Dawn of the Dead: 35 Years Later

Image courtesy of 'Ghoulish' Gary Pullin

Image courtesy of ‘Ghoulish’ Gary Pullin

Thirty-five years before the world went Gonkers, director George A. Romero released Dawn of the Dead, a film depicting four people taking shelter in a mall while attempting to evade a mysterious plague where dead people come back to life and kill other people, creating a large undead army. The world is shown spiraling out of control, with looters, renegade police, and politicians so busy disagreeing with their opposition about what’s causing the problem, that no solution is ever reached.

In spite of the fact that it was banned in some countries, and cut for censorship everywhere else, the film received mostly roaring praise, most notably from the late Roger Ebert who said, “Nobody ever said art had to be in good taste!” Today, Dawn of the Dead is still acclaimed as one of the best cult movies of all time, having launched the careers of all associated with it: including Tom Savini (Friday the 13th, Creepshow), and Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead.); as well as having inspired the Zombie Apocalypse trends we see today. Actors Scott Reiniger (Roger), Jim Krut (Helicopter Zombie), Leonard Lies (Machete Zombie), and Joe Pilato (Renegade Cop) join Rue Morgue from the Weekend of Horrors at the Turbinenhall in Oberhausen, Germany to reminisce about the film that started it all.

How did you get the part?

Scott Reiniger: I was an actor in New York and it was the first film I ever did. Before I had done some commercials, and classical stage work. One day I received a call from George Romero’s then girlfriend, Christine, “You know George Romero?” I said “Sure I know him from Night of the Living Dead” and she said “Well he’s auditioning for this new film called Dawn of the Dead and would you like to come in and audition? Geroge was very relaxed and down to earth, and he liked what I did at the first audition, but I could tell there was something quizzical in his eyes and so he called me back and said, “That was really good.” but I could hear the ‘but’ in his voice and said “Yeah?” and he said “I got a problem cause I’m planning on casting this guy who you would be working with as a character who’s probably twice your size.” I said, “George I don’t think the audience is gonna give a shit about that after the first 5 minutes,” and he laughed because my take on the character was not really quite what he envisioned. He envisioned a more rough-hewn, Nick Nolte kind of person for Roger.

Jim Krut: I got the part because I lived in Pittsburg, and Tom Savini and I had gone to college and worked together in theater. After college, I was in the army for three years as a medic in Vietnam, and Tom Savini was a photographer in Vietnam so we had very similar experiences. After Vietnam, I moved back to Pittsburgh, and one day I ran back into Tom. We got reacquainted, and he took me to the school where he was teaching make up and special effects, Carnegie Melon University, and then sometime later he called me and said “Jim I have this great role for you. You know George Romero who made Night of the Living Dead?” I said sure, and Tom said, “Well he’s making another movie called Dawn of the Dead and I’ve got a great role you.” Tom did the make up and special effects, took a cast of my head. This was done over a two week period in his workshop which was in the basement of his family home. The first time we did took the mold the plaster cracked so we had to do it again, that’s why it took two weeks. From there, I was on set for two days. The second day Tom did the helicopter shot, and that was only on one take.

Leonard Lies: I was working on the film as a grip, and one night we were waiting for the actors to come onto the set, and the director, George Romero, happened to be standing next to me, and I said, “George I’d like to play a zombie,” cause some of the other crew members were becoming involved as either bikers, or zombies, and we were near to the end of the shoot, and I really wanted to be considered. He said, “Go upstairs, and see what they have,” and upstairs, on the 2nd floor of the Monroeville Mall was the community room where we met to prepare for the days work. (In this case, the night’s work.) I went upstairs, and there was one person in the community room, in the casting area, his name was John Amplas who played Martin, and also in DOD and I said, “Hey John, Geroge told me to come up and see what you have.” Out of the darkness, John pulled this machete with a shape cut into it for his head. We started talking about it, and he said, “You go ahead and take it.” I said, “Really? Cause I don’t wanna be shot,” I didn’t like the idea of being shot. He said, “No do it, I’ve done so many extra parts that it’s okay.” You couldn’t just do that in a film today -Like just tell someone to go ahead and be in the movie. Twenty-four hours later, to the moment, I was doing the scene with Tom Savini where I knock him off his motorcycle, he becomes very upset with me, runs at me, kicks me in the chest, knocks me down to the floor. I start to get back up, grab him by the leg. As I’m gonna’ go in for the bite, he pulls a machete out of his boot, and says the magical line, “Say goodbye creep!” Then of course he hits me in the head with a machete, at least figuratively speaking in movie terms. The producer’s wife took magnificent photos.

