During the company’s early phase, Laurel stay away from making feature films altogether, instead trying to find their legs in the television business. Over this period, the trio of Romero, Richard Rubinstein and Mike Gornick are producing a total of 15 sports profile documentaries for a syndicated series titled The Winners, which is aired by affiliate stations of ABC-TV following Monday Night Football. While Rubinstein and Gornick take directing duties on some of the entries in the series, its majority (a total of eight; including films on Buffalo Bills football player O. J. Simpson, New York Yankees baseball right fielder Reggie Jackson, and Italian wrestler Bruno Sammartino) is being helmed by George himself.
Following a three-year period of exclusively doing television work, George Romero returns to feature filmmaking with Martin, the story of a mentally disturbed young man (played by Pittsburgh Playhouse actor John Amplas) believing to be an 84-year-old vampire. Laurel’s debut movie venture for the first time teams up what eventually is going to become part of Dawn of the Dead’s core production crew the following year (Richard Rubinstein producing, Michael Gornick as director of photography, and Tom Savini [who also appears as an actor in a supporting role] as special make-up effects artist.) Much of the film is being shot on location in the Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock, Pennsylvania; hometown of both Gornick and another Romero alumni, sound man Tony Buba, whose childhood residence is used as the house of Martin’s cousin Cuda (Lincoln Maazel).
While making Martin, Romero also starts to develop an initial story treatment for Dawn of the Dead that he will later work into a rough, 80-page partial script. This early draft tells the story of a pregnant woman and a man hiding from the zombie outbreak in crawlspaces above a shopping mall, with the male serving as a “hunter” getting supplies from the stores below, and also involves a plot element about a military group feeding the undead (which, although discarded for the time being, Romero will eventually pick up again for the third installment of his original “zombie trilogy”, 1985’s ill-fated Day of the Dead). As Romero will tell Pittsburgh Press journalist Ed Blank in 1979, the original script apparently is first pitched to Sam Arkoff’s American International Pictures (who have rejected Night of the Living Dead almost a decade prior due to its “unhappy” ending). AIP are interested, but want O. J. Simpson to star in the film, which the director refuses. Via Laurel’s foreign sales agent, Irvin Shapiro, the draft eventually finds its way to Italian producer Alfredo Cuomo. Cuomo originally suggests shooting the movie in Italy with Franco Nero starring, but then hands the script over to aspiring Italian horror director Dario Argento, who turns out a huge fan of Night of the Living Dead and is very interested in collaborating with Romero on a sequel to that film. Argento calls Richard Rubinstein, asking to see the rest of the script, which of course hasn’t even been written yet, so the producer basically pulls off a clever bluff: Dario will get to read the second half of the screenplay if he is ready to negotiate a business arrangement to co-finance the film with Laurel. Argento takes the bait and flies into Pittsburgh, where he is picked up by Romero in a rented Lincoln Continental for a tour of the Monroeville Mall. By that time, Romero has discarded the original script and written a wholly new synopsis which will serve as the basis for his final screenplay. Ultimately, an agreement is made for Dario Argento, his brother Claudio, and Alfredo Cuomo co-financing the project; with Argento in turn being granted the rights to re-edit the finished film at his own discretion for all non-English-speaking markets apart from Latin America (i. e. the whole of Europe and Japan). As far as the film’s total budget goes, both Rubinstein and Romero himself over decades are going to spread the myth that Dawn cost around $1.5 million to make, although both a 1978 Cinefantastique article by David Bartholomew and a Michael Gornick interview for Questar magazine the following year are hinting at a much smaller budget of about $400,000. In his audio commentary recorded for the “Extended Version” from Anchor Bay’s 2004 “Ultimate Edition” four-disc Dawn DVD box set, Rubinstein will eventually reveal in public for the first time that the budget had in fact been in the range of just around $640,000 “on paper” (with an actual physical cash flow of half a million), and that he merely has blown up the figures to make the film look “bigger”, thus being able to sell it to distributors at a higher price. The lion’s share of that amount, around a quarter of a million dollars, is provided by the trio of Italian investors in Rome (in the form of a credit letter), with Romero and Rubinstein themselves also chipping in $25,000 each. The rest of the financing comes from Mark Mason and his Oxford Development co-president, Edward J. Lewis, as well as Pittsburgh-based insurance entrepreneur Alvin Rogal (who, in addition to raising the highest single domestic investment of $80,000, also handles the production’s general insurance business) and various other parties, which even includes a cousin of Rubinstein’s from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Romero’s friendship with Mason (as well as a reported fee of $40,000 plus a six-percent share in box office profits) enables him to actually use the Monroeville Mall as a physical shooting location for Dawn of the Dead during non-business hours, from around 10 P.M. to 7 A.M. Out of the 143 stores the facility is housing at the time, only 13 refuse to be filmed. Permission also is given to use the mall’s “Ice Palace”, a large indoor ice skating rink located on its lower level, which will feature prominently in the finished movie.
Laurel’s co-financing deal for Dawn of the Dead with their Italian partners gets finalized at the Film Festival in Cannes, France, where Romero and Rubinstein are also selling international distribution rights for Martin.
Upon invitation by Dario Argento, Romero, accompanied by his partner and assistant Christine Forrest, writes the entire final shooting script for Dawn of the Dead in Rome, where the couple is accommodated in a lovely apartment located near the Colosseum. Argento provides hospitality, and hosts regular dinners over which the two men are discussing the script’s progress in what Christine Forrest later describes as mainly being “body language”. (During one such occasion, Romero is approached by a 14-year old fan from Pittsburgh named Greg Nicotero, who happens to be spending a family vacation in Rome at the time.) Completed in about three weeks, the screenplay ultimately runs over a total of 253 pages with 750 individual scenes; including an alternate ending that has both Peter and Fran committing suicide rather than escaping the mall together (which however never actually will get filmed beyond some 16mm test shots with a dummy).