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Pittsburgh-shot classic 'Dawn of the Dead' rises again

Zombies rush through a doorway with outstretched hands.
Red Band Releasing
Zombie invasion: "Dawn of the Dead"

George Romero’s place in film history was likely secured with his first feature film, the groundbreaking 1968 zombie thriller “Night of the Living Dead.” But his second go-round with the undead is nearly as famous.

Unlike its predecessor, “Dawn of the Dead” was an immediate box-office success as well as a future cult classic. And its status as a Pittsburgh cinema icon was earned when Romero used the Monroeville Mall as a primary shooting location for the film whose marketing tag line was “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

Dawn of the Dead re-release poster
Red Band Releasing
The poster for the film's 45th-anniversary re-release.

The film, whose North American premiere was held in Pittsburgh on April 12, 1979, has been unavailable theatrically for years. Now it’s getting a 45th-anniversary re-release, with multiple screenings here. One’s Friday at the Cinemark Monroeville Mall, just a parking lot away from where it was filmed, and six more are this weekend at Downtown’s Harris Theater, blocks from the site of that premiere.

“Dawn of the Dead” remains renowned for its violence and gory special effects, but that’s not its only appeal.

“The reason, 45 years later, we still want to see this movie is it actually has great characters,” said Leif Jonker, who owns the distribution company, Wichita, Kan.-based Red Band Releasing. “It has a great story. It has characters you really care for.”

The film describes a zombie plague, and follows the travails of living humans trying to survive. Though it’s actually set in the Philadelphia area, most shoots took place at the then-decade old Monroeville Mall, starting in November 1977. The mall was the fulcrum for the film’s satiric jabs at consumerism, and the scene of its climactic showdown.

Romero, a native of New York City who had attended Carnegie Tech, was by then a successful independent filmmaker whose Western Pennsylvania-shot features also included 1973’s science-fiction film “The Crazies” and 1978’s vampire drama “Martin.”

“Dawn of the Dead” was by far his biggest production to date, and the film’s lead actors — David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger and Gaylen Ross — were recruited from out of town. But most of the cast and crew were locals. And because that was a time when Pittsburgh welcomed only the occasional film or TV-series production, it’s remembered as a jump-start for many early-career filmmakers, including some fresh out of film school.

A zombie lies in a bed.
Red Band Releasing
Seen better days: Another "Dawn of the Dead" zombie.

“This was sort of the first really big feature that all of us worked on,” said Tony Buba, who was soundman on “Day of the Dead” even as he was building his own indie art film career with inventive short documentaries about his hometown of Braddock. “People got a ton of experience working on it.”

Others who played key roles on the crew include special effects master Tom Savini and Nick Mastandrea, the “Dawn of the Dead” key grip who’s now a longtime first assistant director in Hollywood. Casting director John Amplas later taught theater at Point Park University and became a top director and actor on local stages. John Rice, who handled script continuity, became a respected Pittsburgh-based cinematographer.

Many crew members also had small on-screen roles in the film. Savini and Buba played two of the film’s gang of motorcycle raiders. Another raider was Buba’s brother, the late Pasquale Buba, who went on to a career as a film editor in Hollywood.

“I’m most famous as the motorcycle raider who gets his blood pressure read and the zombies rip him apart!” said Tony Buba, with a laugh. “I still sign autographs with that one!”

John Harrison, who plays a zombie dispatched with a screwdriver to the head, went on to become a Hollywood writer, director and producer.

Harrison (who later worked with Romero on his feature films “Creepshow” and “Day of the Dead”) also wrote and directed “Frank Herbert’s Dune” a 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries produced by “Dawn of the Dead” producer Richard P. Rubinstein. And both Harrison and Rubinstein are executive producers on the hit feature films “Dune” (2021) and “Dune: Part Two” (2024).

“Dawn of the Dead” was especially noted for its special effects.

“That first bite into the arm, at the tenement, it was like so convincing,” said Tom Dubensky, an assistant cameraman on the film. “It was like, ‘Wow this is pretty amazing stuff.’”

Dubensky recalled that Romero often improvised on set.

“George would always come up with other ideas — ‘What if we do this, what if we do that’ — aside from the things we had already written in the script,” said Dubensky. “How do we kill a zombie without shooting it in the head? And that’s how we came up with the screwdriver in the ear.”

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The mall shoots halted for Christmas and resumed in early 1978, Dubensky recalls. Most of the 1978 shoots took place at night, starting about 10 p.m. – after the stores closed – and running till 7:30 a.m. or so, when the mall walkers took over, an irresistible force of their own.

“They didn’t stop for anybody,” said Dubensky. “They just walked right through no matter where you were standing.”

The film — whose North American premiere was at Downtown’s old Gateway Theater, on Sixth Street — was unique in other ways. Buba noted its rapid-fire editing, still unusual at the time. Film distributor Leif Jonker said it is that rarest of horror films that takes place mostly under bright light.

“Dawn of the Dead” is odd in another way, too: It’s owned by a single person, the producer Richard P. Rubinstein. Although there have been multiple home-video editions over the years, the film remains that rare well-known movie that’s still unavailable for streaming.

Nonetheless, interest in it seems to remain as strong as ever. It’s easy to forget that in 1979, “Night of the Living Dead” notwithstanding, zombies as Romero conceived of them were not the cultural touchstone they are now, with video games, TV shows like “The Walking Dead,” and feature films from “World War Z” to the tip-of-the-cap parody “Shaun of the Dead.”

Zombies are now so mainstream that the Monroeville Mall is home to the Living Dead Museum, which commemorates the film.

Speaking on April 2, Jonker said the roster of theaters and drive-ins that will screen “Dawn of the Dead” this April and May was 106 and growing.

“It changed the genre, the horror and the zombie genre,” he said.

More information on Friday’s screening at the Cinemark Monroeville Mall is here.

More information on the Harris Theater screenings is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: