Yes, Sir. F**k You, Sir- Day Of The Dead

Suddenly, I got this conceit: Maybe I’ll do one of these every ten years, reflect a little bit of what’s going on. So Day Of The Dead really grew out of that 80s feeling of giving up on everything- government, the military, faith in the financial systems.

George Romero

In the dawn of the 1980s, Ted Turner launched CNN, giving America its first 24-hour news station. The early 1980s offered no shortage of noteworthy stories to constantly occupy TV screens. On December 8, 1980, Beatles’ legend John Lennon was shot and killed by Mark David Chapman outside of his apartment building in New York City. Many viewed the Manson Murders of 1969 as the end of the “hippie” era and the murder of John Lennon a decade later also marked a turning point in American culture. Bands such as The Clash, Dead Kennedys, and Bad Religion had emerged, launching political punk that would only grow in anger and popularity over the next nearly forty years. The following year, in 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to murder President Reagan in an attempt to get actress Jodie Foster’s attention and love. Hinckley was released from prison in 2016 for the attempt on the President’s life. Also in 1981 the first IBM computer was released and was quickly followed by the first Macintosh computer being introduced by Steve Jobs in 1984. Though still denied by many, in 1985 the first holes in the ozone layer were reported. 

One of the most impactful pieces of news came in 1982 when the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recognized the issue of the AIDS virus. In 2005, scientists were able to trace the disease back to the late 1800s, when it was a disease that infected chimpanzees in Africa and became known as simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), specifically in Cameroon. SIV was believed to make the jump to humans around 1930 after chimpanzees were hunted and humans came into contact with infected blood. The infections then spread across Africa and eventually the world. The infection became known as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) left untreated. 

After a month or so of a person becoming infected with the virus, they usually begin showing typical flu-like symptoms. If the exposure was just an acute, the person might not even notice anything out of the ordinary in the beginning. The early stages are sometimes called asymptomatic HIV infection or chronic HIV infection. If the virus is caught in a person during this early stage, they would be prescribed antiretroviral therapy (ART) and it would effectively keep the virus at bay. It could slow down the progression of the virus or completely stop it from progressing. HIV is spread between humans through sexual contact, blood-to-blood contact (such as sharing needles), or from mothers to infants (during pregnancy and breastfeeding). If it’s left untreated, that’s when it evolves into AIDS. When AIDS takes over the body, it leaves the immune system more vulnerable to illnesses, called opportunistic illness. Common symptoms are fever, chills, weight loss, weakness, sweats, and swollen lymph glands. Remember- it’s not HIV/AIDS that directly stated as the cause of death, but rather an “AIDS-related sickness”. 

Once the virus had made the transition from chimpanzees, there were an estimated 2,000 people in Africa who were infected by 1960. The first HIV epidemic was in the 1970s in Congo. In the capital city, Kinshasa, there was a quick and drastic rise in opportunistic illnesses. The speculation is that an infected individual traveled to the capital city and the virus entered the urban area through sexual contact and quickly made its rounds that way. The virus continued to spread throughout Africa in the 1980s, mostly through soldiers, truck drivers, labor migration between the western and eastern ends of the continent, and sex workers. There was a shameful stigma attatched to sex workers with their “promiscuity and high-risk lifestyles”. The first case of HIV in South Africa was believed to belong to a white, gay male steward for an airline. That man later died of pneumonia in 1982.

It all started as a rumour… Then we found we were dealing with a disease. Then we realised that it was an epidemic. And, now we have accepted it as a tragedy.

Chief epidemiologist in Kampala, Uganda

Across the Atlantic, in June of 1981, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention in America published an article in their weekly report about a new, rare kind of lung infection. The illness, called pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, was found in five gay men in the Los Angeles area. None of these men had histories of other illnesses and two had died between the time of the discovery of the illness and the publication of the article. That was the first report of AIDS in America, but they didn’t know it yet. By the end of the year, gay men in primarily California and New York were reported as having odd, rare, and aggressive “cancer” or illnesses, with 121 of the reported 270 cases rapidly passing away. That’s when some researchers began to refer to the condition as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). That name sparked a damning stigma to medical professionals and the public about the illness. 

