Take Bigelow! “Striking Distance,” 25 Years Later, Part 2: The Chase Scene Then & Now

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of a city bus colliding with a beer truck

Some things never change: PAT bus into loose-packed Iron City Beer wagon

If you’ve lived in Pittsburgh for any recent amount of time–say, the last ten years, maybe just five would do it–the rate of change can seem extraordinary. Entire neighborhoods–East Liberty, Lawrenceville, The Strip District, to name the most obvious examples–have been radically transformed, downtown has a couple new skyscrapers, rents and home prices are finally starting to match other metro areas, gone are one-dollar beers and big red sauce Italian joints. So it can be comforting to us old-timers when we’re reminded that not everything is changing quite so fast.

As 2017 rolled-over to 2018, we got the idea to honor the 25th anniversary of Striking Distance–the Pittsburgh-set police action film that spawned an unexpected local meme. [For more on this, see last week’s Part 1 of the story.] The idea was to take the opening high-speed car chase through the city, find all the actual filming locations, and then take a look at how they appear today, 26 years later. [The movie was actually shot over the summer of 1992.]

If you haven’t seen that epic chase–or even if it’s just been a while–rectify that now, in the original French. See what you recognize and what you don’t. And if you really want a challenge, try to name the main filming locations–they’re (almost) all right in town. Bigelow Boulevard is, of course, a “gimme,” and you shouldn’t have any problem with the downtown shots, but after that it gets a little trickier.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Striking Distance chase scene, then and now:

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Mount Troy Road, Troy Hill, 1992

empty street with distant view to downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mount Troy Road, Troy Hill, 2018

For the opening of the sequence, father and son cops Vince and Tom Hardy head out in full dress regalia toward the Policeman’s Ball, presumably at the Point (based on the “two years later” setting elsewhere in the film). The locations team could’t have picked a more Pittsburgh scene, replete with cross-river views, the downtown skyline, and a short barrier wall before a steep drop-off. Not that it matters, but Troy Hill/Reserve Township even seems like a believable cop neighborhood.

Almost nothing in this particular panorama has changed in the last 26 years. There are more wires on the telephone poles as high-speed Internet arrived in the between-time and the trees have definitely been allowed to grow up, but that’s about it. Downtown does have some new features to its skyline (we’ll get to those in a bit)–but you can’t really see them from this angle.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Ridgway Street, Hill District, 1992

two-lane hillside road with house, Pittsburgh, PA

Ridgway Street, Hill District, 2018

There is no possible way to take Bigelow from Troy Hill, so the Hardys are magically transported across the Allegheny to Ridgway Steet, at the far eastern/upper end of the Hill District, for their careening entry to that fabled cross-city byway.

Just like we saw on Mt. Troy Road, the tiny starter saplings on Ridgway in 1992 have grown to legit shade-producing coverage today–in fact, we couldn’t even get the same angle as the Striking Distance shot because we’d be buried in shrubbery–chalk one up for Mother Nature! Other than that, we can see the city replaced the old wooden street light pole and the homeowner appears to have had some porch work done. No idea what happened to the Silverado in the driveway.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of busy street intersection in Pittsburgh, PA

Bigelow Blvd. at Bloomfield Bridge, 1992

empty street intersection with large building, Pittsburgh, PA

Bigelow Blvd. at Bloomfield Bridge, 2018

Striking Distance filming closed a pretty major east-west artery for the Hardys’ high-speed pursuit of The Polish Hill Strangler and the crew made the most of the opportunity. The approximately half-mile stretch of Bigelow from the the Bloomfield Bridge to the intersection at Herron is run backwards and forwards, crossing lanes and milking busy intersections. The movie viewer is rewarded with a lot of quick-cut chances to see the road and its pedestrian overpasses.

The biggest change here is the old Geyer Printing building, which was sold and converted into a self-storage place a while back. Gone are the big G-E-Y-E-R letters on the roof and instead we’ve got the imagery of self-storage plastered over the former windows. The whole intersection got a heavy-duty resurfacing (in cement) a few years back and still looks like it’s brand new.

Side note: I wanted to bag one of those Stagno’s Bakery trucks in the wild, but couldn’t actually find one now that I was looking. Sigh.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of alley in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Strawberry Way, Downtown, 1992

alley turned pedestrian way in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

“That’s my boy!” said our model Walter Lee Robinson on recognizing Bruce Willis in the YouTube clip I showed him. Strawberry Way, Downtown, 2018

OK, now we’re getting to the good stuff. Little Strawberry Way, the single-lane alley that runs parallel between Sixth and Seventh Streets, Downtown, has had perhaps the most dramatic makeover of our locations.

Starting maybe ten years ago, the long, lower block of Strawberry between Smithfield and Liberty started getting dressed up with temporary art installations. More recently, the city went all-in on Strawberry’s conversion from car-friendly alley to pedestrian hang-out zone. Currently, there are two blocks entirely closed-off to traffic, including the short stretch from Grant to William Penn Place where the Hardys dash down in a shortcut to intercept The Strangler on William Penn Place. These are nicely appointed with colorful street painting, tables and chairs, potted plants, and special lighted signage.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of downtown street in Pittsburgh, PA

Cherry Way, Downtown, 1992

city street in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Cherry Way, Downtown, 2018

Starting to sound like a broken record (1993)/streaming audio loop (2018), but the 400 block of Cherry Way, Downtown looks pretty much the same as it did when Pittsburgh’s finest chased that ’89 Ford. Based on the green lights in both lanes, we assume traffic was still one-way (the other direction) in 1992 which would have made this a difficult escape route for the Strangler.

What’s changed the most in this scene is a building you feel more than see. Kaufmann’s–Pittsburgh’s original, longest-standing downtown department store–was still open and operating by that name in the 1990s. I know–I bought business casual khakis there. The building still straddles little Cherry Way, forming a tunnel the filmmakers shot through for the chase scene. The downtown Kaufmann’s would be rebranded to a Macy’s in 2006 and then closed for good in 2015[1]. Currently, the elegant, 12-story building is undergoing renovation to become fancy apartments.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of Armstrong Tunnel, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel, Uptown, 1992

interior of Armstrong Tunnel, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel, Uptown, 2018

You’re thinking, what could possibly have changed in the Armstrong Tunnel? The answer, it turns out, is more than you’d expect. First off, the tile work looked a lot better in 1992–so much better we wonder if it had recently gotten a rehab treatment. Today, there are big chunks of the white ceramic that have separated and disappeared, leaving a pock-marked, water- and oil-stained surface throughout.

More interesting, though, is the tunnel’s apparent change from a two-way, bi-directional route (note the double yellow line in the earlier picture) to its current configuration with separate, dedicated inbound and outbound tubes. We have to wonder what was happening with the other tunnel in ’92. Maybe it was just a temporary closure to fix up the tiles? Who knows!

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of police car exiting fire-filled tunnel in Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel entrance, Uptown, 1992

exterior of Armstrong Tunnel with rising highway structure above, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel entrance, Uptown, 2018

You’ll be happy to know the fire in the Armstrong Tunnel was safely put out some time in the last couple decades, making the daring dash through burning police cruiser wreckage no longer required in passage from Forbes to Second Ave.

Fire or not, Steelers fans will remember this south end of the tunnel as the dangerous intersection where Ben “Why would I wear a helmet? I’m not playing football.” Roethlisberger almost ended both his life and career in a motorcycle accident in 2006. Like all the principal characters in Striking Distance (but not all the extra roles!) he made it out alive.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of downtown street and bridge in Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street and Smithfield Street Bridge, Downtown, 1992

empty street in downtown Pittsburgh

Smithfield Street and Smithfield Street Bridge, Downtown, 2018

This is another one where the real action is just out of the frame. On the near side, Point Park University continues to expand, gobbling up, restoring, and repurposing much of “First Side” downtown as it goes. Had the filmmakers chosen almost any other block in the area, we’d have a more obvious contrast.

On the other side of these buildings, every cyclist will tell you Smithfield Street Bridge is the gateway to South Side bicycle-riding as the easiest, farthest, western-most entrance to the Great Allegheny Passage bicycle trail (which goes from here all the way to Washington, D.C.). The town end of the bridge also has a semi-new dedicated bicycle passage to connect cyclists to the Jail Trail and a brand new switchback ramp from the bridge will take you down to The Mon Wharf and Point State Park, traffic-free. [That opens…next month?] … but you can’t see any of that in this picture.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of Smithfield Street Bridge in Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street Bridge, 1992

ornate iron entryway to Smithfield Street Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street Bridge, 2018

The Smithfield Street Bridge, a “lenticular truss bridge,” completed in 1883 and designed by Gustav Lindenthal[2] is certainly one of the city’s most iconic crossings. The castle-like porticos on either end and gorgeous sine wave interlocking curves are about as perfect and classic as one could hope for from such a structure.

By the time this blogger arrived in Pittsburgh–just a few years after Striking Distance–the Smithfield Street Bridge had undergone a massive rehab including a new paint job of yellow-gold on the entrance ways and deep blue for the curving truss sections.

But back in 1992, the bridge was still a dingy steel gray with a tree apparently growing out of the lane separator on the south end. It also had two-way car traffic on one half and train track on the other [see previous then photo]. Today, the re-do colors remain, but they’re faded, rusted, and graffiti-scarred; the tree is gone. It may be about time for yet another paint job on this old beauty.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of city streets in Pittsburgh, PA

Intersection of Carson and Arlington, Southside, 1992

Intersection of Carson and Arlington streets, Pittsburgh, PA

Intersection of Carson and Arlington, Southside, 2018 [Note the bonus Class A Steelermobile!]

Pittsburgh’s modern light rail line (“The T”) was set up in the 1980s. Though largely running on vestigial trolley tracks through the South Hills, the newer, elevated stretch of rail connecting to the Panhandle Bridge remains the dominant presence at the intersection of Carson and Arlington on the Southside as it did in the early ’90s.

You’ll notice the same deep blue paint job the Smithfield Street Bridge received and an addition of one clearance height warning sign, but that’s all we’ve got here.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of police car standoff in Pittsburgh, PA

Second Ave., Downtown, 1992

empty street with girders for raised highway, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Second Ave., Downtown, 2018

A little tip for budding action movie makers: if you want to set your picture in gritty, urban America, make sure you’ve got an elevated highway and/or train line to film under. Pittsburgh has plenty of bridges, but the double-decker effect of Boulevard of the Allies rising over Second Avenue, Downtown, really only happens for a few blocks in this one location. Striking Distance writer/director (and Pittsburgh native) Rowdy Herrington wasn’t going to miss out on it.

The cagey quality of 1920s-era steel girders with its heavy shadows and rumble from auto traffic above makes this space still feel like an action set–even on a quiet, sunny, Sunday morning. The steel beams appear to have been newly-painted, parking rates have gone up, and the bail bondsman (just out-of-frame) is open for business 24-hours.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of car on street in front of downtown Pittsburgh, PA skyline

P.J. McArdle Roadway and downtown skyline, Mt. Washington, 1992

Pittsburgh city skyline as seen from Mt. Washington

P.J. McArdle Roadway and downtown skyline, Mt. Washington, 2018

Of course The Polish Hill Strangler would take P.J. McArdle Roadway up to very-accessible Grandview Avenue in his escape route! Mount Washington’s cobblestone streets, hairpin turns, and limited egress points are exactly what any clever criminal who “drive’s like a cop” would opt for. Regardless of the plot logic of this particular route, it leaves us with some great views of the Pittsburgh skyline…and that’s probably what Rowdy Herrington was really after.

The main difference today is that downtown Pittsburgh has been in a major construction boom for the last decade or so and it’s left us with two big additions to the skyline. The 23-story Three PNC Plaza and the 33-story Tower at PNC Plaza were completed in 2009 and 2015, respectively. Both are now clearly visible [and blocking the view of Gulf Tower!] from Grandview Ave.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington, 1992

street with large church and city view in PIttsburgh, PA

Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington, 2018

The lovely St. Mary of the Mount Catholic church still holds court at its prominent spot on Grandview Ave., its parishioners getting a glorious view of downtown Pittsburgh as they step out the big, oak front doors. We set up for our photo on the grassy lawn of St. Mary’s school next door, just like Herrington and the gang did back in the day–only, Orbit budget wouldn’t pony up for the crane shot and long lens. Regardless, it’s obvious the biggest difference from here is not what’s happening on Mt. Washington, but instead, what you can see across the river.

