shop’s signature brain-eater and a boast, “I survived the House of the Dead.” No word yet on whether they plan an elaborate network of billboards.
“We’re hoping to make House of the Dead a destination location not only for people in the local area but for people that make a specific trek to Pittsburgh whether it’s because Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were filmed here or because Pittsburgh really is turning into a capital of pop culture,” Neft said.
The time has come. We need a South of the Border for zombies. And we should be thrilled that it’s going to be here.
Visit House of the Dead at 4110 Butler Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15201 or online at houseofthedeadpgh.com. Get updates of the dead on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HouseoftheDeadPgh, and Twitter @pghhouseofdead.