“Dawn of the Dead” cast dishes on Zombies, Short People, & George Romero!

The Days of the Dead horror convention opened back up for business at 11 am that Saturday. We arrived shortly after the doors opened and noticed immediately that there were at least twice as many conventioneers as the night before. The Dawn of the Dead panel was slated to feature Ken Foree, David Emge, Gaylen Ross, and Scott H. Reiniger but Emge canceled his appearance Thursday, leaving the other three to answer questions concerning their roles and working with Romero himself. Sadly, Romero, who was slated to attend this event also cancelled due to poor health. The following was transcribed from audio of that panel…

MODERATOR: How did you all get involved with Dawn of the Dead?

Ken Foree: I was doing an off Broadway play when someone mentioned the audition. I went for it and, about a week later, was given the part. I know you’re all like, ‘is that it?” (audience laughs)

Ken Foree

Scott H. Reiniger: I was in New York and Christine Forest, who was Romero’s girlfriend at the time, called me. Her and I had gone to college together and she asked if I knew who George Romero was. I said, “Yeah, Night of the Living Dead, right?” So I got an audition with George and it was nice, very relaxed but I wasn’t what he was looking for at all (laughs). He was picturing a character that was a Nick Nolte kind of guy which is not me. So then I got called back again and he looked at me and said, “You, know…I really like what you’re doing…” and I felt like there was a “but” behind that. So I said, “Well George what it is?” and he said, “Well, I’ve got this guy who would play opposite of you but he’s about twice your size.” (audience laughs) So I replied, ‘George after the first five minutes the audience isn’t going to give a shit about that.” He just laughed and said, “Okay, you’ve got the part.”

Scott Reiniger

Gaylen Ross: I was in an acting class and a friend of mine said, “Oh…you’re a blonde!” And I said, “Yeah,” and she said, “They’re looking for blondes!” So I went down and auditioned though I didn’t know who George was, didn’t know that he did Night of the Living Dead and didn’t even know what Night of the Living Dead was. I did an audition using a monologue written by a playwright that scared George. It was where somebody says ‘goodbye’ to someone and then they step off the sidewalk and are never seen again. At the end George came up to me and said, ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry for your friend…what happened to them?” And I said, “No, no, no George, it’s okay I was just acting.” And then I went back for a few more auditions and that’s how I got in.

MODERATOR: Dawn of Dead didn’t take place in a normal Hollywood set, you guys were at a mall. Let’s talk about the shooting schedule and the difficulties working there.

Ken Foree: Well…we shot at night and had to be out of there by morning before the stores opened. One of the unusual things was, in the morning, when we were getting ready to leave the elderly would come in to take their walks. So we would be in a mad rush to get away from them, get all the make-up off, costumes, etc. because we didn’t want anybody seeing any zombies and having a heart attack (audience laughs). We also had to be careful, especially for Richard (Rubenstein, the Producer) who was financing this, that we didn’t cause any damage to the mall.

Gaylen Ross: Well, actually Richard spent a LOT of money fixing up that mall. The motorcyclists trashed the floor so they had to replace the entire floor of the mall and I think there was one really bad special effect with a glass explosion that wasn’t supposed to quite happen. But, getting back to the people, there was one morning where I did mix up the mall walkers and the zombies. I remember saying to a few I thought were extras after a wrap, “It’s okay, we’re done shooting for the night!” (laughter) and they didn’t quite know what I was talking about. But that’s what was so brilliant about George, he always saw the zombies and the people at the mall as interchangeable.

Scott H. Reiniger: Well, if I recall correctly, I think we shot all the other locations first.

Ken Foree: Yeah, we went into the projects before we did the mall stuff.

Scott H. Reiniger: I remember it being very cold and that scene in the basement with everybody eating each other and the entrails…I remember turning to George and saying, “This is really gross!” (laughter) And he just smiled and said, ‘Yeah, I know.”

Ken Foree: That was the first scene we filmed and, like Scott said, with all the special effects going on I was just shocked. I remember thinking, “Oh, my God my God my God my God, this is too real. And it really was. I think for the entire film that was the most emotionally draining scene for me to work in. I didn’t expect to see that. Even though I knew Duane Jones from Night of the Living Dead and I saw and was a fan of the film, to see this up close and personal…it was a great job on special effects and make-up but when I first walked in it wasn’t a movie to me. It was like, ‘God, this is horror.” After that I was totally fine but it was quite a shock.

MODERATOR: You brought up Duane, can you talk about his character and what that character meant to you in film history with you being the next reiteration?