Joe Pilato: I originally flew from Pittsburgh, to New York cause and auditioned for Scott Reiniger’s, or David Emge’s role, and they had four seats like the inside of a helicopter, and we did one of the scenes. I think it was either that I was the same size as Scott Reiniger, or not tall enough to be the helicopter pilot, I can’t remember which it was, but I ended up doing the loading dock scene. It got cut in the American version, and when Dario Argento put the black box together, fortunately he put the entire scene back in.

What’s your favorite scene in Dawn of the Dead (1974)?

SR: Going into the basement of the tenement building and seeing all the zombies in a cage.

JK: I like the scenes in the movie where Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, David Emge, and Gaylen Ross are together and the combination of involvement that they have the empathy they portray, the characters they have and I think they just do such a wonderful job of capturing it. There are so many moments that knowing what it took to produce them like Tom Savini drives a motorcycle through a glass window. Well it’s not actually glass, it’s simulated glass. It’s a material that looks clear, but they made it too thick, and Tom Savini almost got killed driving through the glass because it was so hard. He thought it would move like a curtain but it didn’t. There’s also the difficulty that people went through. When Tom Savini fell off a balcony, if it didn’t look right or didn’t feel right he went and re-did the shot, and did it again. So the amount of dedication people had, throughout the movie for me even being a part of it is still amazing because I worked a lot in theatre, and in theatre you work very closely with every individual. In films you might do a scene and nobody else is around, like my scenes at the airport. I was not at the mall, so I didn’t see what everybody else did, but there was that comradery and dedication to the art that I felt in theatre, and to me is one of the strengths of acting.

LL: When David Emge finally appears as a zombie. His zombie is unforgettable. It wasn’t just being a zombie. He was acting, contorting his body, and showed he was a wonderful actor without saying a word. Little known fact: Although Flyboy was a clumsy idiot in the film; he was the only actor of the three men who could really shoot a gun, because he was a Vietnam veteran.

JP: Tom Savini going off the balcony during the biker scene.

What did you do to prepare for your role?

SR: I did a lot. I mean I was a really well trained actor so I had to break down the script and do all those preparation techniques: figure out the beats and the conflicts and on and on and on. I decided Roger was an ex-marine sharpshooter, and that after the service, the only work he could possibly do was police and/or swat work because he liked to live on the edge. The job provides stimulation and lots of adrenaline for him, and he prides himself on being able to the control things. In the movie what happens is that he starts to lose control, starts to slip, and then a spring goes loose in his head and he starts to fracture.

JK: I used to work in repertory theatre, and we would carry seven plays with us as we traveled different parts of the United States. We did shows in Scotland. Sometimes the plays would run an hour and a half; sometimes the promoter would say we could only run an hour, so we would edit the plays. So I was very used to a lot of quick preparation, quick changes, adapting to whatever happens. For this role, I had no exposure to any of the other filming that was done, or how it was done, or where it was done. I didn’t know what the other zombies looked like, how they acted or moved. I remember asking Tom Savini on set, “Do these zombies talk or say anything?” and he said, “Do whatever you wanna do. You can be your own zombie.” I liked that. So my experience, in terms of being a zombie, stemmed from some of the earlier films and references, such as the Haitian zombies, or Night of the Living Dead. However, George Romero never called them zombies he just called them the undead. So we didn’t say I don’t wanna be a zombie like that. I just did my own thing, my own interpretation.