It wasn’t until September of 1982 that the CDC first used the term “AIDS” and gave it the initial definition of “a disease at least moderately predictive of a defect in cell-mediated immunity, occurring in a person with no known case for diminished resistance to that disease”. In 1983, the CDC begins to believe that AIDS is shared through sexual contact or exposure to infected blood given that most cases were found in gay men with multiple sexual partners, people who injected drugs intraveneuously, Haitian people, and hemophiliacs. The panic of the AIDS crisis had begun to swell. People in America were beginning to believe that the illness affected exclusively gay men and that something as simple as a handshake or being around someone coughing was enough to trasmit it. The CDC had to release a statement that they had identified all major ways that the virus spread and let the public know that casual contact was safe, but that didn’t change the views of more conspiracy-minded or homphobic people. 

The Reagan administration first publicly acknowledged AIDS during press conferences between 1982-84 and they were complete assholes about it, to say the least. As it is, “acknowledging” might be too solid of a description for that back and forth between press secretary Larry Speakes and the press pool. Journalist Lester Kinsolving was a notorious frequenter of these press conferences who was also a conservative and an open homophobe. Kinsolving was the first person to bring up the topic of HIV/AIDS to the press secretary and he was met with laughter from Speakes as well as other members of the media, even as Kinsolving referred to it as “the gay plague”. At the time he was asking these questions, most of what the public perceived of the illness was wild misinformation, such as part of a question Kinsolving asked involved, “an estimated 300,000 people have been exposed to AIDS, which can be transmitted through saliva…”. Kinsolving’s personal beliefs aside, he was still trying to ask questions that hadn’t been asked to one of the most powerful people in the world about how they were going to be proactive about stopping a health epidemic. 

These political shit garglers have not gone away either. Before he was Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence was Indiana’s loudly conservative Republican and dangerously naive governor who also served in the House Of Representatives. In 2011, he supported an amendment defunding Planned Parenthood, a safe haven for HIV screening. This lead to a Planned Parenthood in Scott County, Indiana, closing its doors. Scott County is a lower-income county, with nearly 20% living below the poverty line, with a high rate of intravenous drug use. Pence was also open about his opposition to needle exchange programs, which inadvertently lead to people with drug addictions to share needles. Over the next few years, nearly 200 cases of HIV were identified and Governor Pence was finally forced to acknowledge the epidemic in January 2015. It still took him until April 2015 to temporarily allow needle exchange programs in a bit of an attempt to slow the spread, while still not showing any attempt to provide funding for drug rehab or mental health programs. 

And here we are, in 2020, with the guy who stuck his fingers in his ears while singing “Lalalalalala” while a HIV epidemic spread through the state he was in charge of has now been appointed to lead the response efforts for the potential outbreak of the coronavirus (Corvid-19) in the United States. 

So now, let’s go back to the 80s. 

The bricks for George Romero’s third installment in his series of zombie movies began to fall into place in 1982. Romero had teamed up with author Stephen King for the horror anthology Creepshow and it had such box office success that Romero was able to turn his brain back to a zombie story. 

Having plenty of hellish real-life inspiration from the world to go on, Romero’s initial script for Day Of The Dead was a whopping 204 pages and “involved nothing less than a multi-tiered society where the lowest classes of humans are raised to feed the zombies. In turn the undead are slated to be ‘tamed’ to work as slaves to maintain the ruling elite”. So it was kind of like White Zombie, minus the flesh-eating zombies part. The production company was not willing to give Romero the $7 million dollar budget he would need for his grandeur vision so he was forced to greatly tone it down. The story held onto its underlying themes of science vs. military control vs. civilians, which would show itself in shouting matches and power struggles between the characters. Romero held onto the ideas that he was forced to cut from Day and would later use some of them in his 2005 zombie endeavor Land Of The Dead, such as the series of safe high-rise buildings for the upper class. Effects artist Tom Savini said that some of the ideas Romero initially had were reminiscent of “Raiders Of The Lost Ark with zombies”. Romero also scoffed at the idea of presenting his latest zombie flick in 3D, after the early 80s had seen the likes of Friday The 13th Part 3 and Jaws 3-D. 