Ken Foree: Oh, God, you know it’s strange because I never realized how it was such a huge accomplishment for an African American to survive the first five minutes of a horror film. (audience laughter and applause) And I didn’t realize how important that was until years later when people would stop me in public and say, “You made it! You didn’t die! This is great, man!” That was really important for African Americans. I felt that Duane Jones carried Night of the Living Dead with no offense to the other actresses and actors but he was a pivotal character that really made that film work. I talked to Duane about it but he was more into community and theater at the time and didn’t really want to get all into it. We were both member of the National Black Theater in Harlem and it was a strange situation to follow him. I respected him for what he did and always felt he should have gotten more credit than he’d gotten for that role. I mean Duane saved everyone. Duane was the guy who took charge. The one who survived till the end of the film and that last moment when we all thought he was going to make it, that someone was going to survive and then got shot between the eyes. I’ve said this before, I think the whole world took a huge gasp of disappointment when he dropped and he was killed. So I thought Duane was a pivotal character and I always say he provided a port hole for a lot of African Americans to survive. And I’m glad to have followed in his footsteps and that my character did survive…really survived.

Duane Jones – “Night of the Living Dead”

MODERATOR: Gaylen I heard that you didn’t want to scream in the film. Tell us a little bit about that.

Gaylen Ross: Yeah, well horror films up till then were women hiding, cowering, and watching the guys either get beaten up or beat other people up. This was just a bit before the Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver characters came out, just right around that time. And now they have Wonder Woman, yay!!! Did everybody see that? (members of the audience applaud) At the time female characters were all essentially marginalized and I have to say that, even in Night of the Living Dead, the women were pretty frozen. So I said, “I don’t want to be a screamer,” and George and I had a discussion about it and I said, “Listen, if I’m a part of this group than I need to be as equal as I can possibly be.” I think he did dub in a few screams, like the helicopter at the gas station scene, but what are you going to do?

MODERATOR: Scott and Ken, there’s a fun conversation you guys are having in the truck where you’re talking about size. Scott, you mentioned earlier how George had brought that up to you beforehand, was that his way of explaining the size difference between you, or was it you guys just honestly making fun of each other?

Ken Foree: That was ad-libbed.

Scott H. Reiniger: It was all improv, we were actually making fun of each other. We rode together almost every day to the set and he’d make fun of me and I’d make fun of him, he’s a big guy and I’m like a little guy, and we just sort of riffed with each other. It all came out of that relationship and was a fun scene.

Ken Foree: That was when that song “Short People” by Randy Newman came out so I sang it to him every morning.

Scott H. Reiniger: And he was always late. I’d be freezing in the car and be like, ‘Why are you so late!?”

Ken Foree: (laughs) He hated my being late so I’d deliberately try to take extra time to see how I pissed off I could get him. I’d be inside like, “Okay, how much time (looks at watch) and how angry is Scott getting?” So I would purposely take my time, be a little later each morning, like maybe about five minutes.

Scott H. Reiniger: (to Ken) I knew exactly what you were doing.

Ken Foree: (laughs) It was fun!

Scott H. Reiniger: I think when he and I first met and talked he was like, “Who’s this feisty little white guy?”

Ken Foree: (breaks down laughing) He was a feisty little white guy! I mean he was the perfect partner, he had fire and a lot of pizazz in him. I don’t know how our relationship worked so well but it was like I could always play off of him because he was so gung-ho and macho all the time. Despite the jokes, he was never some short guy, he really was as tall as I was in this film and a helluva guy to work with. We really had a good time (turns to Scott) and I never considered you a white guy (audience laughs).

MODERATOR: So Scott, tell us a little bit about the make-up process as far as your becoming a zombie.

Scott H. Reiniger: Well it was actually pretty simple since there was no latex involved. It was about an hour and a half and Savini put this thin tissue on my face and then some kind of solution, I don’t know what it was, and then he would blow-dry it. And he’d do that over and over and over until my skin sort of sank and then he’d put the makeup over it.

Ken Foree: Tom didn’t do my regular makeup one day and someone else did it, I guess one of his assistants, and I ended up gray. I don’t know what she did but they fixed it in the dailies. I think maybe she thought I was a zombie or something? Thankfully, Tom was back the next day.

Tom Savini

MODERATOR: So there were some cool stunts in the film, particularly Scotts scene with the escalator. Can you guys talk about some of the stunts you did?

Ken Foree: I was very young and there was a scene where I run across the mall and between one of the stairways and I jump, then roll on the floor, and roll three times and fire the gun. Well this is concrete and, in those days, I was happy to do it and could do my own stunts. Today I wouldn’t dare think about doing something like that.