JP: George makes things easy for people. Ninety percent of your preparation is in the script. Of course, I was playing a renegade cop with visceral hatred for the cop mentality. It was pretty easy, because we weren’t too far away from 1960s radicalism, so it was easy to find the emotional center to being mean, rude, and enjoying intimidating people with a firearm.

Did you draw any inspiration from Night of the Living Dead (1968) at all?

SR: No. I knew the movie, but I didn’t watch it to prepare for the part.

JK: Yes and no, and I’ll tell you why because when I was asked to do the role, Tom Savini said Night of the Living Dead, so I had a picture in my mind of what the movie was, and what the undead moved like, but my role was not to imitate, it was to create. A lot of people, when they do theater they say ‘Lets look at the movie of it’ and try to imitate that character perhaps and I said, I don’t wanna watch the movie I wanna read the script, and I wanna understand the character. So that’s what I brought to it, a kind of perspective of, “there’s never been one like this and there never will be again.” So I’ll be me as the zombie in me.

LL: When I was 12 I saw Night of the Living Dead with three of my friends, and I laughed through the whole film. It’s not that it wasn’t scary, but somehow, intuitively, I knew that they got it right. I thought, wow this is great: real, flesh-eating zombies and there was a kind of a texture, a rawness to it that I loved. In that sense Night of the Living Dead propelled me. I had always loved monster films like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman. I also thought vampires were really exciting creatures, but there was something about these zombies existing by some other cause than voodoo. I don’t think I realized it then, but Night of the Living Dead inspired me to keep loving monsters, and also to get a resume together when Dawn of the Dead was being made, and to present it to the director. I had a wonderful talk with George Romero and a week later I was hired.

What was it like working with director George Romero?

SR: It was great working with George cause he’s incredibly organized, very low-key, and he gives you a lot of space as an actor. If you have an idea, he’ll try it out.

JK: I liked George. I loved watching him work. I would say it was kind of a soft direction. He knew what he wanted and everybody seemed to understand what George wanted. There was not a lot of “I need you to do this!” or “Do this now!” He was very casual. In terms of my scene, Tom had done all the preparation, and the lay out, and I think he explained it all to George what was going to happen. I think George may have directed the sequence where I come out from under the airplane wing. However, when it came to the actual Helicopter sequence I think he turned that over to Tom, to direct the helicopter sequence. George was fantastic in terms of the overall picture, in terms of working with people, and he’s been described as a great big teddy bear of a guy: Someone you can understand, or share a beer, or a cup of coffee with.

JP: George is an actors dream. He knows exactly what he wants yet he gives you the ability to make your choices: In Day of the Dead, Rhodes didn’t say anything when he died. He just got torn in half, and that was it. Before shooting that scene, I turned to George and I said, I don’t think Rhodes is going out this way, and George said, “Well, don’t forget: You’re being torn in half,” and I said, “Yeah, but I’m Rhodes,” and George asked, “Well what would you like to say?” and I said, “I’m a little embarrassed to say it out loud let me whisper it in your ear.” I whispered, “Choke on em’!” and he bent back, looked at me, and said, “Yeah! But remember: It’s one take, and you better hit it!” Now it’s a memorable line, and fans always ask for it.

Because the Monroeville Mall was being used during Christmas season the cast and crew kept odd hours: What was it like on set?

SR: It was kind of strange because we had to shoot the interiors at night and what was strange about it was sleeping during the day and shooting all night long and there were zombie extras all over the place. It was like being in the Twilight Zone. Then we’d come out in the morning and it’s just getting light we’d go to the hotel and then go to sleep and then do that day after day after day. It was a very eerie feeling, out of time out of space kind of feeling.

JK: I was not at the mall and all of my scenes were done in daylight at the Monroeville Airport. The airport was nothing but a grassy runway strip, a couple ramshackle buildings, and a little block building that was used for the setting where Ken goes in, hits the coffee machine, and shoots the zombie children. There was really nothing more to that then a couple of gas pumps. A few years ago, I did a show in Pittsburgh and part of it, was going to the Monroeville Mall and leading groups of fans through there. On another day of that event, we visited the airport and that was my first time back there in about thirty years. The ramshackle building was still there, the grassy strip was still there, the block building was still there, but we couldn’t go inside. Instead of two gas pumps there was one gas pump, and it was amazing how many people on the buses wanted to get their picture taken with the gas pump.

LL: Well, when you’re working on a film it doesn’t really feel like odd-hours because we would have worked day, or night, or any other hour. It became a pattern: I would drive in at 8pm, at 9pm the mall music would shut off via satellite. Then we would do setups and sound recording. We couldn’t do sound recording with the music playing. At 7am the music would come back on, so we had to be done with synchronous sound recordings by that time. We also sometimes kept working if there was an action scene.

JP: It was pretty crazy because we’d work at night, and even though you’d say you got enough sleep during the day, adrenaline, and coffee were what really kept us going.

How do you feel about today’s Zombie Apocalypse trend in mainstream culture?

SR: It makes me laugh. It’s funny whenever somebody brings that up and I ask “Do you really believe in zombies?” and some people say “Oh yeah!” I don’t know if they’re putting me on. I hear Max Brooks does seminars where he’s totally straight about that. I think the idea that it’s going to happen is a fun thought for people.

JK: The rising tide floats all boats. That includes the social context, survival aspects, and the threat. In terms of survivalism, apocalyptic scenarios, homeland security, and even the center for disease control, people in these groups pick up on the trend and say, “Here is an avenue by which I can get my message across to the population.”

People won’t necessarily listen to a government plea to keep three weeks of water and food in your home; or to stock up on ammunition for self-sufficiency. There’s a show called ‘Doomsday Preppers,’ about people who build caverns, caves, walls, or forts, and stock them with things like swimming pools that they can use to create drinking water. It makes you think “Oh my God they’re getting ready for something!” Getting ready for death is turning into a great business: I had a sociology professor who once said, “Don’t believe everything you see in terms of advertising and promotion. Otherwise you would be going to buy (at that time) a nuclear fallout shelter because the world is going to end in two weeks… and we have seven years of easy payments.”

As someone who does a lot of camping, when there’s a black out I know what to do. For a lot of people, who are so dependent on the modern conveniences of cell phones, electricity, and running water, they’re completed stumped. They think their world has come to an end. So an apocalypse for some people is camping and roughing it for others, and for, others still, my mother lives in an Amish area in Pennsylvania. They don’t have electricity, grow their own food, make their own clothing, keep their own animals, and don’t drive cars, but horse-drawn buggies. If there’s a news or electricity black out, for the Amish, living in that lifestyle is not an apocalypse. I think an apocalypse, may refer to an invasion of people looting and scavenging for the basic essentials.

LL: I’m doing a film now called zombie culture, exploring the whole zombie phenomenon, but I haven’t come to any conclusions yet. I think it has to do with us as a race that we’re getting to a point where we consume so much that we’re not going leave anything behind to consume except ourselves, and that could mean internally or externally.

Zombies always represent an impending threat, but it’s not always about them. It used to be nuclear arms during the Cold War, its all we thought of as kids we thought: We’re going to get bombed! That’s kind of dovetailed into zombies. That’s the new threat. I think that we’re all dealing with the threat of, maybe not an apocalyptic end, but, a very painful end to our existence. So we try to face it in our own mirror, which is dressing up like a zombie. However, some of it is just that we want to socialize with other people. Maybe we’re a little shy, and we don’t have a place where our ego gets stroked enough. So we go out as zombies and congregate with like-minded people and have some fun.

JP: I’m not quite sure what it’s supposed to be about, but I know it goes back to some deep mythological auras about life and death that George has tapped into the fundamental reality of life and death where if there’s not a Heaven, and there’s not a Hell, then there is certainly this other thing, that happens to people.