As a military group they were there for research and, of course, now the need for what they are doing is all but gone. With society gone, who are they going to report to if they find anything out? All of a sudden, when that structure is gone, they don’t quite know how to behave or they cling to old behaviors and no one talks to each other and no one communicates. So there’s this sort of tragedy about how a lack of human communication causes chaos and collapse even in this small little pie slice of society.

George Romero

The events of Day take place over four days, as told to the audience by a calendar with the days marked off with Xs, with it appearing to start on Halloween. We open with an isolated, claustrophobic shot of our heroine, scientist Sarah (played by Lori Cardille), alone in a white-walled room with a dramatic build up to a jump-scare of a mass of zombie-hands thrusting towards her through a latex rubber wall. Cardille had a resume of work in soap operas and theater work but Day was her first (of very few) movie roles. A Pittsurgh-native, her father was locally famous as Chilly Billy on Chiller Theater (a favorite of young Night actress Kyra Schon) and for having a bit role in Night Of The Living Dead, which came out when Lori was in the 8th grade. She takes a commanding lead with her ideas and processes and has no problem with just telling the men, “Fuck you.”

I think I was still partly apologizing for the first film, where Barbara was just Jell-O.

George Romero, on the character of Sarah

After the audience adjusts from the whiplash of the opening dream sequence, we see a set-up built with the same ingredients as Dawn Of The Dead– four survivors in a helicopter. Next to Sarah are John (played by African American actor Terry Alexander), “Flyboy” pilot John (Jarlath Conroy), and Miguel (Antone DiLeo). The four are flying over the Florida coast in an attempt to find anything or anyone. After only succeeding in finding a tropical zombie hoard, complete with an alligator scooting down the front steps of a bank, they return to an underground mine that they have claimed as their own lab/bunker/housing unit. On Sarah’s side as a fellow scientist is Dr. Fisher, played by John Amplas. Playing part of the side of the military men are effects artist Greg Nicotero and former professional football player Gary Klar as Sergeant Steele. Leading asshole, Rhodes, was played by Joe Pilato, who was already familiar with Romero after working on Dawn Of The Dead and Knightriders. Pilato was also part of the crew helping Savini with effects on Dawn. 

Richard Liberty appeared in Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies and he made his return to Romero to play the (mad) scientist Logan, who is referred to as Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s Monster is an almost loveable zombie named Bub, played by Howard Sherman. Like Victor Frankenstein showing off how his creation knows how to sit down and walk around, Frankenstein is proud of his prized project. The knowledge of the zombies continues to progress after the events of Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead. They go from being “mindless” to almost infantile knowledge. Bub picks up a book placed in front of him, a copy of Salem’s Lot, opening it and letting the pages sway from side to side. Romero was offered the directing job for the movie adaptation of King’s novel Salem’s Lot so he gave it a little nod there. He puts a razor up to his face in an attempt to shave a beard that isn’t there, he learns how to stop and start a tape player, and, upon seeing Rhodes in his military garb, salutes him. Rhodes, being the “hardened, respectable leader” that he is, is almost offended that one of these things would salute him and he refuses to return the gesture. Later on, after the zombies have flooded their underground sanctuary, Rhodes is literally torn in half, he squeals out a dying, “Choke on ‘em,” and Bub hits him with a salute as a giant middle-finger. 

Filming of Day was split between Florida and Pensylvannia. The majority of the film was shot in Wampum, Pennsylvania, in a former limestone mine that had turned into an underground storage facility. The seemingly “climate controlled” mine made it the ideal place to store large items, such as yachts, or fragile items, such as feature-film negatives. On the flip side though, the chill and humidity caused issues with keeping the makeup on the zombies and it caused many of the actors to get sick, to the point of Cardille getting a fever reaching 104. A sort of “cabin fever” also swam around the cast and crew. The days would start early and run late during shoots in the mine, meaning they would arrive before the sun came up and would leave after the sun went down. The scenic tropical shots were filmed just off the coast of Fort Myers, Florida, from the opening scene to the finale with our few survivors having made their escape via helicopter and finding a beautiful beach to land on. 

