June 23, 2007 — I know. It’s just a mall. The country’s had them for like half a century. They’re not that strange, even when they throw in indoor amusement parks, zoos, strip clubs, none of which Monroeville Mall even has anyway. What makes Monroeville Mall unique, what makes it odd, is that for a few months in the late-seventies, it was overrun by zombies. Yup, the zed word.
And not just any old zombies. George Romero zombies.
Monroeville Mall is located in Monroeville, PA, just east of Pittsburgh, off I-76. It was originally constructed in 1969. That’s it for the boring bits. Back to zombies. George Romero chose this location to film the sequel to his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.
The name of this sequel? Dawn of the Dead, of course. Now, Dawn of the Dead is no Night of the Living Dead. Where Night of the Living Dead has a more the-universe-is-this-way-so-die-sad-please tone, Dawn of the Dead is more the-universe-is-this-way-so-die-sad-please-but-not-before-first-thinking-how-silly-it-all-kind-of-is. I really have to ditch hyphens and learn how to describe like a native speaker of the language.
Where Night of the Living Dead is bleak, creepy, black and white, and filled with dread, the sequel’s deliberately hokey, comic-bookish, and brazen in its Seventies Technicolor glory. Also, there is just something about the shopping mall as oasis in the midst of apocalypse that we all so get.
I had three goals for this excursion to the mundanely named Monroeville. The first was just to go to the mall. Easy enough. Have the picture to prove it. The second, while still easy, was a tad more involved.
You see, I've long wanted to buy a DVD (or tape, that’s how long this dream’s been on the horizon) of Dawn of the Dead in a store in the mall where Dawn of the Dead was filmed. If there is not, in your circle of friends, somebody who has had the impulse to do this exact same thing, then your palette of friendship is horribly drab.
Now, according to my own rules that I made up just for this one situation, I couldn’t call ahead to ensure a copy of the movie was there. That would’ve been too contrived for the type of magic that I needed out of this situation. Also, I was only stopping in Monroeville as a brief side trip on my way back from somewhere else, so I didn’t really have the option to put off swinging by until they had it in stock.
For some reason, my girlfriend/cameraman, who took that first shot of me outside the mall, split company with me shortly thereafter. Maybe it was a fight. Maybe I was a bit too embarrassed about what I was about to do. Maybe it was a New York & Company sale. I don’t remember. I do remember feeling horribly alone as I entered that F.Y.E., though.
For the record, I tried my best to hide my beeline for the horror DVDs, but that just means I couldn’t have made a straighter line with a ruler and a geometry tutor. Turned out they had like two copies in stock. I read nothing into that about the universe.
I grabbed one copy, pretended to peruse for other movies so as not to be too obvious about my aims (and to hide my giddiness), and then flew as casual as possible to the check-out counter. The counter girl looked at me, eyed my purchase, and was polite enough not to shove my silliness in my face.
However, I must’ve passed some private test of hers, because she engaged me in conversation. About zombies. And I fell in love. After admitting what I was doing, she let me know it happened regularly enough, but that the store was usually out of stock. I said that was weird. She agreed. And then we talked some more of zombies. And I fell deeper in love. She also let me know that most of the mall had been remodeled since the filming and that pretty much the only thing left standing was a non-working escalator in J.C. Penny. She also directed me to a small hallway for the mall offices where a few framed prints taken during the filming of the movie were, though not proudly, still at least hung. By the way, her name was Jill. I know this because it’s on my receipt. Forever. I left that F.Y.E. a brokenhearted but happier man, if you can believe it.
I met up with my girlfriend, hiding the phantom infidelity as best I could, and told her about the hallway. Fortunately, it was a private enough area that it wasn’t too awkward to take a quick picture. I took the one on the right, of the zombies in the fountain. But we still had goal number three to check off the list. And I cannot take any credit for the fact that it was accomplished.
At one point in Dawn of the Dead, Ken Foree, clothed in a swank fur coat and surveying a horde of blue-faced zombies attempting pathetically to get into the mall, utters the tag line, “When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” It immediately went into my Possible Gravestone Inscriptions file. Now, at that point in my life I didn’t own a fur coat, much less a swank one, but I wanted to get a picture taken of me standing on that same spot where the line was spoken...which is at the second floor railing in front of the J.C. Penny (or Penney’s, as it was called back in that day).
I hope you understand what this means. I had to "casually" hang out by the railing on the second floor while my girlfriend aimed a camera up at me from the ground floor in front of the entire mall. I tried to chicken out, but she, sager than I, knew that I really wanted this picture and would be much more enjoyable to ride home with for having been forced into getting it. However it happened, I went upstairs; she stayed downstairs.
Waiting for her to focus the camera and getting a few pics was probably the worst two minutes of my life, and I’m pretty sure she stretched it out as long as possible for her own amusement. So if you’re mentally adding your own thought bubbles to my pictures (as you should be), this last picture should not, as I had originally intended, read, “When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” Instead it’s, “Just take the picture. Please just take the picture. Oh God. The Auntie Anne’s kiosk attendant is staring at me. Just take the picture.”