Zombies…Pittsburgh style…created by George A. Romero. It began in 1968 with the release of the ground breaking Night of the Living Dead. Ten years later the modern day horror classic, Dawn of the Dead, arrived on screen. As the 40th anniversary approaches since filming commenced, a special reunion took place June 9-11, 2017 at a hallowed site in horror history, the Monroeville Mall. This shopping complex was essential in Romero’s Dawn vision. Three of the four leading performers returned to reminisce with fans and reunite with many original cast and crew from Dawn of the Dead.
Billed as the “Living Dead Weekend Monroeville – Dawn of the Dead Reunion”, the events kicked off Friday on a special stage set up within the mall corridor. Bob Michelucci, Tony Buba, Marty Schiff, Nick Tallo, and Taso Stavrakis all shared personal experiences during filming. Ralph Langer brought his original Super 8 camera which he used to record behind the scenes footage in 1977-78. Jim Krut, the famed “Helicopter Zombie”, revealed to fans that his scene was a wrap on the very first take. Cinematographer Michael Gornick told the audience there was a camaraderie with the entire crew and a laid back atmosphere. Gornick explained Romero was one of the first filmmakers doing fast cut editing which helps the film keep a contemporary feel. Romero did not use storyboards but communicated well getting his ideas across.
Ken Foree took the spotlight Friday and thanked the folks who have kept the film’s memory alive in Pittsburgh. Foree said it was difficult to select his favorite scene as there were so many. He did mention the gun shop as he felt like a kid playing an armed cowboy. Foree reflected on quiet scenes, as they set the mood and tone of the movie. Praising the other three actors as being, “So good it was magical”, Foree said it was the right time for the film and it worked. “The film became us – we became the film. We went beyond acting. We had a connection and it worked. Romero gave guidance, then let us go to discover our characters. It was very relaxed and no tension.” Ken Foree revealed the most disturbing scene for him was the project housing basement where the zombies are gnawing on flesh. He had known actor Duane Jones and was a fan of Night of the Living Dead but still had a tough time with the more gruesome moments in Dawn of the Dead. Foree actually lost friends over the content of the film when it premiered as it was more shocking at that time, even though it received great reviews. Ken Foree remains proud of the movie to this day.
Saturday morning featured a headliner panel discussion including Gaylen Ross, Scott H. Reiniger, Ken Foree, and Michael Gornick. Ross told fans the best thing she loved about the script was the political theme of consumerism as a subtext to the horror elements. Reiniger explained it took an hour and a half for Tom Savini to apply his makeup and now realizes how iconic the film has become. Gornick praised all of the actors present then said David Emge played his role with a perfect subtlety, adding, “The film was more than we ever imagined. The cast was extraordinary.”
Saturday mall events included a Romero trivia contest and recollections by cast members David Crawford and Randy Kovitz. Gaylen Ross then took the stage sharing her thoughts. She revealed details on the alternate ending that was filmed but never used…and the tough scenes there within. She again brought up the theme of social commentary that propels the story. Ross told Romero early in production she didn’t want to scream on camera. She needed her character to be strong and able…and that certainly comes across. Gaylen Ross shared how Romero was always open to suggestions. She disagreed with his initial cutting of her glamour scene. Ross typed a full letter explaining why she wanted to keep it in. It was her moment…and Romero acquiesced. Gaylen Ross also admitted the screen dialogue involving a possible abortion was daring for the time.
Leonard Lies portrayed the iconic “Machete Zombie” in the movie, and with assistance from make-up artist Jeannie Jefferies, recreated the scene at the exact same spot within the mall. A historic moment occurred Saturday afternoon as the invited guests gathered for the largest Dawn of the Dead cast reunion panel ever. The camaraderie among the folks who were involved in this film is akin to a family gathering. Dawn of the Dead was in essence a Pittsburgh film. George A. Romero utilized a full local crew. Nick Tallo summed up the guests’ feelings as he said, “We worked with George…not for him.” The majority of these people went on to successful careers in media while remaining close to the Pittsburgh area. The city itself takes special pride in keeping the spirit of this classic alive. For example, the mall footbridge which was featured in the film will soon be on display at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.
As Sunday arrived, Tom Savini conducted a fantastic discussion of make-up and filming techniques. Savini handled the special effects on Dawn of the Dead in addition to portraying a biker. Tom Savini’s FX School in the Pittsburgh area offers a credit course and hands-on training for students pursuing a career in make-up effects. More guests shared memories on stage, including Sharon “Nurse Zombie” Hill, Joe Shelby, and Robert “Banjo” Saunders. Hill laughingly told fans she was the one who baked the pies for the bikers vs. zombies scenes and recalled how Romero preferred her outfit completely white with no blood. Sharon Hill also revealed the fact some live ammunition rounds were mistakenly included among the blanks during filming!
On stage Sunday, Scott H. Reiniger described auditioning for Romero as very relaxing although he thought it was one of the bloodiest scripts ever. Romero had reservations casting Reiniger alongside Foree who was almost twice his size. Reiniger fired back, telling the director, “The audience will not give a shit after the first five minutes.” Reiniger thrived portraying a sharpshooter living on the edge. Interestingly though, it was actor David Emge who had real life shooting skills. Reiniger said he acted on instinct and had the idea of sliding down the store escalator…with the director’s blessing. Concerning the project basement filming, Reiniger reflected Foree’s sentiments. He looked around and told Romero, “George, this is really disgusting!” Reiniger continued, “George smiled and said…yeah I know!” His favorite scene? “In the truck where I start to snap. It was a turning point. I start to unravel.” Questioned about his reanimation sequence, “My take on it was…there was still a glimmer of awareness remaining as I awakened.” Reiniger added, “I knew the film was unusual, but had no idea of the impact it would have.” Scott H. Reiniger then asked the audience why Dawn of the Dead is so special for them. Fans described character study and development, friendship, and the essence of human nature. Reiniger concluded, “The film is still very awesome. I don’t get tired of it.” Genre fans and beyond completely agree.
In addition to panel interviews all guests graciously signed autographs throughout the weekend. There was a VIP mixer and even a zombie belly dance performance! Monroeville Mall Dawn of the Dead location tours occurred each day, conducted by Lawrence DeVincentz. A popular after hours tour was offered Friday night. Fans were privy to areas of the mall normally off limits to the public. This included the hideout staircase, the boiler room, and maintenance passageways which were all prominently featured in the movie. Photo ops were available with the stars throughout mall locations and a few lucky fans even got to the roof for a photo shoot!
Dawn of the Dead enthusiasts descended upon the Monroeville Mall as far away as Portland, Oregon and Brighton, United Kingdom. Appreciation for Dawn of the Dead is special and worldwide. It really seems like a family. The convention was made possible by the Living Dead Museum located in Evans City, Pennsylvania, the filming location of Night of the Living Dead. It was held in conjunction with Steel City Con, a popular culture convention regularly held in Pittsburgh.