Dawn Of The Dead: Interview with Scott Reiniger

We speak to Dawn Of The Dead actor Scott Reiniger about working with the legendary George A Romero and working long nights with zombies in that mall…

Often cited to be one of the greatest horror films of all time, George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead was the long-awaited, highly anticipated sequel to the genre-defining Night Of The Living Dead.

Released in 1978, Dawn Of The Dead showed Romero once being again ahead of the curve, mixing biting political satire with state-of-the-art-gore for a masterpiece that packs as much of a punch today as it did back then.

With a zombie epidemic escalating, a small band of survivors seek refuge in that shrine to capitalism, the shopping mall. But the undead, still possessed by an instinctive desire to consume, have had the same idea…

Now, Dawn Of The Dead is due to be available on Limited Edition 4K UHD and Blu-ray this month courtesy of Second Sight Films so we took the chance to sit down with actor Scott Reiniger who played doomed SWAT cop Roger about working with Romero and what it is that makes Dawn Of The Dead such a seminal and enduring film…

Dawn Of The Dead is having a new release on 4K this month. What’s it like revisiting the film all these years later?

Oh, it always continues to be fun! Honestly, I’m still amazed the film has such longevity and it’s actually more popular today than it ever has been, so that you could never expect!

How did you get involved in the movie?

I was an actor in New York, and Chris Forrest (George [Romero’s] girlfriend at the time) and I were in the Theatre Department together in college, and she suggested me to George. She said to me: “Do you know who George Romero is?” and I said: “Well, yeah, he’s the guy who directed Night Of The Living Dead!” She said he had this new film, Dawn Of The Dead, and [she’d like me] to audition for it. I said sure send me the script. It was 225 pages long and it was the bloodiest thing I ever read on paper in my entire life!

So then I went in and I met with George. George is very relaxed. You’ve probably heard that, but he is. He’s very down to earth, very relaxed. He gives you a lot of space as an actor and I did I think two scenes first time and then he kind of smiled at me and he said “okay, I really like what you’re doing come back next week”. So I go back next week, and auditioned again. I think I did three scenes that time and then he’s looking at me with a grin on his face, he said: “You know, I really like what you’re doing but I’ve already cast this guy – he’s over six foot tall and twice your size and if you do this you will be playing opposite him a lot in the movie. So I’m concerned about that.” He was very honest and I said to him – it just popped out of my mouth! –  I said: “George you know the audience is not going to give a crap about that after the first five minutes about our size difference!” and he laughed. Then I saw him later that night and he put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Okay you got the part”. So that was that!

What were your first thoughts when you read the script?

The script when you read it on the page doesn’t capture the satire and humour. We only started to get George’s point of view about the entire thing when we started shooting it and that became really interesting to watch…

Horror hero George Romero
Dawn Of The Dead is full of satire and humour.

Had you watched Night Of The Living Dead before you got involved in Dawn Of The Dead?

I saw Night Of The Living Dead when I was really young. I honestly did not re-watch it before I shot but I remember the movie vividly as a matter of fact and I’m not exaggerating because I was really young when I saw it! I came out of the movie and I went ‘wow was this a documentary or what!’ because I know it’s a movie, but it was filmed in black and white and it looks like a documentary. I remember thinking to myself, ‘God did this really happen’ and I’m like well, no of course, it didn’t really happen, but it really struck me I must say!

Was there much pressure when filming Dawn Of The Dead that this was a highly-anticipated sequel?

Yeah, it was in the back of my mind that it was a sequel, but that didn’t influence what I was going do in the film. It just helped me understand George more. As an actor, George gives you a lot of space. That’s the great thing about him. He’s very, very relaxed, he’s very organised and because he’s so organised he can give you a lot of freedom as an actor and do some improv.

What was it like shooting the film?

It was a very, very positive shoot just very, very long hours. When we’re in the mall [we filmed] all night long and slept during the day. But [doing that] that day after day after day after day, I felt after a while we were in The Twilight Zone! Imagine wandering around the mall with all the zombies wandering about! I remember the first day we were shooting, Kenny [Foree], David [Emge] and I came out to the mall area and we’re strapping guns and all of this to us, and I remember there were these two elderly women there and they were like ‘my God, what is going on?!’. They didn’t know there was a movie about to be shot there – I thought that was kind of funny!

We can imagine it was a pretty strange experience…

It was odd. Not odd in a bad way, it was just kind of surreal. You’ve got to imagine, it’s really late at night like we’re at 2:00 o’clock in the morning and nobody’s in the mall except us, the production crew, all the actors and all the zombies. So it was a very bizarre feeling. Also sleeping during the day and then working all night, it kind of changes your outlook on things, but in the end, it was a pretty smooth shoot!

