Tom Savini was working on a play in North Carolina when a telegram arrived from director George Romero.
“‘We got another gig,’” it read. “‘Start thinking of ways to kill people.’”
“So I came back to Pittsburgh, and I’m thinking of things like, ‘How about we drive a screwdriver through a zombie’s ear?’” says Savini. “George loved it, so I’m building retractable screwdrivers.”
Savini had worked makeup and special effects for Romero’s 1978 vampire flick Martin, but this new project promised to be bigger, scarier and nastier than just about anything before it: Dawn of the Dead.
“I wouldn’t have a career, if not for this movie,” says Savini. “If there was no Dawn, there would be no Friday the 13th for me. That’s why I was contacted for Friday the 13th. There’s groundbreaking effects — it wasn’t necessarily realistic before Dawn.”
On June 8-10, fans will have a chance to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Dawn with The Living Dead Weekend, featuring 40 members of the cast and crew at the site where it all began — Monroeville Mall. Savini will be there, along with just about everyone from the film, and others inspired by it, like Greg Nicotero, the Sewickley-born director and brain behind the special effects on AMC’s The Walking Dead.
Savini went on to do makeup, effects and creatures for dozens of horror movies, and has his own school teaching the craft in Monessen.
According to Savini, Dawn of the Dead let people know it was going to be something different right away.
“The very first effect I did in the film was when Tommy bites a cheek off his girlfriend,” he notes. “The cast and crew cheered and applauded: ‘Aha! So that’s what this film is going to be like.’ That realism was something I guess they weren’t expecting.”
Savini and Romero (who passed away at 77 last year) got to know each other so well that they even developed their own way of communicating.
“If we did an effect and he made a cricket noise, I knew he liked it and we moved on,” says Savini. “We communicated with sounds.”
Much of the film was shot afterhours at Monroeville Mall — so, of course, they had keys to all the stores. Despite the fact that the film featured a scene with members of an actual motorcycle gang (The Pagans) roaring through the mall on their bikes, the mall opened for business every day like it was no big deal. In fact, the cast and crew were pretty careful to limit the damage.
However, there was one instance where things did get out of hand.
“There was bar called The Brown Derby,” recalls Savini. “We’d make up the zombies at 7 p.m., and didn’t start until the stores closed at 9 p.m. A lot of the zombies went to The Brown Derby and got drunk.”
“Some zombies jumped on a golf cart and crashed it into a pillar in the mall, doing about $7,000 dollars of damage.”
The Pagans, however, were nice guys, Savini recalls.
“The part I played isn’t in the script,” says Savini. “I just threw a costume on and was in the movie. George wanted more and more of it, and I became the leader of the biker gang.”
Dawn of the Dead lasted three months, and kept Savini busy acting, doing makeup and special effects.
“I describe it as the longest Halloween I’ve ever had,” says Savini. “I’d be on the set with a sleeping bag tucked in the corner. Between doing the effects and the part and the stunts, I’d go to sleep under the escalator. ‘Tom, it’s time to be Blades, or ‘Tom, it’s time to get hit by a truck.’ Even the blond zombie, that was me with a blonde wig on. It was like Halloween.”
The Living Dead Weekend has grown considerably since 2008, when Gary Streiner started it in Evans City (where Night of the Living Dead was filmed).
"I turned it over to Kevin Kreiss in 2014, who’s run it ever since," says Streiner. "He’s taken it into a much bigger general direction. My idea was to be very smaller and for the super-fans. but that wasn't going to work forever. I couldn’t make any money doing that—not that I was looking to—but I couldn’t lose money every year. Kevin has expanded it to make it bigger and cover more bases."
Dawn ultimately brings in the crowds.
"Everyone understands Night was his [Romero's] first success," says Streiner. "But I think, for the larger number of fans, Dawn would be their favorite.”
Living Dead Weekend Runs Fri., June 8 through Sun., June 10. Monroeville Mall, 200 Mall Circle, Monroeville. $20-120. thelivingdeadweekend.com