Dawn Of The Dead: 10 Behind-The-Scenes Facts About George A. Romero’s Horror Classic

Cinema Blend

Hungry zombies reaching for Flyboy in Dawn of the Dead

Back when I was a sophomore in high school, I went to Sam Goody in my hometown mall and convinced my mom to buy me the recently released Anchor Bay DVD release of George A. Romero’s 1978 horror classic Dawn of the Dead. Over the course of the next couple of days, I watched zombies overtake that iconic shopping mall no fewer than five times (including Romero’s commentary track), and then found every article I could find about how it all came together. I was obsessed with all of the great behind-the-scenes facts about even the smallest of details (like Romero playing not one, but two characters including a zombie Santa).

And while my copy of Dawn of the Dead has been lost to the ages and is probably scratched up in a box somewhere in my childhood bedroom, I still try to watch the 1978 sequel to Night of the Living Dead whenever the opportunity presents itself (including a midnight showing at a local theater a few years back), and I remain just as enamored by the story and the production as I was as a 16-year-old all those years ago. So, in the spirit of me revisiting my favorite movie I thought I would gather some of the best information about George A. Romero’s campy, yet terrifying undead magnum opus.

Zombies and bikers take over the mall in Dawn of the Dead

George A. Romero Came Up With The Idea For Dawn Of The Dead After Touring A Shopping Mall

One of the things about Dawn of the Dead that makes it so unique is its setting: a fully operational shopping mall. His first attempt at making a movie about the dead coming back to life mostly took place in an abandoned house, but as the late horror legend told Little White Lies (via Medium) in a conversation before his death, he needed to have an idea and have something to say about culture. Around that time, Romero was invited to take a tour of the first shopping mall in Western Pennsylvania:

I went out to visit it before it opened and saw the trucks coming in, bringing everything that you could ever possibly want in your life into this enormous building. So the concept was there, it just seemed like this temple to consumerism. The light went off and I thought maybe I could do something with this, so I started to write the script.

It was at that very moment that George A. Romero realized that he could use the mall and zombies to make a criticism of American consumerism and have some fun with the concept in the process.

Ken Foree in Dawn of the Dead

Romero Thought Of The ‘When There’s No More Room In Hell…’ Line While Drunk

Shortly after the release of Dawn of the Dead in early 1978, Rolling Stone published an extremely in-depth profile on the film’s production, which included some pretty great interviews with people like George A. Romero and special effects guru Tom Savini. At one point in the piece, Chet Flippo asks Romero how he came up with perhaps the movie’s most quotable line: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” Being candid as humanly possible, Romero revealed that he came up with the idea drunkenly when crashing to finish the script. Romero also credited Italian director Dario Argento (who played a major role in getting the movie financed) with helping him come up the words a voodoo priest from the Caribbean would say. The rest is history.

A Group Of Drunk Zombies Caused $7,000 In Damages To The Monroeville Mall

Speaking of coming up with great ideas while in a drunken state, several of the actors playing zombies took it upon themselves to get wasted at the still-open bar in the Monroeville Mall before filming began each night, but one of those encounters ended up not going according to plan. In an interview with Pittsburgh City Paper, Tom Savini revealed how it all went down that fateful night:

There was a bar called The Brown Derby. We’d make up the zombies at 7 p.m., and didn’t start until the stores closed at 9 p.m. A lot of the zombies went to The Brown Derby and got drunk. Some zombies jumped on a golf cart and crashed it into a pillar in the mall, doing about $7,000 dollars of damage.

Going back to the quotable line “When there’s no more room in hell…” I guess it should end with “the dead will drunkenly walk the earth.”

A zombie getting hit in the face with a pie in Dawn of the Dead

Despite The Horror, Romero Wanted Dawn Of The Dead To Play Like Cowboys And Indians With Pie Fights

Make no mistake about it, Dawn of the Dead is a terrifying and oftentimes grotesque horror movie, but there are elements of humor and downright campiness, albeit very intentional on the part of writer-director George A. Romero. In the Rolling Stone profile mentioned above, Romero admitted that while he was trying to create a morality play with his second Dead movie, he also wanted to have some fun at the same time, stating:

I mean, I’d be willing to put the POW! BANG! SUPER! on it. It’s comic books, man, it’s paperbacks, you know, that’s what they are. I want Dawn to play like a cowboy and Indians movie. I’m trying to see if I can get past all that violence and just hoot and holler and cheer and throw pies and shit.

And if you will recall, the final act of Dawn of the Dead features an impromptu pie fight involving the motorcycle gang and army of the undead. It’s a fun, lighthearted scene that also makes you forget that some serious shit is about to go down in the film’s final moments.

The exploding head in Dawn of the Dead

A Real Shotgun Was Used To Pull Off The Iconic Exploding Head Scene

One of the most memorable (and goriest) moments in Dawn of the Dead comes within the first 10 minutes when Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger’s (Scott Reiniger) SWAT team is raiding a housing project, specifically the shot of one of their fellow police officers goes crazy and shoots a random person in the head, causing it to explode in spectacular fashion. At first appears to look a small special effects charge but in the Dawn of the Dead “Making Of” documentary, Tom Savini revealed that he filled a mold with all sorts of stuff before getting a shotgun and shooting it point-blank to provide the desired effect.

Gaylen Ross, David Emge, Ken Foree, and Scott Reiniger in Dawn of the Dead

The Dawn Of The Dead Crew Had To Take Down And Reassemble Christmas Decorations Every Night

Production for Dawn of the Dead began in November 1977 which created a few problems for George A. Romero and company, namely all the Christmas decorations that were hanging around the Monroeville Mall that was still very much in use. In a 2005 interview with Ain’t It Cool News, Greg Nicotero, who would go on to become a legend of his own with The Walking Dead and a number of other notable projects, explained the situation in frustrating detail:

So, every night it’d take the crew an hour and a half to two hours to take all the Christmas decorations down, get set up for shooting and then at the end of the night, when they were wrapped they’d have to put all the Christmas decorations up.

After a while, the production team got tired of wasting valuable shooting time and going through the process of removing and reassembling decorations every night, and so they decided to shut down production until after the holidays.

Zombies getting shot in Dawn of the Dead

Production Had To Stop Every Morning At 7 Before The Mall Reopened

If the Christmas decorations didn’t cause enough of a headache for the cast and crew of Dawn of the Dead, the odd working hours surely did. Since the Monroeville Mall was still an active mall, Romero and company could only film after all the stores closed for the night, which resulted in not being able to actually start shooting any footage until as late as 11 p.m., and they would have to be finished by 7 a.m. the following day. According to that great Rolling Stone piece mentioned above, the mall’s computer would automatically start playing Muzak over the public address system and no one from the production knew how to turn it off. The decision could also have something to do with the cardiac patients who would walk through the mall early each morning.

Tom Savini in Dawn of the Dead

Special Effects Master Tom Savini’s Character, Blades, Wasn’t In The Script

The introduction of the biker gang in the final act of Dawn of the Dead shakes things up quite a bit for the survivors taking refuge in the mall, but one of their leaders, Blades, wasn’t even supposed to be there, according to the person who portrayed him, none other than Tom Savini. In the interview with Pittsburgh City Paper (the same one with the drunk zombies), the special effects god revealed that his part wasn’t in the script but George A. Romero kept putting him into scenes. The next thing Savini knew, he was the leader of the gang in what he called the “longest Halloween” of his life.

David Emge in Dawn of the Dead

David Emge Came Up With Flyboy’s Unique Zombie Walk On His Own

Stephen “Flyboy” Andrews (David Emge) is one of the most annoying characters in Dawn of the Dead, but when he turns into a zombie in the final few minutes, it’s really something to see (full disclosure: I once spent way too much money on a “Flyboy” zombie figure) thanks to his unique mannerisms. In the Dawn of the Dead “Making Of” documentary, David Emge explained not only that he watched all of the other zombies on set and came up with something that stood out, but that George A. Romero was in love with his depiction of a recently deceased helicopter pilot. Everything from the way he turns in his right foot to hanging a revolver from his index finger were all invented by Emge who said he had “hoot” playing a zombie.

Gaylen Ross in Dawn of the Dead

Romero Originally Planned For A Bleaker Ending

The final shot of Dawn of the Dead shows Peter and Francine (Gaylen Ross) escaping the overrun mall in the helicopter that brought them there in the first place. And while it’s not an optimistic ending (they were running low on gas before they got there), it’s definitely a lot happier than the bleak tone of George A. Romero’s original idea. In the working script (via Little White Lies), Peter, not seeing a way out, shoots himself, leaving Francine on her own. The lone survivor starts up the helicopter and drives her head into the spinning blades. The credits then crawl across the screen as the helicopter’s engine cuts out, suggesting that the two survivors would have died even if they made it off the roof.

Well, what do you think about those behind the scenes facts from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Did you know all this or is this information new to you? Either way, make sure to sound off in the comments below and let everyone know what you think.

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October 9, 2020

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