Setting up between Pensylvannia and Florida also presented the crew with an unforeseen challenge- finding zombie extras for the shoot in Florida. Once again, there were no shortage of eager participants around Pittsburgh, including the dean of Carnegie Mellon (alma mater of Romero and Cardille) and his wife. Some extras had the privilege of being zombies in Night, Dawn, AND Day. However, Florida had a zombie shortage. A call went out for about 800 zombies needed for a wide shot and Chris Romero recalls about only 36 showing up. Savini still got to build off of effects he had started to use in Dawn, able to add more character zombies, such as a football player and a bride, and got to give the zombies more detail in their makeup, giving them more distinction between ethnicities and how long they had been zombified. A distinct clown zombie would later reappear in Diary Of The Dead and even would be given a spot in 2009’s Zombieland.

Day Of The Dead was released in July 1985 That year also gave us another cult-popular zombie film- Return Of The Living Dead. Though the pair had split creatively, Romero’s collaborator on Night Of The Living Dead John Russo had kept at writing horror novels and working on other films. Included in his works, Russo had a sequel he had written to Night that he had been holding in his back pocket since 1972. In 1978, the year Romero was working on Dawn, Russo wrote that story out as a novelization and gave it the title Return Of The Living Dead. Then Romero and Russo agreed to let the other do their own thing with their respective sequel stories. Russo’s Return Of The Living Dead was released in the fall of 1985. The story plays out as an almost ramped up spin off, treating the events of Night as factual but played as fiction for a movie (“You mean the movie lied?!”). The story is filled out with bumbling and punk rock characters and faster, more talkative zombies.

A celebration of both films is happening at the Monroeville Mall in June of 2020 for their shared 35th anniversary. For more info on that check out http://www.thelivingdeadweekend.com 

Story time.

When Another One For The Fire was still in the idea phase, I knew I wanted to do my best not to half-ass anything. The topics I wanted to discuss would loop around in a tangled web and I was excited to circle around each topic that way. Part of that tangled web included watching the subsequent sequels/spin-offs/reboots of Romero’s zombie movies. 2008 saw a Day Of The Dead starring Ving Rhames (as Rhodes, with Rhames appearing in another Romero reboot after 2004’s Dawn Of The Dead) that went directly to video. I might not have had easy access to all of the possible Romero spin-offs but one of the ones I was able to get my hands on was 2018’s Day Of The Dead: Bloodline. I drove up the road to Family Video, I found the DVD in the “2 for $1” section, I came home, I got out my laptop, and I prepared to type out anything I thought would be relevant to touch on during discussion. 

Guys, gals, and pals, I give you my stream of consciousness while watching Day Of The Dead: Bloodline– 

“-And now these zombies are fast, too.RottenTomatoes 0% and 9% audience score, which is generous AF, this acting is atrocious, it’s been 20min and I’m surprised I haven’t turned it off, I’m watching this for you guys-starts at medical school, outbreak happens, jumps to “five years after the outbreak of the rotters” in the military bunker. Lot more people in the bunker- kids, trailers, still searching for the medical cure. Still have a Rhody asshole, still have the medical student woman trying to take charge and have people listen to her but she’s definitely sexualized in this one, and the fucking creepy guy who assaulted her is still pursuing her in zombie-form after the “five years later” (but he apparently has super high antibodies in his blood or some shit) but now he a fast sneaky climbing-on-shit zombie who somehow lived through five years, seriously, the creep cuts her name into his arm and assaults her and is somehow the Bruce Willis Die Hard of zombies crawling through the vents but he becomes the “Bub” and even as a zombie he fucking licks her face as she goes to draw his blood jesus christ I’m done I tried for y’all”

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)

Hey, You’re Still Afraid- Night Of The Living Dead

It was something hybrid that mixed terror and laughter and social comment into one heady, totally unpredictable witches’ brew of entertainment unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

Wes Craven

We might as well start at the very beginning. George Andrew Romero was born on February 4, 1940, in the Bronx neighborhood of New York City. He later moved to Pittsburgh and attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) to study film. Romero and a few aspiring filmmaking friends started Image Tens Productions, since they figured they needed an “official name”.

