DAWN OF THE DEAD 25th Anniversary Reunion Show
By Brian Ridgway
As visitors to Zombie Farm may know, I’ve been working on a Dawn of the Dead (DOTD) book project for the past three years. Originally conceived as a feature article to coincide with the release of the first DOTD DVD disc set in the spring of 2000, it has since grown into a book project detailing not only the production of DOTD, but also the original zombie classic, Night of The Living Dead. After all, how can you tell the story of DOTD without also telling the tales of those involved with the original? Besides, Pittsburgh's creative community is pretty tight-knit, so it isn't surprising to find so many connections between the two films' cast and crew. Packed with over fifty interviews, original photos and unique material, the book is expected to be released on Halloween of 2004.
Since I started production of this book, Norman England has run excerpts from some of my interviews on his website. [Interviews that I need to get up and back on line -- Norman] These interviews feature such DOTD heavyweights as DAVID EMGE, SCOTT REINIGER and ROY FRUMKES. As part of our intention to keep a steady flow of new DOTD material, Norman has agreed to help document the production of the book. Check back with The Zombie Farm for more material in the months to come.
As expected, this year's DOTD 25th Anniversary Reunion in Pittsburgh at the April Comic Con served as a fresh injection of new material for the book. The convention was so successful that I have decided to include a bonus DVD insert with the book of some of the digital video I shot (this is getting out of control!). Unlike meager handi-cam interviews typically conducted while standing in front of convention tables, the DVD insert will contain professionally conducted, in-depth interviews with cast and crew.
This book is also being produced in part under the production facilities of Electro-Arc Comics (www.Electro-Arc.com). Stop by for a visit if you're looking for an alternative to mainstream comics as we publish our own line of unique weirdness. In the meantime, the following article is a rundown of the 25th Anniversary convention.
USA, June 2003
THE DAWN OF THE DEAD 25th ANNIVERSARY CONVENTION
It's hard to believe that it's been almost a year of waiting for this event to happen -- and maybe even more difficult to comprehend that it's been twenty-five years since Dawn of The Dead (DOTD) first splashed across theater screens around the world.
Not so much conceived as a sequel to the now classic Night of the Living Dead, DOTD was its own unique statement for the times, hitting most unsuspecting film critics like a steel fisted sucker punch to the mouth. The response? One noted film reviewer literally ran from the theater during the film's first ten minutes, while a few brave souls stayed to bask in the bloody-but-sincere glow of Director George Romero's nightmare vision.
How times have changed since 1978. While much of today's film effects are done entirely with computer software, part of the impact of DOTD was the amazing and still effective prosthetic makeup provided by Tom Savini and crew. Not surprisingly, the central message of the film--maddening and single-minded consumer materialism -- is more pertinent today than ever. The only element of DOTD that may have faded a bit over time is the visual quality of prints that have been available on video tape for home viewers. However, with the arrival of a fresh DVD package scheduled for late-summer 2003 release, it won't be long before viewers can return to the ghostly blue hues and vibrant reds of the Monroeville Mall.
This year's Pittsburgh Comic Convention was the sponsor of the Dawn of the Dead 25th Reunion show -- and that served fans with mixed results, as how much of a reunion can it be with two of the key lead actors missing? And without George Romero himself, can it still be much of a show honoring this classic film?
While the location at the ExpoMart was excellent and the Con staff were extremely professional, upon reflection, I also can't help but wonder if having the DOTD guests as part of a comic convention didn't diminish the crowds a bit? Would the turnout have been stronger if the show had been devoted entirely to DOTD -- or maybe all of George's DEAD films?
On the other hand, having the guests at a comic and mixed-media event may have allowed fans more frequent and easier access to the guests. Plus, the addition of four new DOTD alumni certainly added a terrific bonus for attendees, and the enthusiasm injected by these first-time guests, in my opinion, really compensated for the few who were unable to attend.
Friday, April 23, 2003
The first day was surprisingly busy, and felt more like a Saturday than a Friday given the size of the crowd. The original DOTD guest list was extensive, and offered a few surprises as we went into the weekend.
First, the absence of Scott Reiniger was painfully apparent. He was a no-show despite his billing on the early con flyers and website. Also notably absent was original DOTD cinematographer Michael Gornick. There's still no word as to why he cancelled. The big question during the show was why Tom Savini and George Romero didn't attend. Well, here's the scoop: The reasons were that Tom was at the Atlanta Dragon Con, which apparently is a huge draw for him every year, so he can't be faulted for that. George apparently had previous commitments, which meant canceling a tentative roast that con organizers had hoped for Saturday's schedule.
And while never a strong possibility for attending, Galen Ross was also a no-show. However, she was gracious enough to sign a few photos and send them along for con organizers to sell as part of their charity fundraiser, so her goodwill was evident.(Here's a scan to give those who didn't get one of these gems an idea of what you missed.)
Enough of the bitching -- the good news was the returning and new DOTD guests who made the show a friendly, fun and memorable time. First up were fan favorites Lenny Lies and Jim Krut, who are quickly becoming the Odd Couple of the horror media circuit. Each brought new products and a youthful-like enthusiasm to their tables, as they eagerly hammed it up with fans for photos that they signed extensively.
Also in attendance was David Early, who always brings a quiet charm to the roster of DOTD alumni. He has the assured confidence of a mature talent, and appears to genuinely appreciate the goodwill of the audience. David also makes for a solid compliment to the lineup of DOTD talent during the Q&A sessions.
