Commentary: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Zombies!

Of all the movie about the walking dead, one of them continuously appears on the best of lists time after time after time. Okay, maybe more than one of them shows up all the time, but this one’s considered by many to be the best of them. I’m inclined to agree. George Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead is more than just an improved follow-up to 1968′s Night of the Living Dead. It the film that made living in a zombie apocalypse fun. It’s the film that really introduced us to what Tom Savini could do with some plaster and a machete. It’s the high watermark for epic, zombie storytelling, and, for 34 years, no film has come close to topping it.

Who better to take us through Dawn of the Dead and show us how it all came to be than Romero, Savini, and George’s wife, Christine, who served as assistant director on the film. The commentary on this Anchor Bay Divimax is moderated by the DVD’s producer, not something we’ve come across before in this column. It could be a nice, organized way to handle information from the commentators. It could be such a slog it makes us wish Hell would run out of room. However the path it takes to get here, here are all the things we learned listening to George & Chris Romero and Tom Savini talk about Dawn of the Dead.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Commentators: George Romero (writer/director), Chris Romero (assistant director/actress), Tom Savini (special makeup effects/actor), moderated by DVD producer for Anchor Bay Perry Martin

  • At the start of the commentary, Savini asks George if the red carpeting on the walls was a forewarning of how bloody Dawn of the Dead was going to be. George says, “No.” The location where they shot the opening was a Pittsburgh TV station. The red carpet was already there.
  • The TV director and producer seen at the control deck near the beginning of the film are actually George and Chris Romero – Christine Forrest at the time. Savini points out that George is wearing his “lucky scarf.” According to Chris, the two met before George directed the 1976 film Martin where Chris played a part. Dawn of the Dead was their second film together. There’s a slight bit of confusion as to whether or not they were married before filming. Chris says they weren’t. George says they were, but he quickly backtracks to agree with her. Probably because she was right.
  • Martin asks George about the success of Night of the Living Dead. Due to the slow build on the film’s success, George explains the people who worked on it were never able to appreciate its success both with audiences and financially. “I didn’t want to make a sequel or another one,” he says. He explains that the idea for Dawn came about when he visited the mall seen in the film, which was owned by personal friends. He went to the mall and, upon seeing crawlspaces above the shops complete with supplies, began getting the idea for what would become Dawn of the Dead. According to George, it was Dario Argento who asked him if he wanted to do a sequel. George took the idea he got at the mall and ran with it. Well, not so much ran with it. More like shuffled along slowly with it.
  • Martin asks George about offers after Night of the Living Dead found its success. “It’s amazing,” says George. “They don’t come out of the woodwork. Even today, I’m trying to promote a fourth one.” George notes how afraid studios are of him and the reputation for gore he brings with him. He mentions that even if and when – George is obviously talking about what would come to be 2005′s Land of the Dead – his fourth …of the Dead film gets made, he’s sure it would have to go through several cuts from what his original vision is for it. George and Chris agree later on in the commentary that they would ideally like to get $14m to make this “fourth one.” According to Box Office Mojo, Land of the Dead ended up costing $15m.
  • “My idea for the fourth one is ‘Ignoring the Problem,’” George mentions. He also talks about how his ideas for the zombies films don’t start with character. They start with an idea or a theme that drives the story and, ultimately, builds the characters. The theme behind Dawn of the Dead was consumerism and reliance on material possessions. George does say the script for “the fourth one” is finished, and, due to the success of films like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (2003), interest was growing.
  • The cop that gets shot on the roof near the beginning of Dawn of the Dead was Savini’s first ever head shot. Just for future, trivia knowledge. He was working on a play in North Carolina when he got a message from George that said, “Hey, we got another gig. Think of ways to kill people.” The film originally had a crew member in charge of squibs, but he left halfway through shooting. Savini was left to learn as he went.
  • The notorious head explosion shot utilized a head cast of Gaylen Ross, the lead actress of Dawn of the Dead. The cast was made because of the film’s original ending, where Francine, who Ross plays, commits suicide by stepping up into the helicopter’s blade. Savini put some “afro hair” on the cast, painted it dark, and came up with the shot where someone’s head gets literally blown off. That’s creative movie making, right there.