Do you participate in zombie culture any way? (ex. Zombie Walks, zombie-themed literature.)

SR: Only if it’s at a convention – Otherwise, no. I do see some very fun funny things that my friends do. Like paying $25 for a zombie run, or hunt zombies in a forest setting. I think that’s a hoot.

JK: I’ve done two zombie walks. One was a few weeks ago in Flint, Michigan, which was a lot of fun. However, I didn’t actually do the walk; I was too busy talking with fans. The next thing I knew, the walk took off. I said, “Wow, how long is it going to last?” They replied, “The first people are coming back.” So I missed it altogether. I did one in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and they said it was going to be the world’s largest zombie walk, for the Guinness book of world records. I was stuck in the convention center so I couldn’t do the walk, and most people didn’t come into the convention center. I thought it was great. We’ve got pictures of the world’s largest turn out of zombies. I don’t see it as apocalyptic. I see it as a group of people with an affinity for the art, for the idea.

LL: I do a lot of shows, but I don’t do zombie walks. I go to events where zombie walks are involved. In a way it’s exciting. What do zombies do? They try to eat living human flesh, and in most of the zombie walks they’re raising food for people in food banks allowing them to survive. So those Zombies Walks flip cause people are actually helping other people, and food banks are getting more food on the shelves cause people are bringing food to contribute during the walks. I think that’s a nice and humanitarian thing to do.

JP: Whatever floats your boat! When I was a kid everyone had a garage band, and thought they were The Beatles, so I think it certainly is an expression of something.

Do you feel the film’s political statements regarding society vs. survivalism are still relevant today?

SR: Oh yeah! I think the satire of consumerism remains. I think after we’re done consuming everything on the planet that the only thing left to do is consume each other. It’s still relevant.

JK: Everything about it is still relevant today. You can read a social message into any film, whether it’s there or not. I think in the case of Dawn of the Dead there are some social messages. There were controversies. At the end of the film there was a black man surviving with a white woman, and at the time there were a lot of racial conflicts in the United States – not that those conflicts have completely gone away. Although today, I don’t think people will have a full appreciation for the social aspects and the political aspects of that time like the riots on the streets in the 1970s and things that were leading up to them in the 1960s. All those aspects of social unrest were happening.

LL: I don’t think George ever purposely put in any kind of issues or political undertone. He didn’t plan it. It just kind of happened. The film was a bit ahead of it’s time, and it was only the second film ever that discussed abortion clearly in a film. (The first was Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965) with Steve McQueen.) When Flygirl is pregnant, Peter asks Flyboy, “Do you want me to take care of it?” They were talking about abortion. I don’t the film dealt with things in terms of political issues, but social ones. Some of the social issues were being dealt with. What was wonderful was that George allowed characters that were African American to be in the lead role. Again, I don’t think he did that cause it was political or social. He thought about what was best for the script, what made it believable, and whether the actors played their roles realistically. I think that’s why AMC’s The Walking Dead works so well today because it feels believable.

JP: Yes, and I think those statements are overlooked. I think one of the successes of Dawn of the Dead was the political relevancy, and the fact that after thirty-five years, these still attract a fan base, and we’re still seeing many resurrections of Dawn of the Dead, and I assume that audiences are consuming those ideas.

What was the funniest thing that happened to you while filming DOD?

SR: The scene where I slid down the escalator in Dawn of the Dead was unscripted. It was scripted that my character run down the escalator and I turned to George and asked “What if I slid down instead?” and George gave me a look and said “Okay.” and I said just have someone stay at the bottom and spot me. It was just a one take thing and it was so much fun.

JK: The terror I had at the idea that we were going to be at that airport for two days, and after the first day passed, my scene wasn’t done. I figured my chances of being in the film were cut by fifty-percent. The really good part was I was working in Pittsburgh, and, Have you heard of the starving artist? Well, that was definitely me. Theater and acting, in terms of income, is somewhat hit and miss. However, they had craft services, this food vendor, and for a starving actor, all my time was spent there, stocking up on all the good nutrients, proteins, minerals and vitamins that I needed to successfully do the role.