Scott and the cast would sleep during the day and shoot the movie in the mall at night.

What are your thoughts on the character of Roger?

He goes through a major arc. The character has a great range, which is what attracted me to the part.

I thought that I had to create a back story. It doesn’t tell you that in the script but as the actor you create that on your own and I said well ‘okay this guy’s a sharpshooter’, that’s what’s in the script, he’s an ex-SWAT cop and so I started filling out this whole back story. That he was in the military and then became a SWAT cop because that’s the only kind of work that he would do that he would thrive in. He loved the sense of living on the edge. He loved danger, and he prides himself on being able to control any situation that he’s in which was his biggest mistake, his fatal flaw and he starts to lose it as you well know.

Why do you think he starts to lose it?

The stress was too great for him, and it was creating a lot of inner conflict with him. He felt he could handle any situation and he actually was deluded about that because he was not being realistic about the full impact of what was really going on. Then gradually it hits him when he starts to make stupid mistakes, which was his downfall.

Did you and Romero work on the character?

He would talk about that a little bit, not a lot. He basically trusted you or trusted me, you know, and Kenny. I would talk with him about it, but we didn’t go deep into it because he trusted me. I was going to come up with what he thought was going to work and it did work. He gave a lot of independence creatively.

I also heard that the role he created it for Roger was this big, burly Nick Nolte kind of street guy who became a cop and I’m going ‘well, I don’t think I really fit that’ so I had to go from my own point of view of how it really fit me. So a lot of my decisions were based on that and he liked it.

Did Romero ever mention the wider, satirical elements of the film with you?

Yeah, he would allude to it sure, never a lot of heavy deep discussion about it because he was clear about what he wanted. He expected the actors to fill in the blanks. So one thing about George is that he doesn’t talk like: “Oh I’m doing this amazing movie. It’s got social ramifications.” He doesn’t have that kind of ego, that’s what I thought was great about him. You know, he wasn’t pontificating about things. He said: “Let people just read what they want to in the movie and we’ll leave it at that.”

George was a very interesting man, a very affectionate person. He’s known as the gentle giant because he was very tall, and very easy, very relaxed, very efficient. He wouldn’t over talk stuff. He might give you a couple of pointers and that’s about it.

Why do you think we’re still discussing the movie today?

It’s still relevant. I think some of it is dated but George tends to put social themes in his work. If you watch his other movies there’s always some shred of that woven into them. So we were very aware of that. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about it though, just because it became very obvious what was happening once we started shooting.

The wider themes of the movie became apparent as the cast and crew started shooting Dawn Of The Dead.

Did you have any idea how big the movie would be when it was released?

I had no idea! Earlier on [while shooting] the movie I remember seeing a lot of the gore and thinking: ‘Should I have done this movie? Is this going to ruin my career?’ That did go through my thoughts but not for long because I love the part and it was very controversial. Some people liked it, some people hated it.

It’s often cited to be one of the best horror films ever made, why do you think that is?

I think it’s interesting you bring that up because when I’ve been at conventions I ask that of the audience and they say it’s the relationship between the four characters and the impact that the circumstances are having on them personally and on their inner relationships with each other. That’s what I [also] thought personally but it was good to hear! It made a lot of people think: “If there was a zombie apocalypse what would I do?” I guess a great place to go would be a mall!

It’s funny because zombies have become so much part of our culture [these days]. It’s become mainstream. Years ago it was not like that at all!

What were your thoughts on Dawn Of The Dead’s follow-up, Day Of The Dead?

I thought it was a very strong movie, I thought it was very very bleak. It was disturbing to me to watch it frankly and I don’t mean that negatively about the movie. It was just a disturbing movie to watch. Very different from Dawn. It was so dark.

You had a cameo in the 2005 Dawn Of The Dead remake. How did that come about?

That was a treat, it was a lot of fun. I got cast and Kenny got cast in it and I think [Tom Savini] was in it. They cast us because of the fan base from the original Dawn. That’s why we were cast, it was very obvious, and the producer Eric Newman, Zack Snyder the director, they were very energetic. The first day on the set the producer came up to me and was so thankful that I was there. He was acting like he was a teenager!

I asked him: “How did you end up making this?” and he went: “Ever since I was 12, 13 I’ve always dreamed about making a remake of Dawn Of The Dead.” I said: “Are you kidding me?” and he said: “No, I’m serious. I can’t believe we’re here now making this film because it was just a dream I had as a kid!” He was very very nice. Zack Snyder was very relaxed, a very funny person. It was a nice few days I must say!

Dawn Of The Dead Limited Edition 4K UHD and Limited Edition Blu-ray is out on 16 November from Second Sight Films.