Airport of the Dead

I first visited Pittsburgh in Summer 2003. When the friend who was hosting me asked what I wanted to see, the only thing I can remember mentioning was the Monroeville Mall. I knew very little of Pittsburgh's industrial past and its rebirth as a center for medical and educational services. The sports culture was a bit of a cliche. I had little interest in the varied topography, or the city's majestic buildings. But I did have a VHS copy of Dawn of the Dead (1978) that I'd purchased at a mall in Massachusetts a few years prior. The tape was worn from repeat viewings. In the film, a group of survivors—a helicopter pilot and his pregnant partner, as well as two highly trained SWAT team members—decides to hole up against an epidemic outbreak of zombieism by taking refuge in a mall. They reclaim the space, seal it off, and become corrupted by the false security of commercialized obsession. They are lured into complacency before being invaded by a group of bikers, who in turn allow the zombie hordes to infiltrate the enclave. My friend agreed to take me to the mall, the real-life location for most of the film's set pieces. The trip was uneventful (the mall has necessarily changed its appearance, and now mostly appears to look like any other mall). But the association between the greater Pittsburgh area and such spaces of fantastic possibility remained with me.

Fast forward to Fall 2012. I arrive at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) to catch a flight that will eventually take me to Milwaukee, WI for a conference on, of all things, film and history. Having flown out of PIT several times, I'm always struck by the approach to Ticketing from the economy parking area. The various self-service parking lots feed into a long, covered hall with a moving walkways in either direction. It creates an initial sense of linearity (one path to the terminal) and provides the first glimpse of the airport's similarly linear design. When you arrive at ticketing and make your way to one of two TSA areas, you discover a feature that sets PIT apart from most airports. The only way for patrons to access the Airside Terminal are underground people movers, trams that arrive every minute or two to shuttle passengers to shopping and their gates. These, too, continue the linear movement of the previous part of the trip.

Arrival at the Airside Terminal is dramatic. Anxious passengers exit the people movers and ascend to a miniature shopping mall—the Airmall. This is the hub that links the A, B, C, and D gates. My flight is a few minutes off, and perhaps it is the fact that it extremely early in the day, but I decide to buy a coffee. I stare into its sludgy depths. I need only a few seconds to make the connection. My fascination with PIT mirrors my fascination with Dawn of the Dead. The design of the airport yields a brilliant film scenario.

It suddenly seems so obvious. I still haven't moved beyond my initial cultural associations of the Pittsburgh area. PIT would provide the ideal scenario for a Dead film, should George A. Romero choose to revisit the area one last time (for the record, he probably won't: after his divorce nearly a decade ago, he is now a resident of Toronto). Romero has used siege narratives of one kind or another in most of his Dead films. Night of the Living Dead (1968) features a rickety farmhouse. Dawn a mall. Day of the Dead (1985) takes place in an underground military installation that is actually a mine in Wampum, PA. Land of the Dead (2004) is set against an all-inclusive resort for the wealthy. Survival of the Dead (2009) takes place on an island.

My scenario begins to form. Blessed with nothing of Romero's ability to write for characters and provide dramatic motivation, it takes shape more like an academic argument: A group of airport employees witness their friends and family succumb to an unexplained disease that turns them into zombies. Convinced that they can save themselves, they return to their airport in hopes of turning it into a defensible position from which to plan their next move. Upon arriving at PIT, they find the outer grounds—the parking and arrival/departure areas—to be swarming. They decide to proceed through the covered approach to Ticketing, which has a few stray threats but is otherwise a straight-shot to the interior. Ticketing and Security are a mess, thanks to the automatic doors that have been letting any and all bodies into the space for the previous week. The group stages a diversion—predictable enough to this film's imagined audience, but surprising for the staggering corpses—and rushes to the people movers, which they manage to successfully rig such that they take them to the Airside Terminal, but are shut down so that no more trips back are possible. From here, things are largely a rehash of Dawn: the survivors have a mall at their disposal, are in a defensible position, and are shut off from the world around thanks to fences and underground tunnels. Predictably, the isolation causes the protagonists to fight, bicker, and otherwise jeopardize their success. Of course, they find that a few pilots have also had the idea to hole up in the airport, and they forge an uneasy alliance (and provide this imagined film with an exit strategy, also cribbed from Dawn: if their safe space is breached, they make a last-ditch effort and then fly away in one of the remaining aircraft).

I finish my now lukewarm coffee and head to my gate. This film should never make it to screen: too derivative, too many plot holes. Although zombie cinema is explicitly about the recycling of dead matter (its renewed “life” in the world) this airport deserves better. Maybe a single-camera workplace comedy. Maybe I'll sketch it out on the way home.


Kevin M. Flanagan is a PhD candidate in the Critical & Cultural Studies program at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the editor of Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England's Last Mannerist, and has published essays and reviews in Framework, Media Fields Journal, Journal of British Cinema and Television, and Film & History.

Category: Airports

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