End of an Undead Era: “Dawn of the Dead”

Hungry zombies search for brains during Zombiefest at the Monroeville Mall

Hungry zombies search for brains during Zombiefest at the Monroeville Mall

It was the era of bell bottoms and the Bee Gees, when a Hare Krishna zombie roamed the Monroeville Mall. Plenty of zombies headed to the mall in director George Romero’s classic 1978 film, Dawn of the Dead, establishing the mall as an iconic location in film history.

Over the years since the film was first released, the mall has undergone many changes, and many of the most recognizable locations featured in the film have slowly disappeared.

A month ago, an announcement was made that as part of a multimillion dollar expansion, the last remaining piece of the film’s set – a wooden footbridge that crosses a fish pond – would be removed from the mall.

To help us better understand what made the Monroeville Mall such a pop culture icon, let’s take a look back at the history of both the mall and the film that made it famous.

Monroeville Mall first opened its doors on May 13, 1969.

Developer Mark Mason, who worked for Oxford Development Company which built the mall, and director George Romero attended Carnegie Mellon together. Shortly after the mall opened, Romero invited Mason to tour the facility. Joking with his friend, Mason remarked that people could hide out and even live in parts of the mall in the event to of a national emergency.

After the tour, Romero was casually strolling through the mall when he said he noticed a “vacant look on shopper’s faces as they blissfully marched from store to store.” A vacant look you might associate with… zombies.

Visited by the muse, Romero began to work on a treatment for Dawn of the Dead, the focus of which would be four survivors of a zombie apocalypse hiding out in the mall. According to the DVD commentary for the film, it was meant to be a satire on consumerism, with the main characters “in a mall, with all the goods they wanted at the fingertips.”

Due to his relationship with Mason, Romero easily gained permission to film scenes in the mall. In November 1977, he and his crew were granted full use of the mall after it closed at night. Shooting took place from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. when the mall opened its doors to greet customers.

The Monroeville Mall’s – since closed – 195 feet long, 90 feet wide Ice Palace was featured prominently in the film. The Ice Palace featured an ice skating rink,dressing rooms, a skate rental shop, a refreshment stand called “Pup A Go Go” that offered a selection of hot dogs. The Pittsburgh Penguins organization held a hockey school for youth at the rink. Pittsburgh Steelers, including Terry Bradshaw, used to skate there.

By the 1980s, most malls were adding food courts and when the Monroeville Mall opened theirs on November 9, 1984, there was much protest when the Ice Palace was chosen as the site.

Addressing the controversy, mall marketing director Nina Polm told Matthew Brells of the Pittsburgh Press the mall eliminated the ice rink to keep up with the times.

The Ice Palace closed forever on March 4, 1984.

“Food courts are trends,” Polm stated. “Every major shopping center in the Pittsburgh area has one. It makes us ‘much more’ for people who choose Monroeville Mall for their Christmas shopping.”

At that time, the mall also offered several full service restaurants, all of which have since closed.

A 32 foot tall clock, located in front the two story Gimbels’ department store, featured puppet shows on the hour, with puppets of many different nationalities. This clock made several appearances in Dawn of the Dead. In 1986, Gimbels closed all its locations, and the clock was removed from the Monroeville Mall in the early 1990s.

J.C. Penney, which once occupied the upper level of site where Gimbels stood, was also featured in the film. At the time, J.C. Penney was located in the center of the mall.

Because of the efforts of people dedicated to saving the bridge, although the bridge will still be removed from the mall, it still has a bright future. The bridge is to be relocated to either the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh or in The Living Dead Museum in Evans City, Pa. The Living Dead Museum is curated by Kevin Kreiss and home to many attractions including the “Maul of Fame” autographed via bloody handprint by many of the stars of Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead.
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Story by Chuck Brutz for Pennsylvania Bridges

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