Burt in a 60's Uneeda ad.
Tale of the Tank
I remember the day it happened. Burt was late, stuck behind the
train and Id moved recently from Pennsylvania. I just started working as manager and
had my hands full. We had just begun stocking cadavers for the first time ever. We had a
monopoly almost on fresh specimens for medical use due to an international treaty. As if
that was not creepy enough, the bodies were usually young men, like the ones going to
Vietnam in those years.
Uneeda was getting renovated to include the new stock as the
establishments reputation was growing. Burt had just taken the business over from
his father after working in my position since the late '50's. We were the second oldest
business in the East Piedmont district. Across the street don't forget Resurrection
Funeral Home, which was almost as old as the cemetery...which had been there since after
the Civil War. Those were the days when the cemetery gates werent vandalized by
punks. The dead could really rest in peace.
Ernie Kaltenbrunner (a weirdo into his work and Aryan heritage) just moved up to head embalmer, following the long line of Nazi incinerators and becoming one of the first crematorium operators in the state. Somehow he got along with Burt and they've been friends since.
Anyway, we got this shipment out back around 11 A.M. Burt had arrived and took a look at this odd-looking invoice. Burt did not know what the shipment could have been but he signed anyhow and they were brought in. The delivery driver had no clue either; he could care less. Nowadays we have stricter invoice checks.
So we dollied the five boxes in and opened them up. And there they were the airtight cylinders with the Property of US Army stenciled on them. They appeared to have been a few months old if not more. We had everyone stay away from them and moved them down to the basement after the end of the work day to not generate any excitement or rumors about them. Burt studied the tank for a moment as if he had been resisting an urge to open its bubble lid. He walked over to it, took a breath and turned pale. He slammed the lid down a moment later and put his head down, fist to mouth. "God damn" he turned away mumbling. He was in even more distress.
"Burt, what was wrong-what the hell is in the tank?" I yelled.
He was speechless.
"Burt what is IN there?"
Burt looked up and said "I want you to take a look. And never ever come down here to look again until I figure out what I am going to do with them."
I went ahead slightly hesitant and opened the lid and peered over. I put
my hand ove rmy mouth in disbelief. Beneath the lid was a rectangular window. And a
mummified corpse, eyes shut, appeared to be crammed.
As I looked at the tank I heard Burt say " I dont want this thing leaking." I looked at him and said "you have my word, Burt."
He laughed and "no, I mean the tanks ."
Burt was very panicky at this point. Any word of this and he was going
to be investigated, most certainly shut down for possible contamination. It was our secret
and we were planning on going to the grave with it.
We went back to the office and sat down to discuss it. He explained that a Pittsburgh chemical developer called Darrow had been producing something called Trioxin and that that had been intended for marijuana extermination. But they were developing other compounds which were stronger and contained lethal doses of nerve gas. There was some sort of addictive chemical they used in there too along with some unknown agents developed during WWII. He explained it was a kind of anti-drug yet it was a drug itself.
I had told him that my wife used to be a nurse at VA Hospital and I had she had related to me a tale of a chemical spill about '66, 67. They evacuated everyone out and had people extensively checked out. I didnt know too much about what happened at that point but Burt quickly recalled Darrow working with the hospital and the Army on something very secretive.
"Something happened there." Burt said. "Darrow had been keeping a very low profile since then. Theyre under investigation themselves."
One thing we couldnt figure out. Why are there corpses in those tanks? Were these victims of this accident? Or were they soldiers from the Nam that had been experimented on? This is why Burt was so afraid of leakage. The basement was off limits to all employees from then on.
The thought of sending the tanks out anonymously crossed our minds but Burt was sure they would trace them. The military was occupied with Vietnam at this point so in retrospect it may have been a good time to get rid of them.
Jump ahead to 1970. I read about this movie out of Pittsburgh called NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD by this amateur director named Romero. Apparently his living dead were cannibals not voodoo sleepwalkers from a Bela Lugosi movie. I heard later that tests were done to soldiers in Nam. They were trying to build indestructible soldiers, impervious to bullets. You know the type. One gets its head chopped off but keeps firing his machine gun. Anyway I read that many were sensitive about his portrayal of violence and that the fields full of zombies struck a nerve with some vets or something. So me and Burt checked out the film in a drive-in and that was it. Not only did we get scared shitless but we figured it all out. The zombies in the film were from Pittsburgh so were the bodies in our basement.
We like the rest of the audience hoped something like that would and could never happen. When I told my wife about it she grew interested and asked a few people she knew from Pittsburgh. There some details came out.
Romero is the only person to ever address the incident (besides an
obscure tabloid paper that disappeared). After he was threatened with a Darrow lawsuit
when he began production of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, he was advised to change the details
completely for the film, and destroy some footage from it (the producers blamed it on a
flood later on). Mr. Romero was 26 or 27 at the time and desperate for a movie that would
shock and educate the public about what is going on in the Army. Anyway, he changed the
way the dead killed and the way the way they were killed according to some hospital
personnel my wife knew in Pittsburgh that witnessed the actual events at the
veterans hospital back in the mid 60s.
He actually made a few movies about the incident. The accident actually happened in the morning. I guess that is why he followed the picture up with DAWN OF THE DEAD which brought the circumstances to exaggerated proportions. After further researching about the military use of trained combat cadavers he wrote DAY OF THE DEAD, but due to another lawsuit threat he couldnt make that exactly what he wanted either. Some of the rounding up of the corpses was left in though.
He had heard about this chemical through some source at the VA hospital and after NIGHT he kept making references to the incident like in THE CRAZIES. Trioxin had become Trixie and was no longer a dead-reviving chemical. Even the biohazard suits in that picture were directly from descriptions of the Army Corps brought in to contain the bodies. By the end of the 70s, more people started hearing about the chemical and movies like TOXIC ZOMBIES, NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES and CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD were made. It almost felt like they were afraid it may happen again. Both Romero and Darrow both attempted to sue the filmmakers of these films too as a matter of fact.
The zombies in CREEPSHOW a few years ago usually aren't taken seriously but according to inside sources, the way he wanted them portrayed was based on more research Romero did. His source said that the bodies talked when they reanimated and spoke like they were aware of everything around them even in death. Also when the ghouls were shot the bullets couldnt stop them. The other stories in the film were based on real incidents as well but due to their tabloid nature, they arent taken seriously neither.
But I am serious. Medical supply is a Serious business. With a capital