Scott H. Reiniger: About the escalator scene, that was very impromptu as the original script says “Roger runs down the escalator.” When we were getting ready to film the scene, I asked George, “Would it be okay if I just slide down?” And after I mentioned having someone down there to spot me he was like, “Okay!”

MODERATOR: Talk about working with George Romero and what type of director he was. Was he “do as I say” or allow a lot of improv? Gaylen, we’ll start with you…

Gaylen Ross: George is great! He was very open and receptive to whatever an actor wanted to do. Usually you would do a take and be like, “Was that okay?” and, if he really liked it he’d be like, “Great, man, great!” And then, at the other end, there’d be this kind of face and he’d give a really quiet, “yeah, okay” and that meant he didn’t like it or wanted something different. He was a very nonverbal director which was the best kind because you sort of intuitively get what he wants. He would always accept your other version of a certain scene or, in my case, a couple different versions of a scene that wasn’t in the script. Like the scene where I’m in the makeup room, he wanted to cut that out altogether and I went late one night up to his office and typed him a letter on his typewriter explaining why that scene should be in the film and why it was important to that character and he accepted all of it. When he did Creepshow, he was working with a lot of actors who were heavy-hitters and people who really had their chops in the field. They didn’t really know what they were getting into and every single one of them came away with an incredible admiration for George’s work, respect for his directing style, and his appreciation for them as actors. I think that’s huge because most actors like that are incredibly dismissive towards directors. They’re basically like, “let me just get paid and go away.” Instead, they were all very appreciative of how George treated and worked with them.

Romero and his god-children

Scott H. Reiniger: He was very collaborative, had a great sense of humor and was very relaxed. He would set a tone where you would feel at ease and, when you’re relaxed like that, you can start to follow your instincts as an actor. Stanley Tucci from The Hunger Games said that 90% of directors do not know how to work their actors…

Gaylen Ross: (nods) Right.

Scott H. Reiniger:…or give them the space to do what they do and that’s pretty true.

Ken Foree: Most of the time in Hollywood, it’s a question of how hard you have to work an actor to get the part they’re playing to come out of them. This was never an issue with George as he always cast an actor who could bring something unique to the part and he was always open for collaboration. So you’d always say, “George, I’d like to try this, I’d like to try that, what do you think of this?” and mostly it was, “Let’s try it!” He was very quiet, very reserved and laid back. As a director, you’re in charge of everything; actors, background people, pleasing producers, lighting, zombies wandering around, cameras, etc. I found that George just seemed to take it all in stride and just used the script as our map while open to other ideas. I’m sure that Savini and production crew members had a lot of input as well. He was like a very cool, laid back director who never seemed to explode. Some directors create tension on the set to get the actors adrenaline going in the hopes that they’ll bring that out in their movies. George didn’t have to do that. He just sat back and let it happen.

MODERATOR: Ken, can you compare George Romero and Rob Zombie in terms of their style of directing?

Ken Foree: Oh my goodness…that’s so difficult because that’s 1978 compared to 2005. They both have their own unique qualities; I think Rob Zombie is an artist. He paints, he’s a musician and I respect his courage. I think he has a grasp of a certain style of Americana, especially in dialogue…great dialogue. He’s also a fun guy and as much a part of the team in terms of being another actor and telling stories. We were shooting a scene where everybody’s dancing in The Devil’s Rejects and having a good time and, all of a sudden, we have Rob and the entire crew dancing in the party with us. (laughs) I’m looking around and Rob’s dancing and the camera guys are dancing…still filming…and dancing and that was Rob. The Devil’s Rejects was such a special movie because of the atmosphere Rob Zombie created. He was also very collaborative but just a fun individual. It was almost like having your best friend direct you while you’re working together, joking and laughing the whole time. George was more laid back and contemplative. Zombie was the rock star he is on stage behind the camera.

MODERATOR: Gayle and Ken, there’s been some debate about there being an alternate ending to the film. Talk about that a bit if you would.

Gaylen Ross: Well there was an alternate ending, I was supposed to die and Kenny was supposed to die. The script had us giving up and Ken puts a gun to his head and I put mine in the chopper and we shot that entire movie as if that was the ending. When I first signed on I even went to Savini in Pittsburgh where I got my head stuck in the mold they were making of my head. I remember at the time thinking, “Wow, this has never happened to me before.” (audience laughs) I think they used the head for something else. I think that George just thought that was too depressing.

