A black screen. Ominous, otherworldly moans permeate. Thunder crackles. But rather than opening on a scene of appropriate horror, we instead cut to Groucho Marx. He proclaims: “This is like living in Pittsburgh…if you can call that living.”
And so we start on an unexpected, yet highly idiosyncratic note. A localized note from Pennsylvania. That’s where George A. Romero, rightfully crowned “King of the Dead,” or just as appropriately, “Auteur of the Dead,” if you will – well, I just crowned him myself (I think) with those two titles for this article – has done his business over the years. And it is his “Dead” that are the true progenitors of the infinite invasion of zombies that we are now experiencing in all forms of media, most notably in visual and print manifestations.
I’ve been a devotee of Romero’s “Dead” films my entire filmic life. That is, “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead,” the first two and only ones for me. But horror itself doesn’t especially appeal to me, for life can be scary enough. However, with those aforementioned films, I’m talking atmosphere: that grainy film stock, stark grey skies, infinite landscapes of barren trees and the down-home dress of the people and the realistic locales. This is not costume laden, backlot stuff. And the essence of that particular reality will always be the attraction of those films for me.
So, it comes with great gratification that “Document of the Dead,” a film by Roy Frumkes (co-produced with The School of Visual Arts), re-enforces that atmosphere with a grainy 16mm look and a foreboding, monotone narration. This documentary came out in 1989 when VHS was still rolling strong. I don’t know when I first laid eyes on it, but it’s always been a treat to revisit throughout the years.
Frumkes is a “Dead” enthusiast and burgeoning filmmaker as well, and he and Romero stroll through the Monroeville shopping mall situated in the Pittsburgh area where “Dawn of the Dead” is being shot and talk all things “Dead.” Chatting amicably about the overall moviemaking process, in these interviews George Romero possesses a down-home, easygoing style that is infinitely far removed from the soul-dead slickness of a caricatured Hollywood type. Yet, he’s always passionate about his craft and his projects. And that easygoing attitude is reflected in his casual dress accented with the ubiquitous scarf draped around his shoulders and his equally present cigarette: he’s one of those guys who makes smoking look like a professional necessity as he laments about the continuous struggles with financing and censorship; inherent beasts in the movie making machinery.
Before this documentary gets too deeply into “Dawn of the Dead,” a major spotlight is put on “Martin,” the more well-known of Romero’s early works populating the interim between the two essential “Dead” films. “Martin” is a contemporary take on the vampire genre but instead of sharpened fangs, the method of attack is attained by that of an injection needle. Queasy stuff.
The low-key rendering of the narration by Susan Tyrell adds to the eerie nature of “Document’s” proceedings and the academic analysis of Romero’s cinema sounds like scholarly film school jargon – which one can get an intellectual kick out of. And that dry aural tenor is a delightfully detached but assuredly pleasing relief from the hagiographic syrup doled out by the gallon in documentaries these days.
Romero’s films “feel” like films. You’re “aware” of the shots, the angles, the editing. Just like Welles, the camera itself is a character in the over-all-experience, the mis-en-scene if you will. And he cites Welles as one of his defining influences. Romero’s cinema is replete with daunting close-ups, eerily canted angles, and jarring spatial juxtapositions. And the accompanying music that poignantly contributes to his movies are not obvious, acoustic annoyances, rather contributory essentials to overall atmosphere. In example, Goblin’s soundtrack for “Dawn of the Dead” is a haunting work of art and I’ve got the LP to prove it. “Night of the Living Dead” had library music, but damn, if that wasn’t totally effective in-of-itself.
Roy Frumkes falls into service as a zombie as Tom Savini makes him up as a member as the walking dead. It’s also a good time to get Savini’s take on things as the make-up master explains his gruesome craft and George‘s willingness to try various imaginative effects.
Director of Photography Michael Gornick explains the challenges of lighting the vast expanses of the shopping mall. And in a key strategy, he hit the books heavily on lighting technique, tightening up his knowledge on that particular science. The production got to use the mall only at night and had to clear out before the stores opened in the morning, so Gornick definitely had to know what he was doing. And during the Christmas season they shut down the production instead of removing the decorations every night and resumed shooting after the holidays in January.
In post-production, we see Romero editing the 35mm film on 16mm work print and using an upright Moviola instead of a flatbed Steenbeck. He really immerses himself in the tactile and wants to see those frames up close and in his hands. And he shoots a lot of film (it’s figured maybe 15, 20 to one) and then likes to figure it all out in the editing process. But ironically his shots don’t last long, for George makes a lot of quick cuts. He learned that tight velocity of craft as a creator of local commercials.
“Dawn of the Dead” was released without a rating (which would most likely prohibit a lot of newspaper, television and radio advertising) and this was a risk that most distributors would never have dreamt of taking at the time. And an X-rating was out of the question for them, it would only imply pornography, which didn‘t exist in this film. Regardless, “Dawn of the Dead” became an unqualified hit and enthusiastic word-of-mouth trumped any lack of conventional advertising.
And it was part of the midnight movie phenomenon and ironically I got to see it at a shopping mall. It was pretty surreal, to say the least, to come out of that cinematic intensity taking place in a shopping center and then directly entering one in real life in the middle of the night – one of the many pleasures distinct of an era more than three decades already in the past.
And if “Dawn of the Dead” was a metaphorical indictment of the soul-less, zombie-fied legions of mindless consumers roaming blankly through expansive shopping malls – that ain’t nothing compared with the catatonic states provoked by the exceedingly more widespread and invasive internet.
Neither of the “Dead” films had any stars, nor any recognizable faces for that matter, and that was a good thing because it didn’t take the viewer out of the films. And being immersed in those movies was a key element as the audience fought for survival along with their onscreen counterparts in the perilous journey to stay alive.
Over time, I’ve met Romero, Savini and even Judith O’Dea ( (Barbra – as in: “They’re coming to get you, Barbra.”) as she arrived at Milwaukee’s Avalon theater (now reopened and refurbished) on a stretcher from out of an ambulance. (Don’t worry – it was all in good Halloween fun.)
The original two “Dead” films have spawned many sequels and remakes. Personally, my interest and loyalty remains steadfastly in “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead,” both works of undeniable horror genius. And together they became an indomitable force in the realm of onscreen terror and the instigators of the ever-expanding and enduring zombie craze, a phenomenon unto itself.
But all-in-all, my vote will always go to the foreboding atmosphere and the cinematic art conjured apart from the obvious chills that those walking dead invoked.