The so-called North Shore has had a dramatic–almost wholesale–re-envisioning since the late 1990s. Still visible in the Striking Distance scene is Three Rivers Stadium and the acres of surface-level parking surrounding it. The hallowed home to Steelers and Pirates world championships was imploded in 2001 after construction of separate dedicated venues for football and baseball had been built in the same approximate area. Our present-day shot doesn’t have the detail to show you those sportatoriums–but trust me: they’re there–as are the casino complex, Stage AE, and various other new infill.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Duquesne, PA

Center Street, Duquesne, 1992

steep Belgian block residential street in Duquesne, PA

Center Street, Duquesne, 2018

The holy grail of chase scene locations! Where is this camel back cobblestone road that launches all vehicles–from a toddler’s tricycle to a chain of police cruisers–off the street and into the air?

This one really pushed The Orbit’s research team. The only clue was the visible Oak St sign in the original clip, but it clearly wasn’t any of the Oak Streets Google Maps had to offer for Pittsburgh. IMDB listed some additonal filming locations, including both Monessen and Monongahela, but it was obvious none of those was the right place, either.

Never underestimate the combination of intuition, dumb luck, and Google Street View. We were finally able to ID the venue as Center Street in Duquesne. Center is still paved with the same hundred-year-old Belgian block, but it’s the terraced layout that really invites drama. The road flattens at each point where there’s a cross street or alley, giving it the feeling of a ramp with landings.

Now, I walked the four- or five-block length of Center Street, and while it is steep, no vehicles are leaping into the air all on their own–even going way over the speed limit. Herrington’s stunt coordinators must have installed extra jumps at each stage to launch the chase party so dramatically in the air, because that’s just not happening naturally. But then again, not happening naturally would describe how most screenings of Striking Distance take place.


[1] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaufmann’s
[2] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smithfield_Street_Bridge

Take Bigelow! “Striking Distance,” 25 Years Later, Part 1: The Scene, The Meme, The Dream

illustration of scene from 1993 film "Striking Distance" with Lt. Vince Hardy (John Mahoney) and Det. Tom Hardy (Bruce Willis) in police car

“Take Bigelow.” Lt. Vince Hardy (John Mahoney) and Det. Tom Hardy (Bruce Willis) in hot pursuit of The Polish Hill Strangler. [illustration: Mario Zucca]

Let’s get something straight: Striking Distance is not a perfect movie. No, the 1993 police drama/action romp has a plot that’s a muddled mess. There’s the hunt for a serial killer, a cop drama, revenge-on-betrayal subplot, and “five generations of police” honor tale–some of them Italian, some Irish, but they’re all family…it’s confusing.

All that would be fine, but there are logical problems big enough to drive a twin-engine Chris Craft through with the river running way above flood stage. In the effort to avoid spoiling the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet [and despite everything we’ll say here, we do recommend you see the movie at least once], we’ll not go into all the details–but there are some really important plot points that just don’t make any sense at all.

In a vintage segment from their eponymous movie review show, Gene Siskel sums up Striking Distance as “The kind of warmed-over, generic action picture that really seems tired.” Roger Ebert responds to the narrative inconsistencies by saying “This movie is really stupid because it isn’t even smart enough to answer the obvious questions the audience will have,” and “I didn’t care, because I didn’t believe it.” Ouch!

illustration of scene from "Striking Distance" with Robert Pastorelli as Det. Jimmy Detillo pointing and laughing

Q: “Who’s the best cop now?” A: No one in this movie! Robert Pastorelli as Det. Jimmy Detillo. [illustration: Mario Zucca]

And then there’s Bruce Willis. Still coasting on the first two Die Hard blockbusters, the action star arrived on set armed with the same cocky smirk and dumb one-liners John McClane wore out at the Nakatomi building–only this time, they come with an obvious lack of investment.

