How a guy from Wichita resurrected 'Dawn of the Dead'

From his home office in south Wichita, Leif Jonker organized nationwide 45th anniversary screenings of the genre-defining zombie film as a ‘public service to horror fans.’ It screens at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday.

How a guy from Wichita resurrected 'Dawn of the Dead'
Thanks to Leif Jonker, horror fans are celebrating the 45th anniversary of "Dawn of the Dead" in independent theaters across the U.S. and Canada. Photo by Lou Hebert for the SHOUT.

When he was in eighth grade, Leif Jonker cut school for the first time. He caught a train from the New Jersey suburbs to Philadelphia on a mission: to see George Romero’s unrated sequel to “Night of the Living Dead.”

“I’d fallen in love with horror movies because of ‘Alien’ and ‘Halloween,’” he explains matter-of-factly, as though it was a perfectly normal errand for an unaccompanied minor.

Though Jonker successfully argued his case to see the R-rated “Alien,” he knew his parents wouldn’t take him to an unrated zombie horror flick. He hatched a plan with a couple of friends, but both of them chickened out at the last minute, and Jonker made the trip to the Philadelphia theater alone.

“To tell the truth, it finally hit a point at the end where the viscera was so intense that I walked out of the theater,” Jonker remembers. “I stopped myself and was like, ‘No — you have to finish this.’ I took a breath and went right back in.”

That same unrelenting determination landed the 55-year-old Jonker the opportunity to act as an unlikely distributor for one of his all-time favorite films. For the past two years he’s set up bookings and generated press for “Dawn of the Dead” from his home office in south Wichita.

Jonker, whose 1993 vampire gorefest “Darkness” is a cult classic, has organized horror festivals and other screenings since 2011. His work in film exhibition led him to reach out to Richard P. Rubinstein, the producer of “Dawn of the Dead” and other film and TV projects. In 2008, Rubinstein announced a 3D version, and Jonker wanted to bring it to Wichita. He sent his first inquiry in 2012.

He’d get short responses: “We’ll let you know,” or “Richard has received your email.” This went on, every few months, for years.

“He eventually just called me out of the blue, and we ended up talking for three hours about his history of filmmaking with George (Romero),” Jonker says. “For most of our first phone conversations, before we got into business together, (it was) just an older cat sharing his stories with a younger guy who wanted to make films also.”

Rubinstein finally completed the yearslong 3D conversation, and Jonker got permission to screen it at the Old Town Horror Festival in 2018. He also brought the original U.S. theatrical version back to Wichita for a screening at the Starlite Drive-In at the beginning of the COVID pandemic.

After that, he started hearing from theater owners all over the country. They wanted to know how Jonker had managed to get the film when they couldn’t.

Rubinstein, who turns 77 this year, was occupied with a late-in-life career renaissance as the executive producer of the new “Dune” films. The two men came to an agreement, and Jonker’s one-man company Red Band Releasing organized screenings of both the original and 3D versions at 256 Regal Cinemas in 2022. It even showed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As the film’s distributor, Jonker gets a cut of the ticket sales, but it started, like all of his film exhibition projects, as “a public service to horror fans.”

This year, for the 45th anniversary of the U.S. premiere of “Dawn of the Dead,” Jonker worked with independent theaters and small chains to bring the classic film to more than 100 locations in the U.S. and Canada. So far, it has appeared in theaters such as Alamo Drafthouse’s 34 locations, the Toronto Film Festival, and Cinemark at the Monroeville Mall outside Pittsburgh, where “Dawn of the Dead” was filmed. Its only Kansas screening will take place at 7 p.m. Friday at the historic Orpheum Theatre in Wichita.

“This is the real release, in my opinion, because we’re dealing with independent theaters. For one, they really want the movie. They’ve been trying to get it. Almost all of them are passionate about it,” Jonker says. “It’s a movie for the fans, and it’s been put out by a fan. And now the people showing it are fans also.”

Jonker managed to drop the relatively high screening fees by $150, which made the film a more affordable prospect for an indie theater. As a result, he’s received an “outpouring of gratitude.”

“This guy from Florida called me and told me he loved me,” Jonker says, bemused. The theater owner had been trying to show “Dawn of the Dead” for 14 years. Online, horror-focused subreddits and film forums are full of posts from fans complaining about the lack of access to the movie. And there are a few different reasons for their obsession.

First, “Dawn of the Dead” — the most successful and critically acclaimed film of the series — has been unbelievably influential. Though he didn’t invent the concept of zombies, George Romero certainly established a new horror genre, and his influence is obvious in countless productions, including “28 Days Later,” “The Walking Dead,” and even “Stranger Things.” Zach Snyder remade the movie in 2004, the same year Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright lovingly spoofed it in “Shaun of the Dead.” Video games such as “Resident Evil” also owe a debt to Romero.

The film also redefined the horror genre as a whole. “Even before ‘The Exorcist,’ even before ‘Texas Chainsaw,’ it showed a new direction of taking horror seriously,” Jonker explains. “And it didn't just change horror, it also changed independent film, because it was a movie produced by a bunch of friends for a few hundred thousand bucks. And it exploded.

“But the reason it persists isn’t just the history — it has really strong characters and a strong story.”

At the beginning of the movie, four Philadelphians flee the encroaching zombie hoards in a news helicopter before taking shelter in a suburban mall. Through much of the film, they enjoy a lifestyle of lavish consumption while the world falls apart around them. (“One-stop shopping, right at your fingertips,” quips one of the characters.) It may have been among the goriest films ever released back in the late 70s, but it also doubled as social critique.

“‘Dawn of the Dead’ is an intentional commentary on American consumerism,” Jonker says. “And nothing has driven home how prescient it was than these Black Friday videos that look like a crowd of zombies waiting to get into Best Buy … and people are getting beat up trying to get a cheap TV.”

For Jonker, it’s simply a film he goes back to again and again, one that never gets old.

“When I saw it as a kid, it did fry my brain. ‘Alien,’ ‘Halloween,’ ‘Phantasm,’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’ really had that deep, strong impression on me that kind of changed my perception of movies and what I wanted to do. For years I wanted to make movies. I still do.”

After “Darkness,” which he made for less than $5,000, Jonker took some meetings in Hollywood, but he never made another horror film. Instead, he’s spent his career as a self-described struggling artist, working different gigs in the industry, including as a freelance script writer for Paramount. Recently, he directed “Blood and Chopsticks,” a documentary about the slasher flick “Night Screams,” which filmed in Wichita in the late 1980s. Now he’s sharing one of his most beloved films with the world. At least for a little while.

“I live in south Wichita and I’m a one-man operation,” he says. “I don’t think being a media distributor is going to be my permanent gig, but right now it’s what I’m doing.

“(‘Dawn of the Dead’) had a major impact on me and changed the direction of my life, so it’s fun and cool to be part of its universe and to help bring it to fans who have never had the chance to see it in the theater. Because it does play completely differently (in a theater). Most movies do.”

The Details

“Dawn of the Dead” 45th anniversary screening in Wichita
7 p.m. Friday, April 26, at the Orpheum Theatre, 200 N. Broadway St.
Cost: $10 in advance/$12 on the day of show (plus fees if purchased online)

See the full list of screenings in the U.S. and Canada at

Emily Christensen is a freelance journalist and news entrepreneur based in Wichita, Kansas. She is one of the co-founders of the SHOUT. 

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