The Electronic Nomad

Traveling the Country in a Converted Camper Van. "Not all who wander, are lost."

The Monroeville Mall: A Bit of Movie History

I’m camped out today in the Food Court at the Monroeville Mall in Pittsburgh PA. Since the Mall is a bit of movie history–it’s where George Romero filmed his classic horror flick “Dawn of the Dead”–I thought I’d give a little bit of the story behind the scenes.

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When Hell is full, the dead will walk the Mall.

As a film student at the Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, George Romero never got a degree, but he did make a lot of connections in the industry (including the man who gave him his first job–Fred Rogers, who hired Romero as a cameraman for his local TV kids show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”).

After the success of his low-budget zombie film “Night of the Living Dead”, Romero was struggling to make another film. In 1974, he was invited to the Monroeville Mall, in the Pittsburgh suburbs, by a friend who was one of the managers. During a tour of the closed areas of the Mall, the friend jokingly remarked that people would be able to live here if there ever was a nuclear war. That offhand remark led Romero to write the screenplay of “Dawn of the Dead”.

In 1977, Romero got funding for the project from Italian producer Dario Argento, and got permission to shoot the film on location at the Monroeville Mall. Romero’s original choice for the actress to play the female lead was “Lady Aberlin” from the Mr Rogers Show, but Rogers didn’t want his kids program associated with an uber-violent horror movie, and wouldn’t let her do it.

Filming began at the Mall in the first week of November 1977. The film crews would begin setting up at 9:30pm, after the Mall closed, and would shoot until 6am (they wanted to shoot to 9:00am, just before the Mall opened, but the Muzak sound system automatically came on at 6am and nobody knew how to turn it off). During the week after Thanksgiving, the production crew had to remove all of the Mall’s Christmas decorations for shooting, then put them all back up again before the Mall opened: after a while that became too tedious, and the production temporarily moved to shoot at other locations until after the holidays. (The airport scenes were filmed at a small airstrip near the Mall, and because there was no gun shop or elevator shaft in the Mall, those were filmed in nearby buildings.)

The fake blood used in the film was made with corn syrup, peanut butter and food coloring: large puddles of it had to be cleaned up every morning before the Mall opened. The makeup effects supervisor, Tom Savini, didn’t like it and thought the color was too bright, but Romero liked the “comic-book look” it gave to the film.

Because of the violence and gore, the MPAA gave the new film an “X” rating, and offered to drop it to “R” if Romero made some cuts. He refused, and in the end the film was released in 1979 with no rating. The film’s advertising took advantage of the controversy by stating that while there was no explicit sex in the film, the violence and blood was so extremely graphic that no one under 17 would be admitted. Several countries overseas banned its release.

Despite the limited theater release caused by its X-rating, the film was a massive hit and is now a cult classic.

Today, sadly, all of the recognizable parts of the Monroeville Mall that appear in the film are gone, including the clock tower, the fountain, and the indoors ice skating rink. For several years there was an indoor museum at the Mall celebrating the film and displaying some of the original props and photos, but it closed years ago. The Mall is currently undergoing another renovation, and one of the footbridges that was used for the filming is being stored in preparation for later donation to a local museum.

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