The Monroeville Mall
Possibly the most endearing element of Dawn of the Dead is its use of the huge shopping center where much of the film takes place. The mall, located in the state of Pennsylvania, has been a popular shopping retreat for the nearby city of Pittsburgh since opening its doors in 1969 May. Residing in the suburban town of Monroeville, and called, unpretentiously enough, the Monroeville Mall, the complex is home to more than 150 stores that are laid out over 1.3 million square feet, making it one of America's largest indoor shopping centers.
Origin of Idea
One day in the early 70s, George Romero visited the Monroeville Mall office of Mark Mason, a part owner of the Oxford Development Company (owning and managing company of the Monroeville Mall). Mason explained to Romero how the gigantic mall was honey combed with passages and, jokingly said he felt it possible to hide out, even to live in, if ever there were an emergency. Afterward, with this 'seed' planted, Romero took a stroll through the mall. On the shopping floor, he was struck by the singular looks on the shoppers' faces as they marched from store to store. It was in these vacant faces and the immured mall that he saw a connection with his zombies and farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead. From this initial inspiration, he created the idea for Dawn of the Dead.
The ideas in Dawn of the Dead saw many changes, but through every draft of the script one thing remained constant: the Mall. When it came close to filming, Romero was fortunate that Mark Mason and Eddy Luis, partners at Oxford Development, agreed to partial financing of Dawn of the Dead. Furthermore, and with their help, he was able to secure availability of the mall.
Filming commenced at the Monroeville Mall in December 1977. A short break was taken during the Christmas season due to the stores' holiday decorations which had altered the look of the mall. After the New Year, when the decorations came down, filming resumed and was completed in February 1978.
The Mall Today
Like all malls, time means change and over the years many of the stores seen in the film have long since closed or been remodeled. On my first trip, four years after Dawn of the Dead was shot, while a few stores had undergone remodeling and a couple had even gone under, things were still pretty much as they had been during filming. One, A Shop Called East had been reduced to half the size it had been when Roger sat stoned out on morphine in his pushcart before it. Also, on that first trip, the clock was still up and running. On the hour, the shutter boxes lining the great clock would open, revealing different animated storybook characters within. Atop sat the sacred white bird covered in cobwebs. On my following trip in 1983, the clock was turned off with the boxes open and the scenes static. Sadly, this clock today, possibly the most distinct feature of the mall and an instantly recognizable icon of Dawn of the Dead, has been dismantled. A stage now rests in its place. (Dawn of the Dead theater, anyone?)
The entire front of the mall where Peter and Roger positioned the first truck was redesigned sometime around 1987. It is now black with what looks like a giant tuning fork hanging over the entrance. About the same time, the ice ring was also taken out, despite protests from the community. In its place sits one of those god awful, gaudy food pavilions. Penny's too has seen several changes since filming. The logo underwent a style change in the mid-80s and their automotive center behind the mall was sold off. Inside Penny's you can still find the escalator that Roger slid down. Don't think of sliding down like the doomed trooper did, however. Metal pegs have been placed along the length running between the two automated staircases, ones that would surely tear ones rear to raw pieces if attempted. In the back of the store is the elevator where Stephen was turned into a zombie. It is a quick but memorable ride between the double floors of the store.
Journey to the Mall
One of my best moments at the mall came on my second "pilgrimage". Open well past the regular closing hours of other shops, I went to The Brown Derby with my brother for a nightcap at its bar. After speaking with some locals, I stepped out of the smoky restaurant for a breather. I couldn't help but notice the mall silent and dormant to my left. Unable to resist, I walked over to the corner bank (the one where Peter lets out his immortal "you never know" line). Mesmerized by the sight before me, I gazed dumbfounded across the now dark and dormant mall. During the scene when Peter explains about Voodoo to the troupe there is a ceiling shot of the mall that is perhaps my single most favorite shot of the mall. As the shot was just by the bank, I now found that I was just beneath this shot's camera position. As a fan, I'll tell you, it was something else. A few years later, on my third trip to the mall I sought to repeat the experience, but the plan was upset by a security guard sitting on a bench (see photo). Though at one time relatively lax, security at the mall became drum tight and I understand remains so to this day.
The parking lot behind the mall that the trucks were driven down the hill and from where the bikers launched their raid is a must see for any visiting Dawn of the Dead enthusiast. I'd always wondered where that hill led to before going to the mall. In the film, it seems to curve to the left and continue. I was surprised to find that just after the curve it ends abruptly, cut off by a street (James Street) that runs perpendicular. A walk up there at night is serene (if not a little spooky). In the summer, bats flap freely, looping the tall street lamps. The traffic is minimal, and the mall sits below like a giant glowing jewel. It's an unforgettable sight.
For any Dawn of the Dead fan, even with the inevitable changes, a trip to the mall is something that ought to be consider. It is like stepping into a dream; or more realistically, it is like being able to walk onto the set of a favorite film and allowed to wander around unabated. At the very least it can be described as odd. Odd, that is to say, to stand on the very spot where, for example, Tom Savini lopped of the zombie woman's head in front of the ice rink (now, The Food Pavilion), or to stand on the exact location where Roger was buried. The strangeness of this feeling is further augmented by watching shoppers as they pass over these spots, seemingly oblivious to the film history that rests under the soles of their shoes.
While much has changed over the years, as noted above, there are still many locations that cannot be removed. Things can be redone, store facades can change, but the basic skeleton of the mall and the surrounding area remains the same. When thinking about it, this location is something Dawn of the Dead fans have that almost no other fans of film have. For, who among the Star Trek or Star Wars groups, unless with inside connections, can boost of being able to walk onto the sets of those productions?
Just Where is the Monroeville Mall?
The Mall is fairly easy to get to: Fly to the Pittsburgh International Airport and from there take a shuttle bus to the Radisson Hotel, located in the Mall's parking lot. The bus ride takes about thirty-five minutes.
For hotel bookings contact:
Radisson Hotel Pittsburgh
101 Mall Boulevard Monroeville,
Local Phone: 1-412-373-7300.
The Monroeville Mall
Open Monday - Saturday 10-9:30 and Sunday 12-5
300 Monroeville Mall Blvd., Monroeville, Pennsylvania, 15146
(Map stolen courtesy of Monroeville Mall.Com)