Joining us for our second interview celebrating the 35th anniversary of Dawn of the Dead is Joe Pilato. (We kicked off our DotD interview series a few days ago with actor Jim Krut.) Although Joe is better known for his work as Captain Rhodes in 1985′s Day of the Dead, he began his career in Dawn of the Dead playing a police officer raiding a dock.
The following interview was conducted during the Weekend of Horrors convention at the Turbinenhalle in Oberhausen, Germany.
How did you get the part in Dawn of the Dead?
JP: I originally flew from Pittsburgh to New York and auditioned for Scott Reiniger’s, or David Emge’s role. They had four seats like the inside of a helicopter, and we did one of the scenes. I think it was either that I was the same size as Scott Reiniger, or not tall enough to be the helicopter pilot – I can’t remember which it was – but I ended up doing the loading dock scene. It got cut in the American version, and when Dario Argento put the black box together, fortunately he put the entire scene back in.
JP: George makes things easy for people. Ninety percent of your preparation is in the script. Of course, I was playing a renegade cop with visceral hatred for the cop mentality. It was pretty easy. We weren’t too far away from 1960s radicalism, so it was easy to find the emotional center to being mean, rude, and enjoying intimidating people with a firearm.
What was it like working with George Romero?
JP: George is an actor’s dream. He knows exactly what he wants, yet he gives you the ability to make your choices: In Day of the Dead, Rhodes didn’t say anything when he died. He just got torn in half, and that was it. Before shooting that scene, I turned to George and I said, “I don’t think Rhodes is going out this way,” and George said, “Well, don’t forget: You’re being torn in half.” I said, “Yeah, but I’m Rhodes,” and George asked, “Well, what would you like to say?” I said, “I’m a little embarrassed to say it out loud, let me whisper it in your ear.” I whispered, “Choke on ’em!” and he bent back, looked at me, and said, “Yeah! But remember: It’s one take, and you better hit it!” Now it’s a memorable line, and fans always ask for it.
Because the Monroeville Mall was being used during the Christmas season, the cast and crew kept odd hours. What was it like on set?
JP: It was pretty crazy because we’d work at night. Even though you’d say you got enough sleep during the day, adrenaline and coffee were what really kept us going.
What was the funniest thing that happened to you while filming?
JP: Slapping whiteface on hundreds of zombies alongside a young Greg Nicotero, who was cutting his teeth and learning about the business.
JP: Tom Savini going off the balcony during the biker scene.
How do you feel about today’s zombie apocalypse trend in mainstream culture?
JP: I’m not quite sure what it’s supposed to be about, but I know it goes back to some deep mythological auras about life and death that George has tapped into – the fundamental reality of life and death where if there’s not a Heaven, and there’s not a Hell, then there is certainly this other thing that happens to people. Whatever floats your boat! When I was a kid everyone had a garage band and thought they were The Beatles, so I think [the zombie apocalypse trend] certainly is an expression of something.
Do you feel the film’s political statements about society vs. survivalism are still relevant today?
JP: Yes, and I think those statements are overlooked. I think one of the successes of Dawn of the Dead was the political relevancy, and the fact that after 35 years, these still attract a fan base, and we’re still seeing many resurrections of Dawn of the Dead, and I assume that audiences are consuming those ideas.
Thirty-five years later, what do you think makes Dawn of the Dead so special?
JP: I think it was the desperate plight to stay alive [with] staggering odds against you –much like nuclear, terrorist, biological threats – and I think it will still strike a chord in peoples’ hearts today.
(Artwork courtesy of Ghoulish Gary Pullin.)