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Friday, May 24
The Indiana Daily Student

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OPINION: No more room in geek heaven: a visit to the Monroeville Mall

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I’m a massive fan of George Romero’s 1978 film “Dawn of the Dead.” It’s been about two years now since I watched it for the first time and it instantly shot to the top of my list of favorite films. 

So, this summer, I resolved to visit its filming location, the Monroeville Mall, located a few miles east of Pittsburgh. Folks, I’m proud to say that I made it, and it was everything I wanted and more. The experience of wandering the mall – the same mall where one of my favorite films ever was made – was exciting, gratifying and educational. 

The story of “Dawn of the Dead” begins with its predecessor, “Night of the Living Dead.” Produced on a shoestring budget of $114,000, the film was shot in the Pittsburgh area, where Romero had gone to college. “Dawn of the Dead,” likewise, was shot nearby the city. 

“Dawn” was shot with financing from Dario Argento, an Italian giallo director who you may recognize from the absolute banger, “Suspiria.” Due to Romero’s connections, the crew was allowed to shoot in the mall from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. each day. 

Visiting the mall in the middle of the day, I could barely picture the conditions the crew shot under. The building was bustling with shoppers – and I was just another zombie among them. Inside, the main building was remarkably small. The size I had imagined from the film seemed to be a trick of the lens. How did they fit all of those bikers in here? 

Despite the fact that the film is 45 years old, there’s still a distinct presence. T-shirt shops peddle Romero merch. Nearby the J.C. Penney is the “Living Dead Museum,” an ode to “Dawn” and several other cult horror flicks. Translation: my dream place to be. 

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The hallway of the museum is lined with the “bloody” handprints of celebrities related to the film. There’s Tom Savini, who managed the special effects of the film and many other iconic horror flicks. There’s Ken Foree and David Emgee, two stars of the film. And, of course, Romero himself is up on the wall. 

There’s also a myriad of niche stars. I saw the handprints of David Crawford, who played an absolutely amazing eye-patched doctor. “Dawn of the Dead” is one of his 11 film roles on IMDb. Many zombie actors also signed the walls, including “Nurse Zombie” and other specific undead actors. 

It’s interesting how such a small role – many of these actors didn’t even speak – has carried on so far into the future. A film is a powerful thing. The fact that these actors continue to be remembered so fondly makes me gleeful. I came away feeling that what truly matters about film isn’t the cinematography or lighting or set design – it’s the people. 

Leaving the mall, I felt honored to walk in the same place my idol did 45 years ago. Romero is a filmmaker I can only hope to be like. He was kind and thoughtful, both in life and on set. People loved working with him – after all, he convinced everyone to work 8 hour night shifts during filming. If I’m directing, I don’t try to channel Hitchcock or Kubrick. I look to Romero. 

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George Romero was once a college student, just like me. George Romero was once an indie filmmaker who fought to scrape together as much money as possible to make his dreams, just like me. George Romero created something larger than himself – a filmography that would be studied and loved for years to come. 

I can’t say that’s just like me quite yet. But here’s to hoping. 

Danny William (they/them) is a sophomore studying media. 

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