  • Martin mentions how important the “head explosion” shot was to American horror films and how horror films before that time didn’t show that kind of graphic, in-your-face violence. Savini agrees, saying “They said, ‘Oh, no. If this is the beginning of the movie, what are they gonna do to us towards the end of this movie?’”.
  • Each day, the crew had to wait for Monroeville Mall to close for the day before they could shoot, usually 10:30 PM. There were a few bars in that area, and Savini remembers making up zombies who would then go to the bar and drink. Everyone agree this probably helped their performances. Savini does say the drunk zombies caused damage, particularly a couple who stole a golf cart and crashed it inside the mall.
  • According to Martin, Gaylen Ross told him she had completely fabricated a resume when she auditioned to be in Dawn of the Dead and that George had no idea how inexperienced she really was. “It wouldn’t have mattered to me,” kids George. “She didn’t realize she didn’t have to do that.”
  • “War is Hell until it turns into a party,” says George when Martin asks him what he was aiming at with the mob of soldiers and citizens hunting zombies for sport. The director mentions this sequence in Dawn is carried over from the end of Night of the Living Dead. “Don’t you think this would be going on in this phenomenon was really happening?” he asks. “You can only hunt so many deer,” Savini replies.
  • 22:22 – Martin asks someone how they’re “doing with that ambient audio.” There’s some slight dialogue between the two of them. Martin then explains the commentary is being recorded in George and Chris’ living room and a leaf blower is being used just outside. The sound is muffled but definitely audible on the commentary track. It’s definitely a leaf blower. Maybe a Toro. You can tell these things.
  • The helicopter blades in the shot where the zombie accidentally chops the top of his own head off were animated in post.
  • George notes his collaboration with Argento and the Italian financiers was a very good partnership. The writer/director was left alone to make the film he wanted to make. He notes part of the deal he made with Argento was that the Italian director could cut the film any way he wanted for foreign markets. Argento felt Dawn of the Dead had too much humor, and his version of the film is trimmed of many of the jokes. This version caused censors in foreign markets to crack down hard on the film upon its release. George mentions there are roughly 10 different versions of the film. “If you want to put out other DVDS,” he jokes to Martin.
  • When Savini signed onto Dawn of the Dead, he didn’t know he’d be appearing in or performing actual stunts in the film. “It’s like the stuff needed to be done, and I think I said, ‘I can do that. I can fall off that balcony.’” The way Chris remembers it, it was Savini who kept hounding George to let him do a stunt. She quips that, if they did everything Savini wanted to do, they’d still be shooting. Savini mentions that was the fun of the production, that they could bring up new ideas every day and try to sort out how to do it. About that fall off the balcony, though, Savini injured himself while rehearsing it. He missed the cardboard boxes that had been set up to dampen his fall.
  • Even though the production was fast and loose, George and Chris do mention they had day-to-day schedules they tried to stick with. Chris notes their schedule was never more than a few days out, but it was more or less an organized shoot. They were still able to come up with new ideas on the fly. The screwdriver death is one such moment in the film that was thought up on set. Continuity errors in what actor Scott Reiniger is wearing during this scene was one result of them coming up with and shooting this spur-of-the-moment death scene.
  • Certain “zombies” in the cast would get their picture taken in the mall photo booth. They would then tape their own photos over the pictures on the outside of the booth for the next day’s mall patrons. Because NO ONE executes a practical joke like the undead denizens of Hell.
  • Reiniger’s character Roger sliding down the escalator divider was an impromptu moment on set. Savini recalls how he and other cast and crew members did the same thing during the film’s production. He does joke that you can’t do that now, since all escalators have metal posts sticking up at the bottom. “You think that’s because of us?” asks George. “I’d love to say that it’s because of Dawn of the Dead,” Savini replies.
  • Every morning during production, the mall’s Muzak would turn on over the PA system at 7:00 AM, causing the shooting to halt. Savini remembers they never could figure out how to turn the music off.
  • In order to ensure a certain speed in their production, the lighting crew, headed by Carl Augenstein – “Oggy”, as George refers to him. Isn’t that cute? – switched out all the lights in Monroeville Mall for color corrected lighting. This way they didn’t have to do “setups” in the traditional sense but were able to shoot freely about the mall and have it all come out lit correctly. This lighting was kept in all the way through the shoot, even during regular mall hours.

  • Martin asks George what kind of direction he would give his zombies. “Oh, you can’t,” George responds. He mentions that, if you give 100 people dressed as zombies a specific movement you want them to do, every one of them would do that exact movement. “You just have to say, ‘Be dead.’” He does mention David Emge, who plays Stephen in Dawn, was the best zombie the director has seen. According to Martin, Emge told him his inspiration for how to act like a zombie was Lon Chaney Jr. in the Mummy movies.
  • To this day, George doesn’t use storyboards. He works from shot lists, as he did with Dawn of the Dead. He mentions directing Bruiser and how that film required much more choreography with the shots, since he was working with a 30-day shoot there. He uses a lot more long takes and camera movement with that film, whereas, with Dawn, it’s a lot of static shots cut quickly. He also notes a bigger budget means bigger limitations on a film.
  • There are several instances where George, Chris, or Tom point out when one of their friends or family members show up as a zombie. “Who do you call?” asks George when Martin points this out to them. Savini mentions he still has people come up to him and say they were a zombie in Dawn of the Dead. Try that the next time you meet him. See if he believes you.
  • George notes there are about a dozen shots or so, most of them establishing shots, where he wishes they had had more zombies walking around outside the mall. Savini points out that CGI would allow them to have about 3000 zombies in any given shot today. “I don’t want to use it to rely on it,” George says after Martin inquires him about CGI later on. The director clearly prefers practical effects, but he does recognize if an effect is impossible without the usage of CGI. “But I guess I’m an old fashioned guy,” George says. “Give me a rubber suit.”
  • Savini brings up Boris the Dummy, the production’s go-to dummy. He doesn’t say whether or not this was the only dummy they had on set, but it’s certainly the one they used the most. Savini points out every time Boris is seen in the finished film. Apparently a grenade going off right in front of the dummy was the end of Boris. “He was made of wood and foam,” says Savini, “but he lasted a while.”
  • Because of the budget and the available technology at the time, the production wasn’t able to see dailies to ensure what they had shot came out acceptable. The film was shipped to New York and processed at a lab there. Chris mentions a lab tech in New York would call George to let him know if everything looked okay. It didn’t always, and the production had to fit in reshoots if it didn’t.
  • George was introduced to Goblin, the Italian band who did soundtracks for a number of horror films, through Dario Argento. Since Argento had the right to change the music in Dawn of the Dead for release in foreign markets, he had the band create a soundtrack for it. George mentions he had the option to use some or all of Goblin’s score if he chose to. He uses it periodically throughout Dawn of the Dead.
  • Chris Romero states she doesn’t like horror movies. Savini calls her a pansy because of this. She does mention she loves George’s movies, but she “can’t stand the blood and guts.” She does get noticeably uncomfortable later in the film when the zombies are taking out the biker gang.
  • George briefly brings up the Dawn of the Dead remake. He believes his film was so much about its time that he isn’t sure the new film would work the same way. “I don’t know what it’s gonna be, but I can’t imagine it having the same impact this had then, because it meant more, the whole idea of the mall,” says George.
  • Martin asks George which part of making films he enjoys the most, to which the director responds, “Watching them.” He does say his favorite part of the filmmaking process is the editing. He finds the writing phase an anxious part because of the uncertainty in the project’s completion. He finds shooting to be a grueling process even though he finds it a fun aspect. George particularly likes showing his films to an audience for the first time. Chris brings up the first time they showed Knightriders, George’s film after Dawn of the Dead, to an audience. It was the first, public screening of the film -critics were in attendance, as well – and the sound mix was so bad that no one could understand what Ed Harris was saying underneath his motorcycle/knight’s helmet. That last bit is just thrown in there by me so you’ll know what’s in store for you with Knightriders. Watch it.
  • “I knew that if we could get it in front of an audience that the fans would ride it,” George remarks on the first, public screening of Dawn of the Dead. The film didn’t have a distributor at the time, but, due to the audience reaction, it did before the end of the night. It’s here where Chris asks who it was that actually did make money off Dawn. George says it didn’t do that well, because it was unrated and only played in a small number of theaters – the film opened in April 1979 with $900,000 on 68 screens. He does note it did well overseas. They go on to recollect how poorly Day of the Dead did when it was released in 1985 even though George remarks it’s his favorite of the series.
  • The bike gang in the third act of the film was primarily made up of a real gang, the Pagans. Savini notes his character wasn’t written in the script but was a character he and George came up with on set. All of his character’s dialogue is improvised.
  • All three agree how awesome the sound was when all the bikes were driving around inside the mall. George notes it was the first time he had experienced writing something and then being totally blown away by the reality of it when it was being filmed. He mentions there’s no way to capture that feeling on film. He also mentions the roar and vibration of the bikes set off every alarm in Monroeville Mall that night.
  • Why the pie fight? “I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to have a pie fight in this.’,” George responds. Chris remembers fighting with George about this because of how stupid she found it. A shot of George and Chris running through the scene as a mall Santa and an elf zombie, respectively, was cut. Chris says she’s blocked this out.
  • Savini recollects the stunt of driving through a window. The glass was much thinner on one end than another, and it was angled such that he drove through the thicker part. The part Savini drove through was two inches thick, and he hurt his knee, the only part that wasn’t completely padded over. He remembers George having a piece of the “break-away” glass in his office that he would periodically try to break on his table. “It was like a steel girder,” remembers Savini.
  • George mentions how he wishes the had shot the stunt through the window in slow motion. Martin notes this is a technique the director doesn’t use often. “Maybe it’s anti-Peckinpah, or I don’t know. I just don’t like it. I like things happening in real time,” George says.
  • To achieve the bullet ricochets off the side of the elevator shaft wall when the bikers are shooting at Stephen, Savini shot rocks with a slingshot at the wall next to David Emge. The actual hit on his arm utilized a blood-filled prophylactic. Something tells me this technique is used more in films than it’s mentioned.
  • Martin asks George if there was an intention to top what he did with Night of the Living Dead in this film. George says there wasn’t and that the feeling with Dawn of the Dead was “unrestricted.” “You’re not trying to top your last film in that sense,” he says. “You’re trying to go over the top. You’re trying to do what you can to really make it a gas.” Savini agrees topping themselves wasn’t the intention, but it naturally happened based out of how much fun they put into the film.
  • George originally intended Dawn of the Dead to end tragically like Night of the Living Dead before it. However, over the course of the making the film, he fell in love with the characters. He also realized they made the film too much like a comic book, too fun, to have it end horrifically. Savini remembers George announcing during production that they were “going to have an up ending.” They had already shot part of the tragic ending when Gaylen Ross’ character stands up into the helicopter blade. Ken Foree’s character, Peter, was originally going to shoot himself, which he teases in the film as it is now.
  • Chris and George joke about how, even though the characters decide to leave the mall together, they don’t have much of an option as to where they go. “There’s what we could do, Tom,” says George. “We could get them together on an island somewhere.” Savini chimes in with his own idea for a sequel to Dawn. “Gaylen and Ken and David,” jokes Savini. “Yeah, they spent the last 25 years in some mall in Jamaica.” They all joke about how they could have the surviving members of Day of the Dead fighting with the survivors of Dawn of the Dead over control of the island.

