John Kirch‘s career in crime began and ended in one slow-motion breaking-and-entering incident at an Evans City farmhouse fifty years ago. That experience–the young man tagging along with a particularly unruly pack of hoodlums–was not only caught on camera, but absorbed, analyzed, lovingly re-enacted, and paid tribute to. It also forever affected movie history.
The “crime,” of course, was a work a fiction. The film was George Romero’s debut feature, Night of the Living Dead, released the following year in 1968. While not the first of either, the picture has gone on to be a holy grail for both American independent filmmaking and the flood of late-night zombie flicks that followed. It is likely the most famous movie ever to come out of Pittsburgh.The good news: If you have to shuffle off this mortal coil as a member of the undead feasts on your flesh, it might as well be at the hands of this guy. Mr. Kirch, now in his mid-60s, still moves deliberately, but it’s thankfully as a member of the living. Working until Midnight most evenings, any slowness can be attributed to the early-morning, first-coffee-of-the-day time of our visit rather than a methodical blood quest for brain breakfast.
I’ve lived right down the street from Kirch’s Lawrenceville home for the last seventeen years and didn’t find out he was involved in the movie until just recently. Between this revelation, the very recent passing of George Romero, and the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the film, we asked Kirch if he’d be up for an interview. He couldn’t have been more accommodating.This blogger has never looked as cool as John Kirch appears in his sophomore-year class photo from Carrick High School. A torn-and-worn black-and-white image shows the once-and-future “teenage zombie” looking altogether suave–dapper, even. The young man sports a very of-its-time black turtleneck and blazer ensemble, his left hand jauntily clutches the jacket’s lapel. All he’s missing is to go full-on beatnik is a beret, goatee, and half-smoked Gauloise dangling from his mouth.
Kirch’s cool confidence was what got him in with the ghouls. Already bitten by a love of film and television, his sister introduced the adolescent Kirch to a Mr. Jack Givens. At the time, Givens was chief audio engineer at Hardman Associates, the (former) downtown Pittsburgh audio/film studio that collaborated with Romero and ultimately produced Night of the Living Dead.Givens told Kirch they might have a small part for him in the monster movie they were making, but he’d have to check back for a time and details. Kirch recalls phoning the studio every morning before school for weeks and asking for Givens. Each effort just resulted in Hardman’s receptionist relaying a “no” message back to him. But–as the always one step ahead readers of The Orbit will have divined–eventually Givens picked up the phone and gave Kirch the opportunity he was looking for.
Kirch was brought in late in the production after all of the lengthy interior scenes had already been filmed. The basement of a building at 247 Fort Pitt Blvd. where Romero had an office doubled for the farmhouse basement as there wasn’t adequate underground space for the Arriflex cameras, studio lighting, and film crew inside the tiny Evans City property used for the first floor scenes and exteriors.
Kirch received the sum of his acting direction, “Don’t walk like Frankenstein,” (arms stiffly streched out) from Jack Givens in the car ride up to Butler County. A cold night, the would-be zombies were also commanded not to exhale while the camera was rolling–the filmmakers didn’t want actors’ visible breath ruining the continuity of the earlier (warmer weather) sequences.
Kirch has a great humility about his role in the production, stressing he was the most minor of players. Indeed, the young actor only spent two days on the Living Dead set. All of his scenes–the zombies’ final siege of the farmhouse–were filmed in just one evening.
But what a night! Kirch got an up-close look at low-budget indie filmmaking at it best: actors doing each other’s makeup at the kitchen table, special effects wounds created from mortician’s wax, chocolate syrup subbing for blood, improvised lighting scrims from leafy tree branches, the tech crew suiting up for double-duty as onscreen extras.
One thing Kirch was not exposed to on the Living Dead set was the bureaucracy/safety concerns of a more studio-official film. These included setting fire to Jack Russo’s ghoul character. “Nowadays you’d have to have permits and a fire department on hand,” Kirch says, describing the molotov cocktail scene, “They just had the actor throw an empty bottle and lit a puddle of gasoline on fire to make it look like it blew up!”
Kirch remembers the 27-year-old George Romero as particularly hands-off with regard to directing actors. “He was really just concerned with how the picture looked through the camera…the lighting and angles,” says Kirch.Somewhere around a year after that chilly night in Evans City, Kirch was invited by the production team to attend Night of the Living Dead‘s world premier at the Fulton Theater (now the Byham) downtown. He brought his sister as his date and remembers (Living Dead lead) Duane Jones arriving in a dramatic tuxedo, top hat, and cape.
Even more memorable to the teenaged Kirch was when the film opened for a full run at the old Arcade Theatre on the South Side where Kirch was working as an usher at the time. His manager typed out the program’s time sheet listing Feature: Night of the Living Dead, Starring: John Kirch. The film was a big enough local success for it to hold over for a longer-than-expected run.The influence of being involved with a film production at such an impressionable age led Kirch to career in pictures–but not as an actor. After graduating from Carrick High, Kirch left Pittsburgh to pursue a degree in filmmaking from Cal Arts in Los Angeles before returning home. Here, he’s made a career as a film and video editor, primarily for local television stations WQED, WTAE, and, for the last 35 years, KDKA. He’s also worked on numerous films and contracted projects through the years.
Night of the Living Dead has come back into Kirch’s life a number of times in the last five decades. The only professional one of these was around 1980 when he got an editing job cutting a no-dialog soundtrack to the film to be overdubbed in other languages for foreign markets.
Kirch explains with some envious regret that the existing foley (ambient audio) track was so good, he didn’t need to create any new sound effects. “I wanted to whack a watermelon with a tire iron.”The cult of Night of the Living Dead and George Romero’s numerous horror/zombie sequels has only grown through the years. Because of his minor role in the film, Kirch never felt compelled to join the fever. However, after being “outed” by a friend at a 2012 screening of the film at the Hollywood Theater with (Living Dead actor/producers) Russ and Gary Streiner, he’s been invited each year to the annual Living Dead Weekend festivals held in Evans City. As the second-youngest member of the cast, (Kyra Schon–the trowel-wielding, parent-murdering, child-turned-ghoul–was just ten at the time of filming) the Living Dead festivals have been bittersweet for Kirch. Fun to reconnect with acquaintances and fans, but also sad. So many of the original cast and crew have gone from, uh, living to dead (sorry) in the last decade that the festival is getting re-stocked with participants from Romero’s later works.
How deeply Night of the Living Dead has affected Mr. Kirch is hard to tell, but it’s obvious the experience has stayed with him long after the credits faded to black and the house lights came up at the Arcade’s final show. It’s lingering in his career, his sense of humor, and the devilish twinkle in his eye. Right there, hung on the wall of his kitchen, is a replica mason trowel signed by the actors and encased in glass.
To Mr. Kirch: thank you for sharing your story with us. May you one day get to whack that watermelon with a tire iron–we’ll even buy you the melon.
 What else would you put up there? Flashdance? Silence of the Lambs? That Batman movie?
 Not to be confused with the currently-active downtown comedy club of the same name, the South Side Arcade Theatre was an old 1200-seat, 1920s-era movie palace. The building at 1915 East Carson Street burned down in 1984; there is a Rite-Aid there now. Sigh. See: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/16447
 The Streiner brothers were intimately involved with the making of Night of the Living Dead as actors, technical producers, and financial backers. Russ utters the classic line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara”; Gary is part of the meathook-weilding posse at the end.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the Pitt Building as the location for basement scenes in Night of the Living Dead. Those scenes were actually shot around the corner at 247 Ft. Pitt Blvd, where George Romero kept an office. We apologize for the error.