OF THE DEAD
On November 13, 1977 shooting begins. The
schedule worked around the mall business hours; all 143 stores closed at 10 P.M.
the Muzak would automatically come on. Though 13 stores refused to cooperate,
almost all of the store managers permitted use of their shops without
supervisors (only the jewelry store and the bank used any security).
Tom Savini had a crew of eight (one of which was Joe Pilato) to assist in applying a grey makeup to about two to three hundred each weekend during the shoot. The makeup for the multitudes of extras in Dawn was among the simplest ever conducted for a zombie movie. Some extras were considered "special zombies" that were to be seen close-up or on-screen longer than others. These were caked with latex to suggest the wounds or bites that led to the person becoming undead.
A number of appliances had to be ready for any
given night. Savini sculpted scars and bite wounds onto a plastic photographic
developing tray and poured into it hydrocal (a mixture like plaster), thereby
creating a ‘negative mold’ of the Slab O’Wounds as Savini called his wound
tray. Then foam latex was poured onto the slab and the excess scraped away,
before it went to an oven to bake. A few hours later, the foam latex appliances
were ready to go.
In any given scene, one can see the paint running off exposing the lips and natural skin color of the actor. Though extras came to the mall in civilian clothing, there were some extra measures taken by Savini to distinguish the hordes of ghouls. "Since the zombies were people recently killed I tried to make them look like victims of car accidents, cancer patients, and so on" the charismatic makeup artist recalled in Grande Illusions. "We had one zombie who walked around in a very nice suit, and I made him to look like he had been freshly ‘done up’ by an undertaker."
Creating the bites on humans required Savini to cast the specific body part of the human in hydrocal. Once that part was prepared in foam latex, it was painted to match the flesh colors of the actor (with red and black colors on the bottom). The first bite in the film, in the tenement building, comes off fairly convincingly and the zombie actor actually forced a genuine scream of pain from the actress – he had bitten down a little too hard! Later in the film, bikers are attacked by the zombies and their skin is seen stretching like pizza cheese, which was something Savini referred to as "chunks of flesh"-stretchy latex that pulls and tears. Tubing and/or syringes would be used to pump the fake blood. Fake is a very good way to describe the 3M stage blood formula Savini used because it didn’t register on film well as he would find out midway through the shoot. For the first half particularly, the blood splashes excessively like magenta tempura paint, which seemed acceptable to Romero who thought it would only further exaggerate the film’s garish comic book texture. "While George's films are certainly graphic, the horror is so stylized and highly exaggerated that the film takes on the tone of a comic book" Rubinstein is quoted in the press kit. Romero is quick to point out that "My films are not vicious. The violence is rooted in a strict fantasy realm, whereas a film like Scarface is a mean film with real people-to-people violence. I’m not saying my violence is cool and De Palma’s isn’t; I’m just saying there’s a difference." (Prevue)
"We have the door being kicked down and the
head blown off" the director gleefully told Video. "Complete
silence. We throw in the zombies taking big bites out of people and the audience
is dead quiet. I think they think there’s this going on in the first ten
minutes what is there to come?" To simulate the infamous exploding head,
Savini sculpted a realistic false head (the likeness of Gaylen Ross
painted brown with an afro wig) then filled it with blood-filled bags and
organic material like pasta, chips and fruit cores. This was placed onto a
full-size dummy nicknamed ‘Boris’, and shot off by Tom himself with a
12-gauge shotgun. Whenever zombies were fired at with machine guns or larger
rifles, explosives effects man Gary Zeller took on the task. For exit wounds,
Zeller would apply a squib to the inside of a blood-filled condom to the actor.
The wires were connected to a detonator box and activated on screen for higher
One of the creative ways of killing people Savini came up with it was the decapitation in which a zombie stands on boxes in the Monroeville Airport and gets part of his head chopped off by the helicopter rotor. A friend, Jim Krut, had a naturally low forehead and Savini asked if he’d want to take part in the movie. Krut said yes and Savini started off by casting his friend’s forehead. Then he built it up higher which would give Jim a more ‘normal-sized’ forehead. After molding the piece in foam latex, fishing line was applied to the sliced sections. While assistants pulled the line, and the chunks of skull seemed to tear away, Savini pumped stage blood through Jim’s clothes up to the fake portion of his head, while hiding behind the on-screen boxes. The blades were never on - an optical effect added in post-production. Even those who have never seen Dawn before sometimes are able to predict that his head is going to suffer some sort of damage as the wig and the Frankenstein-like effect comes off a little too obvious so much so Dario Argento cut the effect out of his foreign versions.
