A History Told in Infinite Parts: Part I
Though we would like to say the Group started one all-hallowed October 31st, the reality is that seeds of the Horror Studies Working Group (HSWG) started sprouting on an otherwise unassuming Thursday in 2016. It was at this point that Adam Lowenstein, Pitt Professor of English and Film/Media Studies, began to work on an event to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) in Pittsburgh. This event would grow to be the annual Romero Lives Festival and in turn flourish into the realization that maybe the University of Pittsburgh could be the perfect site for a Horror Studies Center. The connection came from seeing that the 50th anniversary event for Night of the Living Dead would be an opportunity for Pittsburgh to fully recognize the great influence of Romero on the city and the many ways in which he had promoted it throughout his life. This strong connection indelibly links Pittsburgh to modern horror and there’s no reason why this is something that Pittsburgh can’t embrace more fully. The HSWG, then, ultimately flowered from the desire to provide a structure for horror scholarship and appreciation centered in Pittsburgh and available to the world—thus it all started with a little 50th anniversary event that pre-dated it all
“One day they might remind us who we used to be, and who we tried to be, and that recollection could save the world.”
—George Romero 1
In order to get the then-unnamed 50th anniversary event off the ground, Lowenstein sought a Senior Faculty Fellowship from the Humanities Center to begin funding the event. This event had every potential to place Pitt at the center of a city-wide initiative to recognize the legacy of both George Romero and horror in Pittsburgh. Work began with Gloria Forouzan from the Pittsburgh mayor’s office, who proved central to the organization effort, and this started to catapult this anniversary celebration into something far bigger in scale than anyone had initially anticipated. Best of all, Romero himself responded enthusiastically to the idea and was ready to be a part of it. It truly seemed like everything was looking up.
At this point tragedy struck when George Romero passed away in his sleep at the age of 77 after a battle with lung cancer, devastating everyone from family and friends to longtime fans. The sad loss of Romero also brought to light for the event organizers how missed Romero would be and how he had not ever fully received the recognition he deserved from the city of Pittsburgh. Central to his Dead franchise, the city has been a mecca for horror and especially Romero fans for decades. Zombie Walks have been held at the Monroeville Mall at least since 2006 to honor the filming location for Dawn of the Dead (1978). So while fans had certainly recognized the importance of Romero in Pittsburgh, it was also clear that the official anniversary event needed to happen in an even more expansive way. Thankfully, Suzanne Desrocher-Romero, George Romero’s widow, quickly became a central figure in the organizing effort.
Suzanne Romero was already starting the paperwork to establish the George A. Romero Foundation and realized that the 50th Anniversary event would be the perfect occasion to launch the Foundation. With this goal in mind, Suzanne Romero worked with Adam Lowenstein and Night of the Living Dead/Image Ten alumnus Gary Streiner along with the Mayor’s office to create Romero Lives—a festival that continues annually. Lowenstein also introduced Suzanne Romero to Jeff Whitehead, whose organizing and management skills as the Study Abroad Office Director at the University of Pittsburgh combined with his experience as a horror writer made him a perfect fit to join the GARF and the programming of Romero Lives. Participation in the event continued to expand exponentially across the city including Phipps Conservatory, WQED, Carnegie Mellon University, Point Park University, a local scare house, and a local special effects company—all in all over 30 organizations in Pittsburgh took part.
Romero Lives kicked off officially on October 1, 2018, when Mayor Peduto proclaimed it George A. Romero Day in Pittsburgh. Mayor Peduto stated, “[George Romero] was proud of his Pittsburgh roots and could have chosen to live anywhere, but instead he helped bring an industry to Pittsburgh.”[i] A new 4K state-of-the-art restoration Night of the Living Dead created by the Museum of Modern Art from the original camera negative, supervised by George Romero himself, screened at the Byham Theater—where it initially premiered when it was known as the Fulton Theater in 1968. The original cast and crew of the film also gathered for a live presentation before the screening. October 1 also marks the long-held Pittsburgh Zombie Walk at the Monroeville Mall. The Romero Lives events attracted national news coverage (including The New York Times) and international resonances, for example through Iain Wilson’s Australian Halloween Listening Party.
With all of the participation and excitement, one day could not hope to hold all of Romero Lives. Due to the vast amount of involvement, Romero Lives actually began well before the launch date of October 1st. On August 7, 2018, Tom Savini’s Special Makeup Effects Program teamed up with the George A. Romero Filmmaking Program at the Douglas Education Center (Monessen, PA) to hold a zombie-making competition judged by Savini, Suzanne Romero, and Robert Tinnell. The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership combined with ScareHouse to throw a musical event complete with zombies in September 2018 as well, helping to create momentum leading into the big day. The same group also continued the party through the month of October with a pop-up bar called the Zombie Den. The events very much continued in the weeks that followed as well. Evans City, where Night of the Living Dead was filmed, held Living Dead Weekend, which continues every summer and fall. Scholarly events were also a key part of the month’s festivities including a symposium on the cinema of George Romero and his impact on both the horror genre and popular culture. The symposium featured an impressive array of scholars and filmmakers in discussion, including Peggy Ahwesh, , Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare, Tom Gunning, Joan Hawkins, Isabel Cristina Pinedo, Adam Simon, and Kristopher Woofter at sites including the Andy Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Art. Further events throughout the month included screenings, symposia, themed publications, film contests, flower shows, group running events, themed museum events, and of course wrestling and Dungeons & Dragons events.
Romero Lives, as it turned out, was the beginning of everything, but it is only a beginning. In part due to the resounding success and clear interest in Romero, the Romero Lives event continues annually through GARF programs, events, screenings, and lectures surrounding Romero’s life, work and influence. Further, Romero Lives has continued to develop its scholarly events as well as popular ones. These events often put scholars in conversation with Romero family members and collaborators in order to broaden the field of discussion and highlight Romero’s lasting legacy. Past events have had speakers such as Terry Alexander, Tony Buba, Lori Cardille, Noël Carroll, Suzanne Desrocher-Romero, John Harrison, Daniel Kraus, Maria Loh, Adam Lowenstein, Greg Nicotero, Christine Romero, Tina Romero, Gaylen Ross, Steven Schlozman, Gary Streiner, and Russell Streiner. GARF’s relationship with the University of Pittsburgh, and the HSWG at large, works to open opportunities for students to study their popular passions in rigorous, scholarly ways that inspire their own independent research. The Horror Studies Working Group also works to continue this momentum and expand the appreciation of horror shown through Romero Lives and its continuing aftermath. As you can see from the Who We Are segment, there is much more to this Working Group than one event so we hope you look forward to future installments of Everything You Wanted to Know About the Horror Studies Working Group and Should be Afraid to Ask.
1 George Romero and Daniel Kraus. The Living Dead. Tor Books, 2020.
2 Erik Piepenburg. “Pittsburgh Embraces a Renegade Filmmaker.” The New York Times. 23 Jan. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/23/travel/pittsburgh-horror-filmmaker-george-romero.html