After writing Night Of The Living Dead, Romero reflected, ”I had written a short story, which I had basically ripped off from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend.” Matheson’s novel follows a protagonist who is left the sole human survivor of a world-wide outbreak of vampires. Romero changed his monsters to “ghouls”, as he called them. In a 2010 interview with critic Peter Keough, Romero said, “I never thought about them as zombies…People started to write about Night Of The Living Dead and called them zombies. I said, ‘Wow, maybe they are.’ To me, they were dead neighbors.” The monsters are not even referred to as zombies in Night Of The Living Dead. It’s not until his sequel Dawn Of The Dead in 1978 that they’re actually referred to as zombies on-screen. Breaking from the more voodoo-definition of zombies, like with White Zombie, Romero it more of a contagious condition, more similar to vampirism like in I Am Legend. 

Judith O’Dea, who played Barabara on the zombies in Night, “I think because before they became zombies, those were feeling, caring, loving human beings- for the most part. And to all of sudden turn on their families, their fellow man, without any care and become so vicious is a frightening concept.”

We open the film seeing two siblings, Johnny and Barbara, driving to the cemetery to place a memorial wreath at the grave of their deceased father. Originally, for the role of Barbara they wanted Betty Aberlin, “Lady Aberlin” on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The role went to Judith O’Dea, a twenty-three year old actress who had recently returned to Pennsylvania from Hollywood after an attempt to “make it” out there. Russ Streiner, who plays Johnny, was also a producer on Night Of The Living Dead and a regular actor at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. John Russo, a writer on the movie, said, “Russ kind of got pressured into service because we could save money by casting ourselves in various roles.” 

As Johnny picks on Barbara, jousting as siblings do, she’s attacked by a ghoulish man. Johnny intervenes and when the two wrestle to the ground, Johnny’s head hits the corner of a headstone and he stops moving. The ghoul returns his attention to Barbara and a chase ensues. Baraba, heels aside, outruns him and seeks shelter at a seemingly empty farmhouse. A truck pulls up driven by Ben, actor Duane Jones. Duane had auditioned for the movie after finding out about it from a mutual friend of him and Romero. While they were looking for actors to play Ben, they were not looking for specifically African-American actor because the role was not written as an African-American character. 

Hidden in the basement through all of this chaos was the Cooper family- husband Harry, wife Helen, and daughter Karen. Harry (referred to mostly as just “Cooper” in the movie) was played by Karl Hardman and Helen was played by Marilyn Eastman, both were popular radio actors in the Pittsburgh area. Kyra Schon was only nine at the time she acted in Night. Even though she only has one line of dialogue in the movie (“I hurt.”) her with dark circles around her eyes and hair down over her face has become the popular promotional image used for Night posters and other merchandise. On her role, even at such a young age, Schon said,  “I was already a horror-movie junkie at that point in my life, watching Chiller Theater every Saturday. The Crawling Eye and The Wasp Woman were my favorite movies. I couldn’t believe my good fortune that I was gonna get to play a little monster and kill people. What could be better?”

After Jones was cast as Ben, dialogue between him and the character of Cooper became even combative because it then had racial and bigoted undertones. It reflects general discords of the 1960s with flaring opinions on Vietnam War, racism, politics, etc. Ben and Cooper together are total opposites, representing “Old Right” and “New Left”. Ben ends up punching the shit out of him later on, knocking down the racist, bigoted asshole and the progressive youth taking charge. 

When it came to casting extras, Russo said, “We were worried that we did not have enough money to pay a sufficient number of extras. But we got plenty of volunteers, including people from in and around Evans City, who jumped at the chance to be in a movie…They gave the movie a ‘real people’ look that probably added to the believability.” Ella Mae Smith, a cabinet shop owner in Evans City, remembers her and her husband were “sitting in our yard and a car pulled up in front. A girl got out and she said, ‘Hi, we’re from the movie back there that we’re making. How would you and your husband like to be in it?’ “

The original ending of the movie has Ben pulling Barbara down into the cellar as zombies break into the house, and Barbara coming up out of the cellar at the end, but Ben was always set to die. “We figured it would shock people and they would hate it, but it would make them keep talking about the picture as they were leaving the theater,” Russo said.

