MONROEVILLE — It’s no surprise that a museum dedicated to zombies couldn’t stay in its grave for long.
The Living Dead Museum, an institution dedicated to honoring the seminal 1968 zombie film “Night of the Living Dead” and its auteur, George Romero, had been a fixture in downtown Evans City since 2013. The film was shot in and around the small Butler County community that prides itself on being the birthplace of the zombie genre.
But in October, the museum closed its Evans City doors — only to rise again the following month at the Monroeville Mall, where the sequel “Dawn of the Dead” was filmed. And fans can rest easy.
“Be assured that everything that was in Evans City will still be available and represented in Monroeville, plus a lot of great new surprises,” said Kevin Kriess, the museum’s owner and curator.
The new museum will contain plenty of old favorite exhibits about the world of horror films, such as a timeline that traces 50-plus years of zombie movie history and the “Maul of Fame,” a wall of celebrity horror stars’ handprints. It also will make a point to delve more into Monroeville Mall’s “Dawn of the Dead” bona fides.
“The new location … will dig much deeper into that film with exhibits featuring screen-used props and set pieces, including the original (J.C.) Penney’s Flyboy elevator — which has been resurrected from the dead,” Kriess said. Fans will understand the reference to a famed zombie character.
And, playing to an audience that knows its genre well, the new museum also will feature an original cabin and workshed from horror classic “Evil Dead 2,” as well as items from other ties to the shopping center’s pop-culture past — including the movies “Flashdance” and “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” the Stephen King novel “Christine” and the recent Netflix series “Mindhunter.”
That’s all well and good for Monroeville, but it does leave the town that Romero’s work made iconic a bit more, well, zombie-like.
Rising again in Monroeville
The Living Dead Museum was born in 2008 as one of many local monuments to Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” but it actually started at Monroeville Mall. After about five years, the museum was moved to downtown Evans City.
Kriess wants to be clear that the decision to leave for Monroeville had nothing to do with Evans City itself and everything to do with the unfortunate realities of trying to run a business during a global pandemic.
About two years ago, he began planning to expand to a new Monroeville Mall location that would complement the Evans City museum’s attractions. He didn’t publicize that information pre-pandemic. He wanted it to be a surprise for horror fans the world over when it was ready — complete with a grand opening.
The Monroeville expansion was set to open in spring 2020, when COVID-19 upended all best-laid plans. Financial constraints because of the pandemic forced Kriess to make the difficult decision to close one of the museums, and because he had already put so much time and effort into Monroeville construction, he opted to shutter the Evans City location.
At the moment, only the museum’s gift shop is open at the mall because of the pandemic. Kriess hopes the full display of memorabilia will be publicly accessible by this summer.
Evans City Mayor Dean Zinkhann said the museum was a very good attraction for the town — a borough with an estimated population of 1,710 as of 2019, according to U.S. Census data — that sees a lot of tourism from horror fans making the pilgrimage.
Folks come from all over the world for the “Living Dead” experience, including a couple from Australia who got married at the Evans City Cemetery Chapel. Even without the museum, Zinkhann hopes visitors will keep coming anyway. Tourists can still check out all the other tributes to “Night of the Living Dead” around Evans City, including “Living Dead” historical markers downtown, places seen in the film such as the cemetery and chapel, and the Evans City Historical Society Museum, which features tons of information about the movie.
The museum will still put on its biannual Living Dead Weekends, festivals celebrating all things horror, in both Monroeville and Evans City. One of the festival co-founders, Gary Streiner of Evans City, worked as a sound engineer on “Night of the Living Dead” and is now on the board of Image Ten Inc., the production company that handles the “Living Dead” franchise’s affairs.
“‘Night of the Living Dead’ found Evans City, but the two came together at a point in 1967 that will go on forever,” he said.
The films have displayed an enduring popularity, exemplified just last month when a group of University of Pittsburgh film students screened their new documentary, “George Romero & Pittsburgh: The Early Years,” that used footage from the school’s Romero archives to chronicle how the filmmaker rose to prominence.
Rick Reifenstein of Evans City, the other Living Dead Weekend co-founder and president of the Evans City Historical Society, plans to make his museum’s “Living Dead” exhibitions “a little more visible” now that the other museum is in Monroeville.
— JOSHUA AXELROD/PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS