This Was An Important Place In Their Lives- Dawn Of The Dead

Place your bets on how fast you’ll get Robin Sparkles’ “Let’s Go To The Mall” stuck in your head. 

The term “shopping mall” itself is a specifically modern North American term used to define a “shopping precinct or shopping center in which one or more buildings form a complex of shops with interconnecting walkways, usually indoors”. In other parts of the world, the term “shopping center” or “shopping arcade” is the term used. One of the earliest records of a site resembling a mall was in the 10th century Isfahan’s Grand Bazaar in Iran. The area was defined as a “covered market”. Then there was Trajan’s Market in Rome which dates back to 100-110CE. Built in the 13th century, Chester Rows in Cheshire, England, is most likely the longest continuously occupied shopping mall, as it’s still in operation to this day. 

In 1828, The Arcade in Providence, Rhode Island, opened, making it the first enclosed shopping center in the United States. Jump ahead to the post-World War II boom in the States. There was an increase in “suburban culture” and an increase in automobile ownership and use. More shopping centers were popping just outside of major cities and away from the more congested downtown areas. Larger “anchor stores”, or “big box stores”, were being built into malls to be more of a “draw” to the public and to hopefully bring more foot traffic to the smaller chain stores. 

In 1956, in the Edina, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, the Southdale Center opened. The Southdale Center was designed by an Austrian immigrant named Victor Gruen. Feeling that America had become too “car-centric”, Gruen designed the mall to feel more like the communal meeting places that he remembered in his native Vienna. This design was the first of its kind- fully enclosed and climate controlled. Gruen’s design is how we now define modern shopping malls. 

The Monroeville Mall opened in May of 1969 in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. George Romero first visited the mall in 1974 with his friend/potential investor Mark Mason (Oxford Development Company). That’s when an idea came to Romero- 

 “When they first showed us around, they took us where they had sealed-off rooms upstairs packed with civil defense stuff, which they had put there in the event of some sort of disaster- and that’s what gave me the idea. I mean, my God, here’s this cathedral to consumerism, and it’s also a bomb shelter, just in case society crumbles.”

Nearly a decade after his instant cult-classic Night Of The Living Dead was released, Romero was back at it with his zombies and began filming Dawn Of The Dead in 1977. A majority of the film was shot inside of the Monroeville Mall and they had to make the most out of what little time they were allotted when the mall wasn’t occupied. They had from 2AM to 7AM, from the time taverns in the mall closed to when the automatic “Muzak” came on. 

The opening of Dawn picks up right where Night left off. George Romero and his future wife, Chris, make cameos in the opening scene as two operators in the booth of the chaotic television station. Stephen, also known as Flyboy, played by David Emge, comes to the station to pick up Fran, played by Gaylen Ross. Romero was still facing criticisms for his portrayal of a “damsel in distress” with the character of Barbara in Night. Feeling some pressure on who to cast as the female-lead in this follow-up, Chris Romero cast Gaylen Ross. Ross was an acting student who had yet to land her first professional role. When she was asked to scream at the airfield scene, she refused, putting her foot down in a character-defining moment because she wanted to make her character tougher. Sure, she has a moment of panic and “freezes’ but we see her feisty character growth happen much faster than anything we saw with Barbara. 

Cut to an apartment building being swarmed by police during a raid. After the dust settles of the raid, and the police discover zombies that the occupants had been hiding in the building while in an extreme case of denial, we’re introduced to Peter and Roger, played by Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger, respectively. Each thinking that they’re alone, they take the other by surprise and aim their guns at each other. After a moment, the pair realize that they’re on the same boat, lower their weapons, and Roger brings Peter along to meet up with Stephen and Fran to make an escape in Stephen’s helicopter. Playing out as the complete opposite of the relationship between Harry and Ben in Night, Roger and Peter use their knowledge and skills to help each other rather than try to play “King Of The Castle”. 

There’s chaos at the docks as people are trying to make their way to boats and cars in an attempt to flee the area and get to somewhere more remote. While Stephen is finishing loading up the helicopter, a man approaches the four of them and asks if anybody has a cigarette to which they all shake their heads “no”. He then says that they have an idea that they could make it to an island, Stephen asks, “What island?” and the man replies, “Any island” (an idea which would come back almost thirty years later). As the helicopter ascends, we hear the man shouting, desperately asking for cigarettes. In the next moment, almost everyone in the helicopter pulls out a cigarette and lights them. It’s not locking someone out of a cellar and boarding up the door behind you, but it’s them taking themselves into priority. Their “fight or flight” (literally) mentality is at play and they’re aware that some of their actions to protect themselves and each other are going to come at the price of actions that could be morally or even legally wrong. Peter tries to get some sense into Stephen by reminding him that, “We’re thieves and we’re bad guys.” 

As the four fly over the open Pennsylvania hills, we are re-introduced to the hunting mobs that came in at the end of Night. Stephen comments, “The rednecks are probably enjoying the whole thing,” and he’s not wrong. On the ground, there’s upbeat music playing from radios and people donning camouflage who are fueled by coffee and beer. There are military jeeps driving alongside the pick up trucks. Romero received permission to deploy actual National Guard volunteers as extras during these scenes. 

Spotting a large, seemingly vacant building, they’re confused at first. “What the hell is that?” and the response, “It looks like uhh shopping center, one of those big indoor malls.” In the 21st century that seems comical but at this time the Monroeville Mall had been open for just shy of a decade and many other major cities didn’t even have malls near them yet. The mall put them on a much more grandeur scale than the farmhouse so the need for zombie extras grew. On Night, there were about 250 extras playing zombies. On Dawn, about 1,500 people volunteered to be zombie extras. “I couldn’t believe everyone wanted to get shot or bitten,” said Chris Romeo, reflecting on how eager people were to be a part of the movie. Special effects artist Tom Savini (also Blades the biker in the movie) recalled that extras were vying for a chance to get to gnaw at actual pig intestines on-screen. The audience gets to see more actual zombie “characters”, too, such as the Nuns, the Hare Krishna, and the zombie in his bathing suit. 

Breaking up and away from Night, Dawn also explores new territory- black comedy. After turning the power in the mall back on, the zombies seem flabbergasted and stumble around on escalators and wander around on the ice rink. Once the mall is cleared of the zombies, our group of survivors get to go on a playful spree around the mall. Who hasn’t had the dream of being locked in a store or a mall overnight and having the entire place at your disposal? What would you do with it all if you had no one around to stop you? The four play in the arcade and get enough sweets in the candy store to make Augustus Gloop envious. Ben and Stephen open up the bank and “make it rain”. Fran gets to make herself up with new clothes and try out new looks in the hair salon. 

But after the sugar high comes the crash. After all of these playful ventures and even getting furniture and other household items together to make it appear more “homey”, the always inevitable boredom sets in. It doesn’t matter how badly you wanted that action figure or video game for Christmas as a kid, eventually, even you got bored of it. In Joe Kane’s book Night Of The Living Dead Behind The Scenes Of The Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever, he notes-

“After gorging themselves on free goodies- from gourmet foods to fancy clothes to expensive toys- our protagonists reach that dreaded destination achieves by candy-stuffed children, clueless lottery winners, and the idle rich the world over- spoiled resentment and stultifying boredom. Now that they have it all, they discover all is not worth having. What’s the point, if there’s no one left to envy them?”

Another break from Night was the character of Fran. Their flowing blonde hair is about the start and end of their similarities. After Peter noting that Fran looks ill, Stephen tells them that she’s pregnant, while she’s in the other room “resting”. So now she is literally and figuratively the maternal presence next to three men. The next day, Fran demands the attention of the room and tells them, ”I’m sorry you guys found out I’m pregnant because I don’t want to be treated any differently than the way you treat each other. I’m not gonna be den mother to you guys. I want to know what’s going on and I want to have a say in the plans. There’s four of us.” She also states her intention to learn how to fly the helicopter, just in case something happens to Stephen and he’s unable to fly the helicopter/he’s dead and that she wants a gun to carry herself. She has no intention of sitting on the couch, helpless, while everyone else does all of the work around her. 

Landing on what ending to use was in issue for Romero once again. The original script had Peter and Fran both dying at the end- Peter shoots himself and Fran commits suicide by putting her head up into the running helicopter blades, similarly to what happens to the zombie at the small airport towards the beginning of the movie. A plaster cast of Gaylen Ross’ head was made for the scene but when the idea was scrapped, they instead used the cast for the shot of the zombie’s head exploding via shotgun during the police raid scene. 

Romero on the initial ending- “As I was shooting it, I was trying to make it more comic book and more of a reflection of the different decade. I decided that it just wouldn’t be right to do that because it’s not as dark a film, so I switched gears and decided not to kill them. I didn’t remember we had shot it. It was base footage. We never finished it. We just shot a take of her (Ross) standing up into the helicopter blades. It was just a close-up and she stood up out of frame.” 

During the final shots, we see a zombie carrying a gun up through the sky light. This zombie has been carrying the gun since it got a grip on it through a door and Roger just let him have it. It does not know exactly what the gun is, much less how to point and shoot it, but this was a crucial stepping stone that would be a through-line in Romero’s zombie movies. In Night Of The Living Dead, the zombies had zero grasp of tools or their environment- just purely searching for food. In Dawn, they might not know what tools are or what purpose they serve, but it holds onto it because it knows that it’s something. Later, Romero’s zombies would learn how to shoot guns and more.

George Romero and Italian filmmaker Dario Argento had a mutual admiration. By the time of Dawn’s filming, Argento had already made waves in the giallo and horror genres with his movies The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and Suspiria. Since Argento assisted Romero with the soundtrack and funding, Argento was given rights to edit the European release of Dawn. Topped with a soundtrack by the Italian prog-rock band Goblin, Dawn Of The Dead was released on September 1, 1978 in Italy and made its premiere in America on April 7, 1979. 

