With Night of the Living Dead, writer/director George Romero helped usher in a new generation of zombie films, as the undead ghouls had been featured in a variety of ways before his 1968 film. Initially panned by critics and ignored by audiences, the film eventually found its audience after late night theatrical screenings helped get the word out about the burgeoning horror classic.
Thanks to NotLD's eventual success, Romero was able to secure funding to continue to explore what would happen to society if the dead rose from their graves to terrorize the living with Dawn of the Dead.
Released on this day in 1979, Dawn cemented Romero's legacy as the godfather of zombie cinema, as films like The Crazies and Martin didn't earn the filmmaker as much success as his story of the living dead attacking a group of resisting survivors at a farmhouse.
Dawn once again focused on a group of survivors seeking solace from the walking corpses, this time taking refuge in a mall, a location that was not only reinforced but was full of supplies. The survivors might have thought they had found the perfect refuge, but as time went by, they realized they ultimately stand no chance at achieving long-term survival. Hoping to find life outside their sanctuary, they let their guard down, risking their vulnerability to a fate worse than death.
Scroll down to learn the behind-the-scenes stories of the classic zombie film for its 38th anniversary!
Night of the Living Dead is noted for its decision to have the most rational male lead played by a black actor, Duane Jones. This wasn't necessarily a deliberate move on the filmmakers' part, but they wanted the best actor for the job, who ended up being Jones. That film's ending has racially-charged implications, however, which reflected the rampant racism in America in the '60s.
Continuing his progressive themes, Dawn features not only another strong African-American lead (Ken Foree), but oftentimes the most sensible survivor in the film is Fran, played by Gaylen Ross, who was a far cry from the previous film's frantic female lead, Barbara.
Throughout the film, Fran is shown fighting back zombies and standing her ground, which was a suggestion by Ross, as she didn't want to portray a character who would rely on men to fight her battles. Additionally, Ross refused to scream in any scene, as she knew that if she showed that vulnerability, the character's strength would be lost.
Help From Europe
The inspiration for Dawn came from a visit to a local mall where one of Romero's friends worked, taking the director behind the scenes and joking that the well-fortified building would be a great place to survive a zombie invasion. With this idea, Romero began developing the script, but sadly, American investors still had doubts about funding the filmmaker's projects, which is when Italian director Dario Argento stepped in.
An established horror filmmaker in Italy, Argento helped secure funds from overseas producers to make sure Dawn could get made, with the stipulation that Argento could edit a European cut of the film. Argento then invited Romero to Italy to write the script without distractions, allowing the filmmaker to get the script completed in three weeks.
The Italian filmmaker also introduced Romero to prog-rock band Goblin, who helped provide music for the film.
When released in Europe, Argento's cut was called "Zombi," which forced Italian director Lucio Fulci to rename his film of the same name to "Zombi 2," adding in shots to help tie his film to Romero's.
Godfather of Gore
Often considered one of the most legendary names in the world of special effects, this film marked Tom Savini's first collaboration with Romero. Savini was supposed to work with Romero for
Despite Savini's skills in special effects, one of his biggest regrets working on Dawn is that he made the zombie's skin tone appear
Another color issue with the film was the makeup artist's displeasure with the color of the blood, as it looked almost fluorescent. Romero, however, preferred the blood to look this way, fitting more in line with the comic book style of the film. Savini achieved the consistency of the blood with a combination of peanut butter, sugar syrup, and food coloring.
Thanks to Savini's convincing effects, the MPAA threatened Romero with an X rating, often given to pornography. Ultimately, as to avoid editing his film, he was able to get the film released without any rating, using the poster to warn audiences that, while there was no explicit sex, there was a lot of gore and no one would be admitted under the age of 17.
"One of those big indoor malls..."
Lucky for Romero, he was able to film Dawn of the Dead at the Monroeville Mall in Monroeville, PA, the location that inspired it all. Filming at a functional mall resulted in some complications, however, causing the shoot to last longer than necessary.
The film crew would enter the mall after it had closed for the evening, which meant shooting didn't typically start until 11:00 PM. Shooting schedules were meant to last until 9:00 AM the following morning, until an unlikely interruption would cut the shoots short. Around 7:00 AM, the mall's intercom system, which played generic muzak, would come on and no one had any idea how to turn it off, making dialogue scenes virtually impossible.
The filmmakers also had to delay filming for the Christmas season, as the mall would hang Christmas decorations, but it was too time-consuming and expensive to remove the decorations and replace them every night. This filming break allowed Romero to begin editing the footage he had already shot.
The Monroeville Mall still stands to this day.
[H/T YouTube, Michael Hall]
Even after foreign investors getting involved, the filmmakers had to squeeze every penny to make the most out of their budget.
One way they saved money was by opting to not hire a stunt team, with instead Savini and his assistant Taso N. Stavrakis doing all the stunts themselves. Sadly, this didn't always go quite as expected, with the two often inadvertently injuring themselves. One fall, in particular, resulted in Savini almost completely missing a pile of cardboard boxes upon which he was supposed to land, causing his legs and back to hit the floor. He ended up having to work from a golf cart for several days, unable to walk adequately.
With this film being of a much larger scale than NotLD, the filmmakers offered zombie extras a meal, $20, and a Dawn of the Dead t-shirt.
One effect in the film involved a zombie's head getting chopped off by a helicopter blade, causing Savini to hire a specific friend of his that he knew had a low forehead, allowing for a more convincing prosthetic to be placed on his head. Another convincing way to sell the zombie effects was to hire actual amputees who appeared as though they had lost limbs due to their zombification.
Savini continued to improvise by bringing cow intestines to set from a nearby butcher to act as one of the victims' intestines to pull off a convincing effect.
A Not-So-Hopeful Ending
The current film ends with three survivors determining that they must leave the mall, only to be interrupted by a horde of thieves on motorcycles. One survivor is attacked by a ghoul and turned into a zombie, while the other two manage to get into a helicopter and fly off into the sunset, giving audiences a faint glimmer of hope.
The film's original ending, however, was far more bleak.
When the two remaining survivors come to grips with the likelihood of finding a safe refuge, one of the survivors shoots himself in the head while another intentionally raises their head into the spinning helicopter blades.
Some members of the production team claim Romero went so far as to shoot these scenes, with Romero denying that these scenes exist.