Savini’s assistant and fellow stuntman Taso Stavrakis proposed a zombie death via umbrella to the ear while on the set and ran it by George. After a discussion, they decided John Harrison could play a janitor zombie that gets a screwdriver in his ear taken from his own toolbelt! All this effect required were three of the same screwdriver. Two of them were sawed off at different points so that when the camera cuts away from the real screwdriver, it appears that it has gone deeper into the ear. Harrison’s ear was protected by Dermawax plugging. Within his hair, hidden blood tubing was ready to go. The shortest screwdriver actually slid into a drinking straw cleverly painted silver-chrome.
Savini helped realize Romero’s vision of zombies being plowed down by semi trucks ( an image first alluded to in Ben’s diner story in Night). Dressed in a mechanic’s jumpsuit, Savini portrayed the windshield zombie that gets mowed down by Roger’s truck. The scene was shot at different angles. First, we see an an establishing shot of Savini walking in front of the truck’s path from Roger’s perspective. Then a shot of the zombie being ‘hit’ (Savini stood on the truck bumper, spitting out a mouthful of blood and jumping back). A trampoline was placed alongside of the truck so Savini could jump backwards into a crowd of zombies. If you pause the scene in the right spot, you can actually see the edge of the trampoline.
"Creating those illusions for George Romero
is fun, because he likes everything to happen right on camera. If somebody is
going to have a machete stuck through his head, he doesn’t cut away before the
blow hits and cut to a shot of the bloody remains. He likes the thing to happen
from beginning to end – the guy picks up the machete, raises it, then whap
right into the head with the blade and on camera!" (Fangoria, issue
The most excessive effect seen in Dawn are the hundreds of bullet squibs, most frequently the forehead of the extras being shot by the sharpshooting S.W.A.T. Fortunately these were some of the easiest effects to literally pull off. Savini used the old "button trick" whereby a sewing button was hidden under a thin layer of Dermawax on the actor, and pulled away via fishing line, thus producing the illusion of a fatal gunshot wound. Unfortunately, the fishing line sometimes picked up on film as in a scene during the biker raid just before Stephen is seen hiding behind glasses in Penney’s.
For one scene inside a truck, a zombie had to be shot from the back of the head with an exit wound on it face. Savini sculpted a face appliance for the zombie actress and filled it with blood. It was then sealed with a layer of Dermawax with monofilament line buried underneath. Like with the button trick, when the line was pulled away off-screen, the face seemed to splatter all over the truck and Roger’s own face. Savini did several falls including doubling for Jeannie Jeffries as she is kicked out of the truck by Roger. That is Tom wearing a wig and in the same costume. Stavrakis also did some stunts in the film. One of the most memorable is when he was dragged by the Volkswagen Scirocco inside the mall. The stuntman also wore a matching wig and costume as the zombie extra who was first glimpsed approaching the car in her distinctive bandana and apparently missing an arm. The reason for her to appear armless is to set up an effect for when Stephen shoots her in the eye. Taso held on to the bumper with one arm and hid his other hand which held a rubber ball filled with blood. This was connected to a prop eye appliance which would gush the blood when the ball was squeezed. Blades, Savini’s biker character, offs a few zombies with a machete. One decapitation is seen from the back of the zombie and was done using a mannequin though Savini’s philosophy is ‘use the real actor as much as you can’. An example of this is probably one of the most celebrated zombie deaths. When Blades is pulled off a motorbike by one zombie (Lenny Lies) he kicks him down and whacks the blade into the creature’s forehead. First the shape of Lies’ head was traced with wire and then the wire traced onto the machete blade. The contoured arc on the blade was cut away in a machine shop and rounded, and the trick machete was complete. On film, we see Savini pulling out the real machete and swinging it down. In the next shot, the blade has met the actor’s skull. This was done by placing the trick machete up to Lies’ head and pulling away quickly and the footage was printed in reverse. Blood was pumped from a tube glued on its backside in close-ups.