LL: On the night we filmed the final scene where the helicopter flies into the dawn, the wind was blowing turbulently that night. The rest of the grips and I were forced to wear almost four layers of clothing, and had to physically stand on top of the light stand, with sandbags on it, so it wouldn’t fly away. So we had three or four lights, three or four people, holding the lights down with sandbags for dear life, so we could shoot this final scene where they fly off into the dawn.

There was an actor named Pat Buba who played one of the cyclists when we threw pies during the biker raid scene. All the bikers were running around slapping pies into every zombie’s face. It was very chaotic. Buba was nearsighted like me, and ran and hit a zombie in the face with a pie, and they have these big columns at the mall. He ran right into them, flush, and he bounced off and landed on the floor. When it happened, we all went, “Oh my God!” We kind of laughed, but we all felt bad.

When filming the ending to Dawn of the Dead, there’s a scene where Ken Foree decides to not commit suicide, and he fights his way through the zombie horde to make his way to the helicopter. Ken was a big guy, and he had all this energy. Well, Ken got carried away. He didn’t pull some of his punches, and was knocking people on the ground for real.

JP: Slapping white-face on hundreds of zombies alongside a young Greg Nicotero, who was cutting his teeth and learning about the business.

Thirty-five years later, what do you think makes Dawn of the Dead so special?

SR: I think it’s the combination of the fact that it’s a horror film but it’s built on real human relationships with the four characters, and because people identify with being trapped and having to answer the question, “What would you do if you were trapped?” Whether it’s zombies, or something else, and you have to survive, what would you do? I think some ruminate on that. Plus all the blood and the gore.

JK: The special draw of Dawn of the Dead depends on the individual. There are so many ardent fans that were not born when the film was made. Was it the remake? I don’t know. There’s something about the characters the story the way its told, You can visually appreciate it it’s engaging, it keeps moving forward it keeps your attention it doesn’t become boring because it’s so groundbreaking people didn’t know what to expect. I’ve talked to people who’ve watched it 50 times, or over 100 times. Why do they keep coming back to it? There’s a special message to them.

Not to digress, but a few weeks ago Jeremy Ambler from the Walking Dead did a convention with me called Pennsylvania Sci-Fi Valley Con, did a panel called Walking Like A Zombie. Jeremy spoke about what it was like to have been a zombie in AMC’s The Walking Dead, and I spoke about the training and preparation that I had for Dawn of the Dead. In the history of zombies in film, first we had these slow moving zombies, then came an era of fast moving zombies, and now it’s moved back to slow-moving walkers in AMC’s The Walking Dead. We had 60 people at that seminar doing their interpretations of zombies. There’s a special slowness and a better visual understanding of who that person was. In the remake, hands come out of the darkness, a blur faces and moving feet, and other fast moving zombies don’t quite have that identification factor. I think the authentic characteristic of these zombies is that they could be anybody, and that makes them more sympathetic. Audiences identify with them more, and that’s what keeps them coming back.

LL: I think it’s one of those classic films that just keeps on giving back. It has so many great moments in it, and I think that’s what makes a film, regardless of it’s genre. To me, the most dramatic moment is when Scott Reiniger’s character dies, and he says, “I’m going to try not to come back,” and he says it with such pain and conviction in his voice. I saw in not too long ago in a theater and I thought it was such good acting. To me the those little special moments. It’s some people’s favorite film, not horror film, just film and I understand why. If you’re a horror fan, if you like zombies, then Dawn of the Dead is like the perfect cup of tea, or the perfect first film: You will fall in love with zombies for the rest of your life.

JP: I think it was the desperate plight to stay alive against staggering odds against you, (Much like nuclear, terrorist, biological threats.) and I think it will still strike a chord in peoples’ hearts today.

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