In theory, Willis is the film’s protagonist–both hunting-for and targeted-by the unseen strangler after suffering devastating personal and professional losses. Even so, the audience finds itself praying some combination of bent cops, river bandits, and serial killers will find a way to silence his wise-cracking and misogyny before they have to white-knuckle it through another inevitable love scene.

illustration from the 1993 movie "Striking Distance" of woman gagged and laying on her side with a toy police car in foreground

A bound victim of The Polish Hill Stranger [illustration: Mario Zucca]

In a pair of the genre’s great clichés, The Polish Hill Strangler terrifies the women he’s abducted by driving a remote control police car into their bound bodies and taunts authorities by playing a cassette recording of Sam the Sham & The Pharoahs’ “Little Red Riding Hood” over the telephone. A man was imprisoned for the crimes after questionable witness testimony and a recanted confession, but hard-nosed detective John Hardy (Willis) isn’t buying it.

Sarah Jessica Parker comes aboard (literally–the setting turns to river rescue after Hardy’s demotion from the force) as by-the-book rookie Jo Christman partnered to Willis’ grisled, alcoholic, chauvinist veteran. Of course she’s helpless against his…charms (?) and two end up in the bed on his house boat by the end of her first week on the job. Girl, you can do better! Needless to say, the film fails The Bechdel Test in all possible ways.

scene from "Striking Distance" with Bruce Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker talking in bed

No rug needed. Partners Hardy and Christman working the Polish Hill Strangler case. [Note that Hardy has the only copy of “Yachting” magazine in Allegheny County.]

So why do we care about a B-grade genre movie from a generation ago?

Writer-director Rowdy Herrington is a Pittsburgh native who clearly parlayed the success of his Razzie-nominated work on Road House (1989) into a pet project, set in his hometown, and stocked with some significant star power. In addition to Willis and Parker, you’ll recognize character actors Dennis Farina, Tom Sizemore, Robert Pastorelli, etc. as members of the extended Hardy/Detillo clan.

Say what you want about Striking Distance, but the filmmakers didn’t skimp on the Pittsburgh. The local references come early and often–street and neighborhood names; police badges and Pirates gear; great-looking location shots up the hills, down on the water, and wrapped around bridges, locks, and heavy industry. Sally Wiggin and Ken Rice make cameos, playing 1993 versions of themselves anchoring local newscasts.

It’s a shame not a single actor attempts a Pittsburgh accent–which makes the film sound like it was set in Weehawken or Long Island City–but I imagine it would take more industry clout than Rowdy Herrington ever wielded to get Bruce Willis to consult with a dialogue coach.

scene from "Striking Distance" as two characters race on foot at factory

Pittsburgh at its Pittsburghiest. Scene from “Striking Distance” (1993).

If you forget about all those pesky plot issues, relax your standards on “acting,” and acknowledge that you–just like Roger Ebert–don’t care about or believe any of the characters, Striking Distance is a pretty fun popcorn movie. There’s a couple fast-paced boat chases, the pirate takeover of a tugboat shoving a full load of coal barges upriver [hey–it could happen!], high-tension when The Strangler strikes, and raw testosterone when cops and family collide.

It’s the opening car chase, though–a high-speed, cross-city, explosions-and-acrobatics pursuit of an unidentified suspect in an ’89 Ford–that really kicks the film into high gear right out of the gate. Herrington’s mise en scène is nowhere better dealt than in the Hardys’ casual descent down a couple of classic Pittsburgh hillsides–the city playing its own glorious self laid out before the views from Troy Hill.

illustration based on the 1993 movie "Striking Distance" with two cars racing down a dark road

“He drives like a cop.” One of two loose hubcaps in the high-octane opening chase scene. [illustration: Mario Zucca]

As the chase jumps into high gear, Herrington makes sure everyone in the audience gets a good look at his hometown. It’s a what’s-what–or maybe where’s-where–of spectacular Pittsburgh: tight downtown alleys, the elegant Smithfield Street Bridge and Armstrong Tunnel, hairpin hillside turns, and birds-eye views from Mount Washington.

John Mahoney, as Tom Hardy’s police lieutenant father Vince, utters the offhand “Take Bigelow”–a throwaway line that would absurdly launch its own local micro-phenomena, spawning a meme that seems to gather more energy with each passing year.

black t-shirt with text "TAKE BIGELOW"

“Take Bigelow” t-shirt from Commonweath Press

The car chase was going to be the subject of today’s story, but we just had too much to blather on about–that, and we came across a fantastic original illustration based on the movie by artist Mario Zucca (“Take Bigelow,” top). On asking Mr. Zucca for permission to include the drawing for this story, he not only granted us that favor, but produced another series of pieces from the archive done for a (one-time) planned full illustration of the film. Some of those are included here.