Best in Commentary

“When you’re born in Pittsburgh, one of the things you want to be when you grow up is a zombie in a Romero film.” – Tom Savini

“Everybody screws up all the time, so, if the shit ever hits the fan, forget about it.” – George Romero about how society would break down in a real zombie apocalypse

“When you say zombie movie, this is the movie everybody thinks of.” – Tom Savini

Final Thoughts

This Dawn of the Dead commentary track is enlightening, even if much of it is about general thoughts on the film as well as Romero’s career in the industry. There are definitely specific anecdotes thrown in for good, personal measure, but it often falls back on banter about budgets and studios and how much George would like to get for his “fourth film” in the series. Granted, not a lot of that is interesting now, since we’re six years and three more …of the Dead films after this commentary track was recorded. A lot of Romero talking about his ideas for a “fourth film” was far more interesting in the days before Land of the Dead got made.

The moderator on this commentary track was an interesting addition. It kept the conversation on track and brought up specific bullet point topics for the group to converse about. There’s a lot of digression from this. The three will often point out friends and family members as zombies, sometimes in the middle of a sentence talking about something completely unrelated. Nonetheless, all of it comes together nicely in a commentary that includes film making technique, thoughts on the industry, and personal recollections from getting the film made. Hearing the best film maker of any sub-genre talk about the film that solidified his place as the best is always interesting. That’s precisely what we get with this Dawn of the Dead commentary.

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