Other ending ideas had zombified Karen standing in the foreground after the mob members burn the dead bodies and drive off because then “there would thus be one ghoul still left alive.” 

The ending that we get is everyone dying except for Ben, but when he comes to the window there’s a mob surrounding the house and them thinking that he’s a zombie pop he gets shot in the head and we hear the line, “there’s another one for the fire.” There’s then a montage of photos that resemble Southern lynch mobs, as it’s literally there in black and white, but it also resembles the images of US soldiers in body bags in Vietnam and other casualties of the Vietnam War that were being flashed on the news every night. 

The Vietnam War itself lasted from 1954 to 1979. North Vietnam (and it’s allies in the South “Viet Cong”) vs South Vietnam and their biggest ally- the U.S. The North wanted to unite them and be a communist regime (like Chinese and Soviet Russia) while the South Vietnamese government wanted to preserve a government more like the western world. Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, the U.S. was present in small numbers as military advisors. In 1965, the U.S. began sending over active combat units and by 1969 there were more than 500,000 active U.S. military personnel in Vietnam. In 1995, Vietnam released the estimated number of casualties of the war were 2 million civilians, 1.1 million North Vietnamese/Viet Cong soldiers, 200,000-250,000 South Korean soldiers, and an estimated 58,200 American and Candian soldiers either dead or missing. If you were to look at that number of lives lost today, it would be about the equivalent of the entire population of Los Angeles, California. 

The Bien Hoa Airport acted as a U.S. airbase during the Vietnam War, in Dong Nai Province, which neighbors Ho Chi Minh City. Years after the Vietnam War ended, a mass grave was discovered at the airport. The bodies of about 150 soldiers were found at the site that were killed during the Tet Offensive, which started January 31, 1968, Northern Vietnamese troops attacking over 100 cities and outposts in South Vietnam while breaking a truce over a holiday. 

To this day, the Bien Hoa Airport remains a “hot spot” of dioxin contamination from the use of Agent Orange, according to Vietnam’s defense ministry. Agent Orange is an herbicide mixture that is a highly toxic organic pollutant and during the war, it was sprayed at twenty times the manufacturers recommended amount that’s used for killing plants. The half-life of dioxin in the human body is 11-20 years. In the environment, the half-life varies on the type of soil, the depth of the dioxin penetration, and the sun exposure of the area. On the surfaces of leaves and soil, the sun can cut the half-life of dioxin to 1-3 years. Dioxin that’s buried deep under the soil or deep in the sediment of rivers and other bodies of water can have a half-life of over 100 years. It affected millions of acres of forest and farmland during the war that are still unable to be used to this day. 

Human exposure to Agent Orange has been linked to cancers, diabetes, birth defects, and other disabilities. Short-term exposure can consist of skin lesions and alter liver functions. Long-term exposure has been linked to impairments in the immune system, nervous system, and the endocrine system and has been linked to cancers and harm reproductive functions. 

And why did I go down this rabbit hole? Because of the TV reporter that Cooper sees where the idea comes up of radiation contamination in the atmosphere from a NASA space probe around Venus, which then sparks debate amongst them on TV and on the radio about the cause of the chaos of the attacks as  “an army of unidentified assassins”, “explosion of mass homicide”, “National Guard may be mobilized at any moment”, “President has called a meeting of his cabinet”, “they look like people but act like animals”, ”obscure kind of conspiracy…creatures from outer space”. Romero has a cameo as a reporter questioning three authority figures- two scientists and a military official. Showing scientists and military officials on television would become a running theme in Romero’s zombie movies. Romero has said, “As far as the people on television not really answering questions and making it more confusing, that’s been a conscious part of the zombie films. That’s generally what it’s about– ‘Ladies and gentleman there was just a plane crash that took out a small piece of Manhattan, more later.’ It’s never reassuring; it’s always alarming, and that’s been a kind of conscious through-line.”

