‘Dawn of the Dead’ at 45: A Zombie Love Affair That Never Died

“I like the zombies,” George A. Romero said in 1977, in one of the many conversations with various publications collected in the book “George A. Romero: Interviews.” “You have to be sympathetic with the creatures because they ain’t doin’ nothin’. They’re like sharks: They can’t help behaving the way they do.” Romero had good reason to like the zombies — they gave him a career, and a legacy. He memorably dramatized the exploits of the undead in the 1968 chiller “Night of the Living Dead,” the first of six films in his “dead” cycle (which continued through his final film, “Survival of the Dead” in 2010). The second of those films, “Dawn of the Dead,” was released in the United States 45 years ago this month, an anniversary marked by revival screenings at theaters and drive-ins around the country (including the New York outposts of the Alamo Drafthouse and both locations of the Nitehawk Cinema). It remains one of the most influential (and profitable) horror films of all time, prompting a slew of imitators here and abroad, as well as a hit 2004 remake that led to another zombie boom (still underway, via “The Walking Dead” and its endless spinoffs).

As identifiable as he would become with genre movies, Romero — a Pittsburgh-based filmmaker who funded his projects by producing industrial films and commercials — went through what he called “a paranoid phase of not wanting to be a horror moviemaker” after the success of his first zombie feature. But, “gradually, as I became comfortable with what ‘Night of the Living Dead’was, and with what my reputation was, I finally got the idea” for a “Living Dead” sequel.

The fuse for the production was lit by the Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento (“Suspiria”). “He was a fan of ‘Night of the Living Dead’and knew that I was contemplating doing Part II,” Romero explained in 1982. “We showed him the script and he offered half the budget up front in exchange for the non-English language world.” It would be Romero’s largest budget to date; he secured the rest from private investors stateside.

What really sparked Romero’s imagination, however, was the location. He was friends with Mark Mason, one of the owners of the Monroeville Mall, east of Pittsburgh — then one of the largest shopping centers in the country. It would make for a perfect expansion of the isolated farmhouse location in the first film, a place where his heroes could hunker down with supplies to wait out, or fight off, the zombie apocalypse; Romero worked out a deal to shoot overnight, starting when the mall closed at 11 p.m. and stopping when cleaning crews (and cardiac patients on therapeutic mall walks) arrived at 7 a.m.

A scene from “Dawn of the Dead.”Credit…New Amsterdam Entertainment

“I wrote a treatment and it was very heavy, ponderous, possessing roughly the same attitude as ‘Night of the Living Dead’,” he said. “But then I realized that the place itself, the mall, was too funny to serve for a nightmare experience.” And thus, “Dawn of the Dead” became a consumerist satire, with zombies shuffling mindlessly through the mall and up the down escalators as bland Muzak blares through the shopping center’s loudspeakers. (They came there, one of the survivors surmises, because of the “memory … of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”)

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