Steelers Throwback Thursdays: How zombies, George Romero, and the 1970s-era Steelers came together

Before the NFL officially gears up for the 2021-22 season, Steel City Underground will be taking fans back in time to feature events, special moments, and historical times in the world of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Steelers Nation. Join us as we revisit these moments in our “Throwback Thursdays”.

If you thought you knew everything about the Pittsburgh Steelers, our trip back in time this Thursday may leave your brain spinning. Legendary filmmaker George Romero – the “Godfather of the Dead” –  not only made classic zombie films during the Steelers’ 1970s era but also did four films on the great football team in Pittsburgh: “Franco Harris: Good Luck on Sunday,” “The Steel Curtain,” “Terry Bradshaw: Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” and “I’m Back: The Rocky Bleier Story.”

Romero began his long filmmaking career by filming television commercials and short films, Early on, he was lucky to find that Pittsburgh had three laboratories that developed and printed movie film of the time (eight, sixteen, and thirty-five mm); W.R.S, Packaged Programs, and PMPL (Pittsburgh Motion Picture Laboratory). Romero picked up a non-pay opportunity at PMPL to help deliver edited newsreels to local news stations, like KDKA. As a Carnegie Mellon University alum, Romero found Pittsburgh’s dedication to film, especially the J.P. Harris nickelodeon, fascinating. It led to him meeting many prominent people in the Pittsburgh community, and that included the Rooney family.

Romero’s first “paid gigs” included filming segments with Fred Rogers for his highly popular family show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “I still joke that ‘Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy’ is the scariest film I’ve ever made,” Romero said on the Diamond Dead film website. “What I really mean is that I was scared (expletive) while I was trying to pull it off.”

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After Romero and his band of friends formed Image Ten Productions and made Night of the Living Dead – a near-instant cult classic – things in Pittsburgh filmmaking were evolving, much like the status of the Pittsburgh Steelers team as they entered the 1970s.

“If there is a similarity between what was going on with the Steelers at that time and what was going on with us, it’s about perseverance.” – George Romero

The Steelers had been dwelling in the basement of the league through much of their first three decades and Romero knew what that was like due to lost loyalties from Night of the Living Dead – filmed around Pittsburgh and Evans City – that plagued him and his colleagues. In order to keep afloat, Romero and his group turned to help outside of the horror film genre; the Rooney family was turning over scouting reports to get help from guys that could make the Steelers go from floating to sailing in the NFL. After doing a short documentary on Pittsburgh Pirates homerun king Willie Stargell, things moved in a new direction for both Romero and the Steelers.

“It became sort of a template,” Romero said of the Stargell film. “Our lawyers, Berkman, Ruslander, happened to represent the Steelers and they said “How about we do one of these about Franco?'”

Romero sold the sports documentary shorts, including the four Steelers films, to ABC as a package series, “The Winners.”

Romero went on to become a highly-respected filmmaker with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame (shortly after his death) while the Steelers became one of just two NFL teams to lay claim to six Super Bowl championships.

Many of the parallels between his work, Pittsburgh, and what the Steelers accomplished during the 1970s era in the National Football League led to Romero sitting down with Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Art Rooney II, Art Rooney, Jr., Joe Greene, and Rocky Bleier at the Parkway Theater to revisit the films he’d made of the team, the relationships that were formed, and how there were similar legacies between both his zombie films and the guys on the gridiron. The project, known as “Night of the Living Steelers”, was shared with the public in association with NFL Films.

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