As a Pittsburgher, you haven’t lived until you’ve died in a zombie movie.
Earlier this month, during the filming of a local horror flick, I got to experience on-screen death at the hands — or should I say teeth — of my nine-year-old daughter, Sarah.
She bit me after being attacked by Maddy DeLass, a 10-year-old from Bethel Park who also devoured her dad, Barry, and a passel of innocent bystanders. In between scenes, the girls discussed their favorite Disney princesses.
It was a bizarre way to spend a Saturday, yet so quintessentially Pittsburgh. As you probably know — and proudly tell your friends who live elsewhere — George Romero shot “Night of the Living Dead” here in 1968 and the town’s been a haven for the flesh-eaters ever since.
Behind the camera, director Michael J. Steelman grinned like a jack-o’-lantern. After 14 years in the comic book business, the Whitehall resident is finally bringing his namesake character, Pittsburgh Steel Man, to the big screen.
I’m thinking “Steel Man” probably isn’t his real last name, but as a lowly extra it wasn’t exactly my place to query the director about his true identity. We were there to be creative.
“If you can write an interesting and visually appealing comic book,” he told me, “you can create a movie.”
The film is more than half-finished already, so Mike hopes to hit the film festival circuit with it as early as this fall. David Hasselhoff and “The Exorcist” star Linda Blair are rumored to have roles, but I didn’t run into either of them on the set and the production has yet to confirm or deny their casting.
A mechanical engineer by trade, Mike worked in steel mills for many years. With the help of his grandmother, a.k.a. Iron Grandma, he pieced together his old safety gear into a superhero costume. The movie follows Steel Man and a ragtag group of yinzers as they battle zombies at a comic book convention.
Set dressers transformed an old McKees Rocks church into an apocalyptic gorefest. While Mike captured footage, his mom, Carol Vicini, whipped up hot sausage sandwiches in the green room. In traditional Pittsburgh mom fashion, she made sure every zombie took second and third helpings, even if they were already bursting at the seams with brains.
Makeup artist Emily Bloom, owner of Uniontown-based Bloom’s Fx & Design, spent the day transforming three dozen extras, including her daughter, Lea Bloom, 17, into hideous creatures.
Most of the people on the set were related in one way or another, because a family that slays together, stays together.
And while it’s true that blood is thicker than water, fake blood is harder to get out of your clothes. Mike went through a 55-gallon drum of the sugar-based red liquid in one day.
By noon, my fellow extras Amy Majcan, 13, and her dad, Tim Majcan, of Cranberry Township, were drenched in the stuff. No amount of laundry detergent will be able to salvage their outfits. Thankfully, Tim is used to blood-stained attire. For several years he’s worked as a zombie at ScareHouse in Etna.
So what was it like to play a brain-eater in this movie? Pittsburghers take their reanimated corpses very seriously, so you can’t just walk around with your arms outstretched like some stiff-legged Frankenstein monster.
Frank Machnik was on-site to teach people the proper way to shamble. For 14 years, he’s trained actors at Haunted Hills Estate, another local Halloween attraction. I won’t receive an Oscar for my performance, but, as a diehard monster nerd, I feel like I’ve already won.
My daughter Sarah (who doesn’t share my appreciation for the undead, but is easily bribed with candy) took the day-long film shoot in stride.
“Mom,” she said in between bites of a Kit Kat bar, “you’re weird, but I love you.”
Zombies: they might not have a pulse, but they’ve got a lot of heart.