Pittsburgh is more than just my hometown. If you believe a source as vaunted as Joe Bob Briggs, we’re also the birthplace of modern horror, thanks to George Romero and friends creating Night of the Living Dead right here (well, actually Evans City, 45 minutes north of the city).
Horror may have laid dormant for a decade or so, but the 70’s and 80’s were packed with genre defining creations made right here in the City of Bridges. There’s Dawn of the Dead, Martin and Day of the Dead just to name a few.
Then there’s the 1980 fim Effects, made by several of Romero’s friends and all about the actual process of making a scary movie and the philosophy of horror. Much like every fright flick that emerged from the Steel City — let’s not include 1988’s Flesh Eater, a movie I’m not sure anyone but S. William Hinzman has any pride in — it goes beyond simple shocks to delve into the complex nature of reality, man’s place in the world and what it means to be afraid.
Pittsburgh is also a complex city, one that started last century as “Hell with the lid off,” died in the late 1970’s and rose, much like the living dead, to become a hub for tech many years later. Effects is a document of what it once was decades ago and holds powerful memories for those that grew up here.
Joe Pilato (Captain Rhodes from Day of the Dead) stars as Dominic, a cinematographer who has travelled out of the city to the mountains — around here, anything east of the city is referred to as “going to the mountains” — to be the cameraman and special effects creator for a low-budget horror movie.
In case you are from here, he’s going to Ligionier. For the rest of the world, imagine a rural wooded area, the area where Rolling Rock beer once came from — yes, I know it’s Latrobe yinzers — Anheuser-Busch bought it, moved the plant to Newark, New Jersey and stopped making it in glass lined tanks. As a result, it now tastes like every mass produced beer out there. It’s also a place with a Story Book Forest theme park.
I tell you that to tell you this — imagine a team of horror maniacs descending on this quiet little town to make a movie about coked up psychopaths making a snuff film in the woods.
Director Lacey Bickle (John Harrison, who created the music for many of Romero’s films and directed Tales from the Darkside: The Movie) is a strange duck, one who wants to push his crew to film scenes days and nights.
Luckily, Dominick meets Celeste, a gaffer who is disliked by the rest of the crew. They quickly fall in love at the same time as our protagonist discovers that an entirely different film is being made, one whose special effects don’t need any technical wizardry. As secret cameras begin to roll, what is real and what is Hollywood by way of Allegheny County wizardy?
Dusty Nelson, Pasquale Buba, and John Harrison — the three main filmmakers — all met at public TV station WQED, the home of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and all worked together on the aforementioned Martin. Inspired by their work on that film, they started an LLC and raised $55,000 from friends and family to make this movie.
Due to a distributor problem, Effects was never released in theaters or on home video. It’s lone theatrical screenings were at the U.S. Film Fest — which is now the Sundance Film Festival — and it had its world premiere at the Kings Court theater in Oakland, right down the street from Pitt, on November 9, 1979.
According to the website Temple of Schlock, Effects was picked up by Stuart S. Shapiro, a distributor who specialized in offbeat music, horror and cult films like Shame of the Jungle and The Psychotronic Man. His International Harmony company distributed the film, but it played few, if any, theaters. Shapiro would go on to create Night Flight for the USA Network. In October 2005, Synapse would finally release this film on DVD for the first time ever.
Pittsburgh is a lot different now. The Kings Court, once a police station turned movie theater transformed into the Beehive, a combination coffee shop movie theater, is now a T-Mobile store, a sad reminder that at one time, we rejected the homogenization of America here in Pittsburgh. Nowehere is this feeling more telling than at the end of this film, where the movie within a movie has its premiere on Liberty Avenue. Now in the midst of Theater Square, this mini-42nd Street went the very same way, with establishments like the Roman V giving way to magic and comedy clubs. As a kid, when my parents drove down this street, I was at once fascinated and frightened by dahntahn. But no longer.