"Let me tell you about being a zombie", extra and firearms supervisor Clayton Hill told Rolling Stone. "When you go into your zomb, you’re in a fantasy. I go into the role feeling I am the living dead. I researched it in books – the wide open eyes, the clutching hands, then I made my own zombie. Sharon [Ceccatti], the nurse zombie, got into her zomb so heavily the other night she made herself sick. When we were shooting exteriors and it was zero degrees and there was this 300-lb. guy who showed every night in a bathing suit. He said ‘I’m not cold. I love it.’" It seems the extras took their roles as the walking dead more seriously than Romero did as this quote from Film Comment suggests: "In Dawn, my concept was to make them a little klutzy, so I gave them these broad types – an Air Force General, a nun, a Hare Krishna. You get started when one of them jumps from behind the boiler but there’s no build-up of fear." Some of the zombies would go to the mall bar The Brown Derby till midnight and get drunk just in time for their on-screen appearance!
Once the zombies did get a quick meal their feast had to be graphically shown. The raider Sledge, played by Stavrakis, gets his chest ripped open by a mob of zombies. Savini sculpted a false chest appliance and glued it to Stavrakis from his groin to his neck. Blood tubing and actual sheep intestines were sealed inside. All the extras would have to do is rip the foam chest open. Anyone who would actually stick these entrails in their mouths were shot for gross-out close-ups. Whenever zombies ate what looked to be human entrails, they were actually gnawing on hams, hot dogs or other deli meats. One extra, a pregnant lady, proposed having the zombies rip her open and a fetus falling out. This tasteless idea was too shocking for even Romero and Savini wouldn’t go for it either.
There has been some doubt whether the original
ending was ever shot and if it was, if it is still in existence somewhere in
Rubinstein’s vaults. Ross recalled the snowy night when it was shot and how
"George loved her death scene" in her only Fangoria interview.
In The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh, Romero recalled clearly that it was shot. "I really pulled toward the tragic ending but then I couldn’t decide whether I was doing it just because I wanted a family resemblance to the first film. The effect didn’t work great – it would have been spectacular to have her stand up in the blades and I’m sure that had the effect been successful I would have kept it that way. I just woke up one day and decided to let them go simply because I liked them too much." On the Elite laserdisc commentary taped in 1996, Romero doesn’t recall ever shooting this suicide ending at all!
To pull off this effect, Savini used the dummy "Boris" dressed up in Fran’s clothes and fitted with a mold off Gaylen Ross’s head, packed with squibs. A wooden rig held the body in place, suspended by fishing lines. Tom detonated the squibs and the false head was decapitated. One more cutaway to the body falling, which was executed as the assistants cut the lines with scissors.
A three-week break is taken by the crew in December to avert the holiday season decorations, which could have ruined the film’s continuity. Plus it would be too time-consuming to remove every night. The WGON scenes were shot at an independent UHF station. The Philadelphia housing project seen in the first ten minutes was actually an abandoned and largely unheated tenement located in Pittsburgh's Hill District (the inspiration for the police drama Hill Street Blues). The roof scenes were shot on the old Latent Image building, as was the interior of the top of the elevator.
Shooting resumed on January 3, 1978. Romero admitted to Film Comment: "I’m a sucker for high adventure. The mall in Dawn striked me as a high adventure area; there are even jungles in it! And all those guns and weapons and using the car in it – that’s the Dirty Dozen coming to Monroeville. I like to execute this stuff more than the brooding scare things. With the action sequences it was pure fun." The Pagans, a motorcycle gang were invited for the invasion scene. Tom Savini told Fangoria how he took on the role of a biker. "Blades wasn't in the script. But we saw everybody dressing up in costumes and stuff, so when it came time for the bikers to come in, Taso and I said, 'Hey ! We can do that !' So we dressed ourselves up with bandoliers and swords. I had all kinds of props with me. I became Blades and I had this rubber sledgehammer, so Taso grabbed it, and he became Sledge." Sound recordist Tony Buba played the part of a raider dressed as a bandito, replete with Pancho Villa style bullet straps and sombrero. "Everyone was trying to figure out different ways to keep yourself on camera for as long as you could" he recounted in The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh.
Several locations appear to be inside the mall but were actually in other parts of Pittsburgh. The hideout in the roof of the mall actually was a downtown warehouse (no rooms like that exist in the mall). The gun shop was Firearms Unlimited, located in the East Liberty district. It went out of business shortly after Dawn wrapped up in February.
Rubinstein discussed Romero’s technique to Village
Voice. "George is an editor first. George knows exactly how it’s
going to fit together. He edits strictly by hand. He doesn’t use a Steenbeck
or Moviola. He cuts the little pieces of film up. He pastes them over his
shoulder, he hangs them over his ear. He works faster than manually than any
other editor I know who works with a mechanical system. George uses almost twice
the amount of shots of an average film. He mixes sound without looking at the
picture because he visualizes in his mind’s eye what will be on the