Thanks to Peter Schöfböck for providing the Dawn of the Dead history timeline.
October 1, 1968
The Fulton Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania hosts the world premiere of a locally produced low-budget, black-and-white horror flick called Night of the Living Dead. Shot for a reported $114,000 by a group of industrial filmmakers helmed by 28-year-old director George A. Romero, the grim story of unburied corpses coming back to life to attack the living and eat their flesh will over the years turn from a mere drive-in exploitation flick to an internationally acclaimed cult phenomenon, and also prove a major influence on the horror film genre in general. In Romero’s mind, Night of the Living Dead forms the first part of what originally is conceived as a trilogy already then.
May 13, 1969
Grand opening of the Monroeville Mall just outside of Pittsburgh. Erected by the Oxford Development Company over a 17-month construction phase, the 1,130,000-square-foot, two-level facility is housing a total of 125 stores, and also incorporates its own ice skating rink as well as a 32-foot animated clock tower conceptualized by L.A.-based designer Gere Kavanagh.
Eager to shake off his “stigma” of strictly being a horror director, George Romero decides to move on to other genres after Night of the Living Dead. Hence, in 1971, he basically takes a 180-degree turn with a romantic “hippie” comedy called There’s Always Vanilla, a.k.a. The Affair, that (under its original working title of At Play with the Angels) has been in the planning stages at Image Ten for about two years. Based on a script by Rudy Ricci, produced by John Russo and Russell Streiner, and starring Judith Ridley (all of whom of course have been involved in the production of Night previously), Vanilla seems to be generally regarded as the single worst film in Romero’s entire oeuvre by the handful of people who can claim to have ever actually seen it. (By the time the movie is released, Russo and Streiner have left The Latent Image and formed their own production company, New American Films, reportedly after some major internal turmoil.) Romero’s next feature, a supernatural “feminist” drama about a frustrated housewife getting drawn into witchcraft originally titled Jack’s Wife, is shot in 1972 and, much to the director’s chagrin, ends up being marketed as soft porn by its distributor, Jack H. Harris, who radically cuts it down and releases it into theaters the following year under the alternate title of Hungry Wives. Both films are disastrous flops.
Circa Spring 1972
While shooting his third film, a bleak virus thriller entitled The Crazies that already forestalls some of the visual style and cinematic pace later found in Dawn of the Dead (and also features actor Richard France, who is going to portray Dawn’s eye patch-wearing scientist, Dr. Millard Rausch), George Romero first crosses paths with cinematographer Michael Gornick. Gornick, originally hailing from Braddock, Pennsylvania, has returned to his home state after a stint with the Air Force in Los Angeles, where he had worked on military films during the Nixon administration. Being impressed with Night of the Living Dead, he decides to visit Romero’s Latent Image offices at 247 Fort Pitt Boulevard in downtown Pittsburgh, but the director is out in Evans City at the time, working on The Crazies. Instead, Mike gets to meet the film’s producer (and Latent Image secretary), Al Croft, who offers him to fill the vacant spot of a sound man on the production for its last week of shooting. After the movie’s completion, Gornick is assigned the task of filming a couple of TV commercials for the Disston Tools company that Romero is committed to at the time, and eventually lands a permanent job with the Latent Image team. This marks the beginning of a creative partnership between the two that will last more than a decade, and prove especially important on Dawn of the Dead.
Circa early 1973
At a rough cut screening of The Crazies, George Romero first meets New York-based producer Richard P. Rubinstein, who interviews him for Filmmakers Newsletter magazine. The following year, the two will eventually merge their respective individual businesses, The Latent Image and The Ultimate Mirror, into one joint venture named The Laurel Group/Laurel Tape & Film, Inc. Mike Gornick and longtime Latent Image associate Vince Survinski (eternally infamous as the posse member shooting Ben at the end of Night of the Living Dead) also join them in the newly-formed company.
March 23, 1973
The Crazies is released to overblown promotion on three screens in New York City by distributor/financer Lee Hessel’s “Cambist Films”, but still fails to find an audience and literally disappears into oblivion after a run that doesn’t last longer than a mere five days. An attempt to re-release the movie as Code Name Trixie in some markets about five months later will prove unsuccessful as well.
George Romero is invited on a private tour of the Monroeville Mall by his friend Mark E. Mason of the Oxford Development Company, who co-owns the complex. While showing him around, Mason mentions to the director that the mall, incorporating its own Civil Defense area and vast crawlspaces, would prove a perfect shelter in case of a “national emergency”, and that he “always had this fantasy about some hermit living up there, who could have anything he wanted.” Although Romero hadn’t even been thinking about making a sequel to Night of the Living Dead up to that point, the concept sticks, and the original idea for Dawn of the Dead is born.