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Documentary, grave marker for 'Dawn Doe' coming soon

| Sunday, June 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Seen in a corner wrapped in a white sheet, the corpse seen near the beginning of George Romero’s 1978 “Dawn of the Dead” made national news 30 years ago when Costume World owner Marilyn Wick was told there was a real, human skeleton beneath the zombie makeup. The remains were buried in an unmarked grave in Mt. Lebanon Cemetery in 1983; now Wick and Latrobe filmmaker William Sanders are buying a headstone for “Dawn Doe” as part of a documentary/horror movie mashup Sanders is making.

In a basement with actors playing zombies, the scene's most authentic actress sat quietly in a corner.

“Dawn Doe,” also known as “Betsy,” was 35 when she died but nearly 100 when she made her screen debut in George Romero's 1978 “Dawn of the Dead,” as a mummified body in the basement.

She became national news in 1982 when the owner of Costume World, not knowing she bought real human remains from Maier's Costumes on Forbes Avenue, Uptown, watched authorities confiscate her from Costume World's storefront. They autopsied and buried the body in an unmarked plot.

Now, a Latrobe-based movie maker and the skeleton's former owner are erecting a grave marker at Mt. Lebanon Cemetery, where Dawn Doe has rested for 31 years.

“We wanted to put something on it so when (Romero) fans go to see it, they'd know. Nothing disrespectful, like ‘Skeleton from Dawn of the Dead,'” said William Sanders, 33, of Latrobe. “Just ‘Dawn Doe, born: unknown, finally laid to rest, March 19, 1983.'”

A longtime fan of Romero's Pittsburgh-born zombie oeuvre, Sanders is working with his wife, Harmoni, and other Romero fans on “Road Trip of the Dead,” which he described as a documentary about the movies' filming locations and the fans who visit them, combined with a horror movie shot such as a continuation of the documentary.

Without giving away too many spoilers, Sanders said he was aiming for something like “The Blair Witch Project” for Romero fans, acknowledging that some who visit the filming sites aren't respectful and might get into trouble with locals.

When researching the documentary, Sanders came across the story of the skeleton, which Romero rented and special effects artist Tom Savini covered in fake flesh.

After the movie, the skeleton stayed at Maier's until the store closed and Marilyn Wick purchased the inventory in the early 1980s.

“The men cleaning it out called me up and said, ‘There's a coffin here; there's a real body in it,'” said Wick, who owns the Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based Costume World chain. “They were so afraid of it, they said they weren't touching it.”

Wick said a doctor in the family assured her the “corpse” in the glass-topped coffin was fake. But it was realistic enough that the day she put it in the window of a Costume World in Scott, a police officer had it removed for examination, Wick said.

Then-Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Joshua Perper determined that the flesh was Savini's work but the skeleton was a 35-year-old woman who apparently died of natural causes nearly a century earlier. Wick and a funeral home buried the skeleton, whom Wick dubbed “Betsy.”

Sanders said he was working to raise about $1,100 for the gravestone and $20,000 for the film through Kickstarter when Wick volunteered to pay the balance of the stone's cost.

Savini said the skeleton once was a medical teaching tool, like many he used during his career in horror films.

“It had wires in its joints and springs in its jaw,” Savini said. “It's not a dead body somebody found. It's a medical skeleton I found at a costume shop.”

Savini runs a program for makeup and special effects at The Douglas Education Center in Monessen. He's flattered but frustrated that the coroner mistook his latex, cotton and Rice Krispies for real flesh.

“It's a movie prop,” he said.

Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at msantoni@tribweb.com.

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