Dawn of the Dead’s Gaylen Ross on Filming the Zombie Classic, Including Its Original Ending

Dawn of the Dead’s Gaylen Ross on Filming the Zombie Classic, Including Its Original Ending

Fran (Gaylen Ross) heads to the mall to escape zombies in Dawn of the Dead.
Screenshot: United Film Distribution Company

George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead arrived 10 years after he invented the modern zombie movie with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. To mark the 45-year anniversary of its U.S. release in 1979—an international co-production, it world-premiered in Italy in 1978—star Gaylen Ross, who’s also in Romero and Stephen King’s 1982 anthology film Creepshow, reflected on her experiences making the movie and its enduring legacy.

Speaking to Variety, Ross said she signed on to play Fran, a Philadelphia TV producer turned zombie-apocalypse survivor, before she even knew who Romero was. Once cast, she took an active role in helping shape the character. “It was an interesting dialogue that George and I had at the beginning about how are we going to make Fran not a victim, and part of the characters that were active?,” she recalled. “He rewrote it while we were working, because he also felt we needed to empower her more.”

Amid some fun behind-the-scenes tidbits about what it was like filming nights at a mall that was open for customers during the day—Dawn of the Dead had to take a pause when the Christmas decorations went up—and how Ross faked her way through an ice-skating sequence, the actor turned documentary filmmaker shared her memories of the film’s original ending. As horror fans have long known, Romero did not at first intend for Fran and Ken Foree’s character, Peter, to make a desperate yet hopeful escape. “We shot it! I prepared all day for it,” she said. “George was going to kill us off—Peter was going to put a gun to his head, and I was going to put my head through the blades of the helicopter. [Make-up artist Tom Savini] had already cast the head for that effect … but then the decision was that this was too dark an ending and that somebody had to survive. Whether or not anybody believes that we survived if I was driving a helicopter or not is another story.”

While Ross admits she was surprised Dawn of the Dead became a hit when it was released—and says its enduring impact is “incredible”—she knew all along that she was part of a special project. “What I learned from George wasn’t so much his horror vision, but a respect and a generosity to actors, giving them the space … the one thing that George had for everybody was a kindness and a respect. No matter how horrible the story was, he did that—and that’s why actors would return.”

Read the full interview with Gaylen Ross over at Variety.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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