Ken Foree: That was exactly it because we were about to shoot the scene where I put the gun to my head and George came up to me and I think…

…see, that’s the issue with this. Some people know the stories and some think they know the stories and I’ve done movies where I think something happened for one reason and then I sit on one of these panels and someone says, “No, this is what happened,” and it blows me away. Like with Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, they told me that they didn’t kill my character because they tested it with audiences and they didn’t like that I died. Then, about six months ago, I do a panel with the director, Jeff Burr, and the cast and he stands up and says, “Well this is why we brought back Ken Foree….” and gives an entirely different reason than the story I’ve been telling people for ten-twenty years. Sometimes it depends on who’s telling the story. As far as the ending of Dawn of the Dead, I thought it was because right before the scene George and I had the conversation and I said, “This is gonna be awfully dark if nobody survives,” and we discussed it a bit before he agreed and said, “Let’s go with the more positive ending.”

Gaylen Ross: But you filmed both scenes, right?

Ken Foree: No, no! We never shot the scene because the decision was made right before it was to be filmed.

Gaylen Ross: Okay, but he did have footage of you holding a gun to your head and could have easily cut away and added the sound of it firing. Just like we didn’t see Scotty die, we just heard the gunshot.

Ken Foree: I know you filmed your death scene but mine was stopped just as I had the gun to my head. Strange thing about the helicopter scene, just as the helicopter is leaving I wasn’t thinking and grabbed the rudder and tried to pull it down. The pilot is panicking yelling, “Don’t do that! Don’t do that!!!” So we could have died for real and that would have been our ending right there!

MODERATOR: You guys were recently back at the Monroeville Mall for a show. Even though it pretty much looks nothing like it did when you filmed there, what was it like being back?

Scott H. Reiniger: Well it brought back a lot of memories of course. Structurally it still was very much the same even though it had been renovated and it was kind of fun being in the corridor and going back up to the roof. What I find incredible is that people have pieces of that mall, like the escalator.

Ken Foree: Yeah, there’s a guy walking around here with part of the elevator (Formica panel). Where is he? Is he here? (Audience member gets up) There we are!

Ken Foree: (returning to the discussion) It was surreal for me. It’s been, what? Forty years since we shot this film?

Gaylen Ross: Who’s counting?

Ken Foree: (laughs) Yeah, who’s counting? I took a moment and leaned up on the balcony and surveyed the mall and I thought, “Boy this has been so long since I was last here and this is where it happened…where this wonderful film began. So it was very special for me.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: This is for Ken, Night of the Living Dead shows a certain color-blind casting, a Romeroesque casting, if you well. I wondered if your character was written as black or if that was another case?

Ken Foree: You know I have often wondered about that and I have no clue. Sometimes people ask George and he always goes, “Well, I pick the best actors” but he keeps following the same formula with a black character prevalent in his films. George is Cuban so (laughs) I don’t know if he just likes adding a little color to his stuff but I honestly don’t know why he does it. I’m glad he did it but wish someone would ask George and get a different answer because “I cast the best actors” really leaves it open. Okay, you cast the best actors but why do you continue to have an African American character as a pivotal character in your films? He did know Duane, so there was some kind of connection there. Some connection with the film people in Pittsburgh and theater folks in New York. But I have no idea why he chose him and that is something I think about often. His answer about “casting the best people” is either his way of avoiding controversy or creating it.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’ve heard a lot of people talking about the movie being an allegory for Capitalism; mindless zombies wondering through a mall. Did George Romero have strong opinions on that?

Gaylen Ross: He absolutely did and that’s exactly why he had it in the mall. The mall was America, this is what people do and the zombies are more understandable than the humans in the way that the bikers come in and destroy. The idea is that you had these four people that are creating civilization somehow and the bikers have to destroy it and take it over which, of course, opens it all up for the zombies. There really wasn’t much of a difference in George’s mind between the people and the zombies. In fact, I think his affection was always much more for the zombies because they just do what’s their nature. I think in Day of the Dead that’s even further explored, that it’s their nature and humans don’t have an excuse. I think all of those things were going through George’s mind when he made Dawn of the Dead and, later, Day of the Dead. Which, you know, Day of the Dead was supposed to be a much more complex and multi-layered film until the budget didn’t come through. It would have been a lot like Blade Runner with the levels of society and the elite. George may have predicted the 1% even back then. So, while everyone else is struggling, the zombies are being trained to become the immigrant working class which is pretty prophetic when you think about it.

Coming up…the dream “When there’s no more room in hell, it’s gonna freeze over! Jason’s “Dawn of the Dead” dream finally comes true!””

~Dave Fuentes

 

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