Nearly 30 years later, in 2004, Dawn Of The Dead would get the remake treatment under director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Batman Vs Superman Dawn Of Justice). The screenplay would be written by James Gunn (Guardians Of The Galaxy, Scooby-Doo) and George Romero would have no involvement in the movie. Not carrying over any characters from the original story, we are introduced to a whole new crew starring Sara Polley, Ving Rhames (back after his initial Night Of The Living Dead audition, Pulp Fiction, Lilo&Stitch), Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer (8 Mile), Kevin Zegers (Air Bud, Adam Green’s Frozen), and Boyd Banks (who would return as a zombie in Land Of The Dead the following year). A Nightmare On Elm Street star Heather Langenkamp was part of the prosthetics production crew. Langenkamp is married to SFX artist David Anderson and the pair work at AFX Studio. 

This movie would be a spark in the debate of fast vs. slow zombies, with many old school fans proclaiming, “fast zombies suck!” Tom Savini has said in the original the zombies had more “personality” with costumes and the fast zombies run by so fast you can’t even see what they actually look like. Thoughts on fast vs. slow zombies aside, the opening sequence has become a standout moment in all zombies with even author Stephen King singing his praises. 

Snyder’s Dawn drops plenty of Easter eggs for longtime fans. The opening scene has a little girl zombie, in a nod to Karen in the original Night Of The Living Dead, who then takes us by surprise and runs around like Spider-Man. Ken Forree makes a cameo of a preacher on television who brings back his famous line from the original- “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” Tom Savini has a cameo as a police officer on television who instructs people to shoot the zombies in the head while Scott Reiniger (Roger) plays a general we get a glance of. One of the stores in the mall is named Gaylen Ross Clothing Store. There is a woman who is pregnant in this version, as well, but, unlike the original, we see the baby come to full-term after the mother is bitten by a zombie and then gives birth to a grotesque zombie baby. 

Drawing on dialogue from the original movie, the remaining survivors make a break for the marina and get to a sailboat with the idea to make it to an island that is free from the zombie infection. The closing shot of the movie them sailing off into the sunrise and we’re left feeling a glimmer of hope along with them. That is, until the credit scenes begin to pop up. Zegers’ character, Terry, finds a video camera on board the boat and the audience is shown what happens the further they get away from the mainland. They run out of drinkable water and fires break out as the engine breaks down. Once they finally reach the island, they’re greeted by a hoard of zombies running towards them at the dock and the video camera drops and everything goes black. 

And what else is dying? Malls.

In America in the 1990s, malls were growing at a rate of 140 per year, topping off at around 1,300 built total. In the year 2007, right before another recession hit, no new malls were built, making it the first time in almost 50 years that no new malls were being constructed. It wasn’t until after the recession in 2012 that another mall would be constructed. However, malls were still seeing a decrease in foot traffic. For a mall to be considered “dying” it must have a store vacancy rate of 40% or more. In 2014, nearly 3% of malls were considered “dying”. Nearly 20% of malls were considered “troubling”, meaning they had a store vacancy rate of 10%-20%. 

In an attempt to combat further closings, malls are adding more commodities to try and bring customers back. Movie theaters and gyms are common finds in malls now. Yes, we can put some of the blame on dying malls in the hands of online retail; some, not all. By the mid-2000s, 5% of total retail sales were attributed to online shopping and in 2017 that number had risen to 11%. In 2012, there was almost a flip in common job positions and people became more likely to hold non-retail positions instead of retail positions. 

Ironically, a mall that is not dying is the Monroeville Mall. However, updates and remodels have left parts unrecognizable when you compare it to how we see it in Dawn Of The Dead. In 1984, the Ice Palace was replaced by a food court. In 2013, a movie theater opened at the mall. The clocktower seen by the fountains in the movie has also been removed. Other movies filmed at the Monroeville Mall include Flashdance (1983, at the Monroeville Mall Ice Palace), The Boy Who Loved Tolls (1984), Zach And Miri Make A Porno (2008, also set in Monroeville).

The Monroeville Mall is an attractive spot for zombie movie fans. The mall was strategically built near the end of the Pennsylvania turnpike. Over the last few years, I’ve made several trips to the Pittsburgh area and I’ll always try to spare some time to visit the mall, even if it’s just while I’m on my way back to the turnpike. Down exit wings of the malls, there’s a Dawn Of The Dead movie poster in the middle of a photo history of the mall. After his passing in 2017, a bust of George Romero was put up down the wing of Dick’s Sporting Goods. The hill/lower level of the current Macy’s was the former loading ramp that is show several times throughout the movie. Places such as the roof and back hallways are closed off to the public. For the dedicated fans, Living Dead Weekend put on two events per year, splitting them between Evans City and Monroeville. The events offer tours to places that are otherwise closed off as well as a chance to meet the casts and crews for Romero’s movies and other zombie movies and television shows. (Be sure to check out http://www.thelivingdeadweekend.com for more information on upcoming events)

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