They're Still Coming to Get You Barbra: Night of the Living Dead Cemetery

October 28, 2008 — From the haughty tombs of Pharaohs to the humble country church graveyard, all burial grounds are historical records. They reveal the lives, deaths, and customs of those who’ve treadmilled this hamster ball of a planet before us. A few, though, are historical records beyond that. Like Evans City Cemetery in Evans City, Pennsylvania. It was in this rather nondescript little cemetery just north of Pittsburgh, that George A. Romero filmed the first scene of his landmark cinematic achievement, Night of the Living Dead.

I’ve already written about my trip to the Monroeville Mall where Romero filmed Dawn of the Dead, the sequel to Night of the Living Dead. I realize that’s a continuity gaff, but sometimes life orders things a bit differently. I’m still to this day waiting to live through my fourth grade year.

I’m not sure if any of the gravestones in Evans City Cemetery, from here on out referred to in this article as Night of the Living Dead cemetery, bear the birth year of 1968, but one ought to. In fact, overall it should read:

Night of the Living Dead
(1968 - )
Loving Father of
The Modern Zombie and Modern Horror Film
In Our Hearts Forever
And Our Nightmares

Thanks to the film’s title, I don’t have to explain its plot, but I’m also not going to spend much space discussing the import of the movie, either…only because it’s a disappointing exercise. It’s one of those few movies that you don’t have to defend because pretty much everybody who needs to just gets the film for most of the right reasons. As a result, the film’s been lauded to the appropriate degree in the appropriate circles. And I hate that, of course. I just want to fight about things and call other people wrong.

But I will state for the sake of a punch line that this film helped bring about a fundamental philosophical shift in horror films from depictions of existence as morally meaningful to depictions of existence as mere survival, a shift that potentially affected other genres of film, as well. I’m not going to make any judgments here about the worth of the shift itself, but if you help cause a fundamental philosophical shift of any kind, I’ll call you bad-ass. And if you do that with cannibal dead people, I’ll call you Dirty Harry.

Night of the Living Dead cemetery is located on Franklin Road just south of Evans City and about half an hour north of the aforementioned Monroeville Mall. You can’t see the cemetery from the road (and that’s not a personal crack; it’s because it’s surrounded by trees), but an unobtrusive wooden sign that wasn’t in the movie tells you where to turn.

I’ve seen Night of The Living Dead enough times that making the sharp right turn into the cemetery felt almost like déjà vouz. Scenes from movies often stand in as personal memories for me. You might think that pathetic, but while you’re reminiscing about the times you said something witty in front of your boss at the weekly business meeting or bought a week’s worth of groceries for under $100, I’m remembering the times when I animated the Statue of Liberty with pink slime and singlehandedly freed an entire building from terrorists at Christmas.

Turning my car into the cemetery (no mean trick, I can assure you) made me feel like I was in re-living the movie in a literal sense, following the exact path of Barbra [sic] and her brother Johnny as they drove in their Pontiac to pay respects to the dead, even though it turns out that the favor isn’t returned. To help further the enjoyable illusion, I started calling my fiancée, who was accompanying me, "Barbra" the entire time we were there. Which she didn’t think was funny, even after the 10th time. I also kept responding to everything she said with the phrase, “of the living dead.” Still do, actually.

Once we passed that first sign, we traveled up a forested road, past a redundant but more official-looking polished granite sign bearing the name of the cemetery and the year of its incorporation (1891), and to the open space of the cemetery...the Night of the Living Dead cemetery. Don’t forget that. The cemetery’s only impressive if you keep that in mind.

In fact, with its well-spaced headstones of polished granite in simple unflourished geometric shapes, the cemetery doesn’t look 120 years old at all. It’s small, open, has a few bushy trees growing throughout, and is dominated by a Soldiers' Monument that wasn’t featured in the movie and consists of a giant pillar topped by an eagle. In addition to not looking over a century old, the cemetery also hasn’t seemed to change much since the movie’s filming. The dead age well.

Immediately on our left as we entered the cemetery was the abandoned chapel featured in the movie. It’s the only building on the property, and its windows are still boarded up, so that little bit of continuity goes a long way in helping one imagine what this spot was like forty years ago when a tall bearded guy with thick hair could be heard barking out directions like: “Ok, now try to eat her” and “Make it look like you’re bashing his head against a tombstone.” From that point the path splits in two to encircle the cemetery, all of which you can pretty much see once you’re reached this vantage.

Honestly, for having such an important place in horror film, the cemetery itself isn’t spooky at all...if you go in the full color…without a shambling dusty zombie who’s just killed your brother trying to break your car window open with a rock. Spooky’s all about context.

There were two spots in the cemetery that I wanted to find in particular, and I came prepared with screen caps from the movie to help me. The first was the grave that stood in for the siblings’ dearly departed, who was never explicitly identified in the movie but was more than likely their father. At least, I don’t think it was ever specifically mentioned, anyway. Maybe later in the film it was. I only re-watched the first scene to prepare for this article, though…well, that and I drove 600 miles from my house to visit the cemetery. So please hold the criticism.

It thought this spot would be harder to find. After all, in the movie you only see the blank back of a generic-looking grave (that is a personal crack), and the only real clues from the movie are the half a name on the back of an adjacent grave (“air”) that slips into the frame and a tree right beside the grave. The tree isn’t there anymore, but it still turned out to be an easy find because of the cemetery’s size and the fact that the pair of headstones is right on one of the main paths. The full name on the back of the adjacent grave is “Blair” and the one beside it that stood in for Johnny and Barbra’s father is the Cole family plot. To find it, just take a left where the paths diverge beside the old chapel and then go less then halfway along it through the cemetery. They’ll be on your right waiting for you. Tell them I said “Hi.”

Next, we wanted to find the monument that Barbra fell against while she watched her brother die in one of the least gruesome ways one can be killed by a zombie. This is a little past the Blair and Cole plots if you’re coming from the direction of the chapel, and it's also easy to find due to its tall, more-monument-than-headstone shape and the fact that the name is fully shown in the movie. The guy who’s buried there is named Nicholas Kramer (1842-1917). I did some Internet searching on him thinking that might be a cool angle, but judging by his Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, not so much.

After the graveyard scenes, the rest of the movie basically takes place in an old house situated nearby, which I would have visited as well had it not been demolished…but you knew that already because you saw the movie. Zombies wreck everything they touch.

Overall, there’s something organically satisfying about walking around a graveyard where a movie about the dead coming to life was filmed, especially such an important movie. Something also slightly boring, which is why this article goes out with a whimper.

So thank you, and good night...of the living dead.