The Tet Offensive was fought while Night was in post-production. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, which was the same day that Romero set out to try and find a distributor for Night. Riots erupted in Detroit (as well as 110 other U.S.cities) in a response to the assassination. Michigan Governor George W. Romney ordered the National Guard into Detroit. One person was killed and estimated three dozen fires set. Once Night was released, audiences would see the image of Ben being gunned down as a mirror to the recent military occupation in Detroit. 

In 2018, the Criterion Collection released a special edition Night Of The Living Dead on DVD and Blu-ray. Part of the special features is a booklet that has an essay entitled Mere Anarchy Is Loosed by critic Stuart Klawans. In his essay, Klawans points out

And that was a large part of what Romero captured in his snapshot of the era; the bafflement that accompanies violent disorder. It was a time when secret histories, conspiracy theories, and occult revelations flourished; the years when doubts about the Warren Report solidified into national myths (the grassy knoll, the magic bullet- JFK assassination), faith in an unknowable plan to end the Vietnam War became a foundation of Nixon’s presidency, the Apollo moon landing was reputed to be fake, and the Beatles were widely believed to have concealed Paul McCartney’s death. Events had become incomprehensible; official pronouncements, unbelievable; and so, for resarruance, many people turned to explanations that were as all-encompassing as they were unverifiable.

And that was just how conspiracies were with the common access to television. In a post-internet and post-9/11 world, these ideas form and travel even faster. You would hear jokes about how “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” and then learn about the ideas of things like false flag events. I woke up on October 2, 2017 to hear news about a mass shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas that happened the night before. A day later, I was already hearing about “holes in the story” and how people were filling them with their ideas.  The faster someone can get at their cellphone or laptop and break the news the faster the public gets the information (or a lack-of information, depending on who you ask).

Night Of The Living Dead premiered on October 1, 1968, at the Fulton Theater in Pittsburgh. Night Of The Living Dead was called “Monster Flick” during production, then the working title was Night Of Anubis (referring to the Egyptian god of death), then Flesh Eaters. Since the first finished print was called Night Of The Flesh Eaters, they were threatened with a lawsuit from people who made a movie in 1964 called The Flesh Eaters.  So when it was put out the reprint with the Night Of The Living Dead title, the little circle with the C copyright logo was on the titles and not in the credits- where it was supposed to be. They won a copyright in 1983 in federal court, but they still made almost no money from the movie because of the copyright flub. This is why so many different variations of the film are available on DVD and Blu-ray and also why it is commonly seen on television screens in movies, particularly during scenes set on Halloween. Since this mistake occurred, copyright laws have changed so this doesn’t happen again, The United States’ Berne Convention Implementation Act and Copyright Term Extension Act gives an automatic copyright to anything in “fixed form ”and an automatic copyright renewal, whether or not the copyright logo appears or not”.

Evans City, Pennsylvania is by no means a big city but it does take big pride in being known for Night Of The Living Dead. There’s a library in the downtown area and behind it there is a sign proclaiming “Evans City- Home To Night Of The Living Dead”. There are several smaller metal signs circled at the base of this sign giving a history of Night Of The Living Dead and George Romero’s life and his other works. The Evans City Cemetery is down a hilly country road and the entrance drive is up the side of a steep hill. After driving up that road myself, I sympathize with Barbara after she accidentally backs Johnny’s car down the hill and crashes it.

Now, here’s what I’ll refer to as the Don’t Be A Dick Disclaimer. If you’re like me and enjoy traveling to locations where movies were filmed then be aware of where you’re going. Some places are open to the public, some are closed off, and some are private property. Evans City Cemetery is still just that- a cemetery. No one wants to see you running around like the ghoul attacking Barbara while they’re in the process of burying a loved one. When I visited it, it was November, snowy, cold, and the only other car we saw was a landscaping/maintenance truck that drove away over a hill and we didn’t see it again. The farmhouse that was used in the movie is still standing and it still lived in and there’s a low, white fence up by the road at the end of the property. So maybe wait and see if it goes up on a realty website and buy it yourself if you’re really curious. 

We made it a good film. The fans made it a classic. 