Naturally, the con's center stage went to both David Emge and co-star Ken Foree. Literally a head and shoulder above the other DOTD guests, Ken towered over all. For the Q&A sessions, Ken acted as if he was holding court, grooving on the scene and making the whole thing feel like a campfire meet made up of old friends. He packed his sessions with interesting on-set stories that enthralled the visitors.
David, who rarely attends fan or media events, was somewhat subdued. It was interesting to see him go from greeting fans at his table to getting up for a break and morphing into an anonymous state as he strolled into the crowds.
DOTD fans were also treated this year to a biker rally of sorts, as Nick Tallo and William (Butchie) George, two of the original and most recognizable of the film's marauding bikers made appearances. "I'm amazed at the fans," Nick said during the show. "The things they know about the film--and they come up to me and want me to pose with them or sign a photo? Sure! Hell, I'll kiss their babies!"
A huge bonus to con attendees was the arrival of Butchie's original creation, Sophia the Chopper. This was the same bike he rode into the mall in the final act of DOTD, leading the charge of marauding bikers in the last stand against Peter and Flyboy. Glistening and powerfully built, Sophia is a work to behold. (Look for a more on this amazing road machine in the book in 2004!)
Fans were also happy to see the arrival of four new DOTD first-time attendees. Savini production assist Joe Shelby (pictured here with Brian Ridgway) shared many wonderful stories on the film's production. He was clearly excited by the response of DOTD fans, and said he had no idea that the film retained this kind of loyal following.
Also attending were Clayton Hill (sweater zombie) and his on-screen, real-life companion, Sharron Hill (nurse zombie.) It was also terrific to see Tommy Lafitte make a first-time convention appearance. Tommy was the zombie husband who took a couple healthy bites out of his wife in the apartment complex sequence.
The Mall Tour
One of the advantages of having the DOTD show this year at the ExpoMart was the convenience of the location for the film only a short walk from our hotel room door. DOTD stands as a truly unique film because it may be one of the few (if only) films where the actual set remains standing twenty-five years later!
Part of the 25th celebration schedule this year involved a guided tour of the Monroeville Mall conducted by select DOTD cast and crew. We were told that there would be several tours conducted Friday evening starting at 10:30 p.m. Well, it didn't take long for the lobby of the Radisson Hotel to start filling up by 9:30 or so. And by 10:00, the crowds were so thick you barely could make it to the elevator.
We arrived in the lobby in time to see Ken Foree wade through the crowd, eventually working his way to a hotel phone near the front desk. "Hey--get your ass down here!" he humorously barked over the phone to David Emge. We were unsure who would be leading the charge, so Dan and I headed outside to enjoy the cool evening air.
After twenty minutes, everyone filed outside to where we were waiting in the loading zone. The tour began with seventy-five people counted out of the crowd and then led by Ken over to the mall. It took about three minutes to walk the Radisson lot to one of the mall's main entrances. We were part of the second group, led by Leonard Lies, David Emge and David Early.
During the tour, I have to admit to an odd thrill as we plodded through the mall, past many of the film's locations. In reality, the mall (built in the early 70s) seemed small compared to today's massive complexes. It was obvious that most of the film's locations were mere feet from each other. Romero made the structure seem much larger with lighting, unusual angles and editing. In fact, it was hard to image a horde of bikers tearing through the mall -- to me, at least, as the mall seemed cramped if not somewhat intimate.
The good news for DOTD fans is that much of the mall is still very recognizable! While a few of the stores have left, some of the key locations (JC Penny's, the bank, the hallway containing the secret entrance) remain intact, and are very familiar and well kept. While upgrades have been done throughout the mall over the past twenty-five years, they aren't all that dramatic -- just moderate upgrades to lessen the impact of the passage of time.
The most noticeable change was the replacement of some of the mall's interior lighting. Gone were many of the square box lights that hung approximately fifteen feet over visitor's heads. We were only able to spot two of the older, original lights still remaining. I suppose it's only a matter of time before those are replaced as well.
Leonard Lies gave quite an informed, entertaining and very professional tour of the mall -- hitting all the fan-favorite spots. He recalled some unique DOTD production-related tidbits that we hadn't heard before. Although it would have been nice for convention organizers to provide our tour hosts with bullhorns, our guides managed well considering the crowds and distance covered.
The tour highlight was being taken deep into the dark recesses of the mall, and into the film's famous boiler room where Flyboy was attacked by the zombie janitor. It all looked exactly the same as it appeared in the film. After all, how much could a boiler room change over time? Dan insisted that he even saw a blue binder with mall blueprints on the desk in the boiler's office. I believed him, if only to complete the illusion.
The thing that struck me most about this area were the incredibly low ceilings and limited floor space. Again, this was obviously a location where Romero and Michael Gornick worked visual magic, making it look much larger and more ominous on film. In reality, the distance between the room's opposing doorways is only about 35-40 feet, which isn't much room for a zombie to bump around in! But the spine-chilling, boiler-room hum remained. For this DOTD fan, seeing this normally off-limits office was a nightmare come true!
The tours ran from approximately 10:30 p.m. to almost 1:00 a.m., with each group averaging about forty-five minutes in the mall. A nice touch was that proceeds from the tour tickets were donated to a local children's charity.
Coming Up: A brief tour of the Monroeville Airport, and final comments on the 25th Anniversary DAWN OF THE DEAD show in Pittsburgh.
More details on the Monroeville Mall will be available in the new book in 2004!