Zucca describes himself as “having a pretty serious obsession with [Striking Distance] back in the day,” [we believe you!] who could at one time quote the movie line-for-line. Many thanks to Mario for allowing Pittsburgh Orbit to publish his original illustrations here. Check out more of his work at mariozucca.com.

detail of "Striking Distance" DVD case with "Take Bigelow" word balloon taped onto outside

fan-altered library copy of the “Striking Distance” DVD case

Next week: Like Capt. Nick Detillo’s old Italian saying, we’re not going to scald our tongues on another man’s soup. Enough with the appetizer–bring on the meal! The Orbit has got a fun now-and-then retracing of locations from Striking Distance that will have you tearing across bridges, hopping the hillside cobblestones, and yes, taking Bigelow. Read all about it in Part 2.

screen capture from the film "Striking Distance" of actor John Mahoney as police officer riding in passenger seat of car

John Mahoney as Lt. Vince Hardy in “Striking Distance,” (1993).


Errata: An earlier version of this story mistakenly credited local TV news personalities “Ken Burns” and “Sally Wiggins” with cameos in the film. We were corrected by alert Orbit readers that it is actually Ken Rice and Sally Wiggin who appear in Striking Distance. We regret the errors and will tar-and-feather our fact-checkers.

Neighbor of the Living Dead [or] I Was a Teenage Zombie

still from the movie "Night of the Living Dead" showing zombies breaking into farmhouse

John Kirch (on right) “starring” in “Night of the Living Dead”, 1968

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[1].

John Kirch wearing a t-shirt with the message "I was dead before dead was cool"

Kirch today, at home in Lawrenceville [photo courtesy John Kirch]

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.

John Kirch at 15 years old

Don’t let the blazer fool you. Kirch at 15, around the time of filming “Night of the Living Dead” [photo courtesy John Kirch]

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.

Three-story neoclassical Pitt Building in downtown Pittsburgh

Pitt Building, Smithfield Street. Former home of Hardman Associates. [photo: John Kirch]

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.

still from "Night of the Living Dead" with zombies recoiling from fire

“Night of the Living Dead” molotov cocktail still. John Kirch behind central figure.

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.

still from "Night of the Living Dead" with zombies

“Night of the Living Dead” zombie still. John Kirch, third from left.

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.

Fulton Theater marquee lit up for world premier of "Night of the Living Dead", Oct. 1, 1968

“Night of the Living Dead” world premier, Oct. 1, 1968 at the old Fulton Theater (now Byham), downtown [photo © Image Ten]

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[2] 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.

typed time schedule for former Arcade Theatre in Pittsburgh with first run of "Night of the Living Dead"

(Former) Arcade Theatre time schedule including “Night of the Living Dead” “starring” John Kirch [image courtesy of John Kirch]

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.

newspaper ad for "Night of the Living Dead" mentioning a life insurance policy for $50,000

“Night of the Living Dead” newspaper ad, c. 1968

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.”

John Kirch with left hand painted blood red, preparing to leave a hand print on wall

“I wanted to whack a watermelon with a tire iron.” Kirch prepares to leave a bloody hand print at the Living Dead Museum, Evans City, PA [photo: Kevin Kriess]

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[3], he’s been invited each year to the annual Living Dead Weekend festivals held in Evans City.

John Kirch with Russ and Gary Streiner on stage at Hollywood Theater, Dormont, PA

Kirch (right) “outed” at a “Night of the Living Dead” screening with Russ and Gary Streiner, Hollywood Theater, 2012 [photo: Joel Wlodarczyk]

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.

poster advertising 2013 Living Dead Festival in Evans City, PA

Living Dead Festival 2013 poster

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.

12 cast members from the film "Night of the Living Dead", photographed in 2013

Kirch (far right) with other “Night of the Living Dead” cast members, 2013 [photo: Lawrence DeVincentz]


[1] What else would you put up there? FlashdanceSilence of the Lambs? That Batman movie?
[2] 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
[3] 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.