Russell Streuner, producer, Johnny

In 1990, Tom Savini was given the green light to remake Night Of The Living Dead. Savini was in part of the original crew back in 1968 however he was unable to work on the movie because he ended up going to Vietnam as a photographer. 

This time, Patricia Tallman was cast as Barbara (Army Of Darkness, Star Trek Next Generation, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Star Trek Voyager; also did stunt double for those Star Trek series, Jurassic Park, Shocker, Creepshow 2, and Speed), Bill Moseley was cast as her brother, Johnny (Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, House of 1,000 Corpses, Devil’s Rejects, and 3 From Hell). Tom Towles plays Harry Cooper (Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, House of 1,000 Corpses

Tony Todd appears, in a pre-Candyman role as Ben (The Crow, Star Trek Next Generation and Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Final Destinations, Hatchet and Hatchet 2). Laurence Fisburne also auditioned for the role of Ben and Ving Rhames was considered (Rhames would later appear in the Dawn Of The Dead remake). 

The original Johnny Russell Streiner, makes a cameo in the remake as Sheriff McClelland, who makes the comment, “Yeah, they’re dead, they’re all messed up.”

Next to the updates special effects provided by Savini, we also get more “updated” characters, particularly Barbara. In 1968, she was more of a “damsel in distress” remaining either catatonic or hysterical through most of the movie. In 1990, Barbara does start out in hysterics (who wouldn’t at the start of the zombie apocalypse?) but she does not go into full catatonia and talks to Ben right away through her tears. 40 minutes into the movie, she notes how slow the zombies are and that they “could just walk right past them”, they’ve got the guns, looks at Ben to say,  “you told me to fight, so I’m fighting,” then she carries the flings the gun around on her shoulder, and changes from her skirt to some pants. In the end, Barbara does end up taking a couple of guns and walking out of the house and weaves her way through the hoard of slow zombies. Keeping in-touch with the original, Savini kept the zombies slow-moving, even with fast-zombies beginning to appear in movies. 

Stepping up along with Barbara are the characters of Judy and Harry’s wife, Helen. Judy yells at Ben and Cooper fighting because it’s their house that they’re in and what would they do if they kicked them out? Cooper, still being the asshole, still fights with Helen, he slaps her in the basement then when there’s chaos upstairs and he tries to drag her back downstairs she throws a jewelry box at him.

Keeping with Romero’s eye in showing scientists and military personal talking on televisions, we see a guy on TV  suggesting that “ozone layer and chemical weapons or voodoo mysticism, organisms from space”, and the Center for Disease Control says only “reasonable explanation” is a germ that alters the mind. 

At the end of this version, after Barbara walks out of the house and past the zombie hoard, we see her with the hunting mob that has made their way to the farmhouse. Ben turns into a zombie after he dies in the basement and is then shot in the head. Along with the hunting mob, there’s a food truck, all the redneck hunters like we see at the beginning of Dawn Of The Dead, and an area of fenced in zombies in a fighting ring. We see several zombies are lynched from a tree and shot at was in fact scripted in the original 1968 film, but was cut because of the racial tensions gripping the country at the time. The scene pays homage to the said cut scene. It’s after she sees all of this that Barbara comments, ”They’re us. We’re them and they’re us” and, by this point, she resembles Sarah, who we saw in 1985’s Day Of The Dead. 

Getting the final say in the remake is Barbara after Harry Cooper comes down from the attic, where he had locked himself in, and survived. Barbara looks directly at him, shoots him in the head, and says, “there’s another one for the fire.”

Introduction

Welcome and, yes, we are still under construction.

This stemmed from the ideas of life imitating art imitating life (yes, a deep dive into the Scream franchise will be happening).

This is just the beginning of many ideas coming to life, many movies about to be discussed, and plenty of history and even some conspiracies.

At times, I will feature interviews from fellow creators, from podcast hosts to haunted attraction actors. Be sure to check those out and check out the podcasts tab here to listen to podcast episodes I’ve been featured on.

Be ready for zombies, slashers, serial killers, urban legends, killer clowns, music, just to name a few of the topics that will come up.