George Romero’s 1968 independent black-and-white horror film, which starred Duane Jones, is a classic of horror and zombie lore, and a film we’ve referenced a few times on this blog over the year.
Romero has said that the role of Ben (played by Duane Jones) wasn’t written for a black man, and that the racial commentary in the film wasn’t at all intended. However, one can’t ignore the significance of Jones’ casting (at the time, it was very obviously unusual for a black man to be the hero of a film in a cast that included white actors and actresses) and his commanding presence, as he gets to smack a few white people around… on screen… in 1968.
While Ben faces some resistance, race is never a spoken issue. But you can’t help but read into the fact that, for example, in the closing scene, while Ben survives the zombie attack through the night, he’s unceremoniously shot the next day by a bunch of zombie-hunting rednecks.
Romero’s casting choice really opened the film up to various interpretations and analyses. Race still matters, whether we want it to or not.
The cult, subversive $114,000 film reportedly grossed around $12 million domestically, and $30 million internationally, over the years since its release.
After “Night of the Living Dead,” Duane Jones co-starred in 1973′s “Ganja and Hess” (another film worthy of your Halloween screening schedule). He died in 1988.
After you watch “Night of the Living Dead,” I recommend purchasing and reading “Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever,” by Joe Kane. It was published in 2010. It’s packed full of what you may already know about the film, but also what you may not know, and should; like some of what is within the excerpts I included below.
If after reading these excerpts, you decide that you want to read more, click here to buy the 272-page paperback via Amazon, for just under $10.
Here’s a juicy bit I lifted from it: “… As originally written, Ben was a resourceful but rough and crude-talking trucker, a role initially envisioned for Rudy Ricci. Those plans changed when a 31-year-old African-American actor named Duane Jones competed for the part. “A mutual friend of George’s and mine was a woman by the name of Betty Ellen Haughey,” producer Russ Streiner relates. “She grew up in Pittsburgh, but at that time she was living in New York and she knew of Duane Jones. He’d started off in a suburb just outside of Pittsburgh, yet he was off in New York making a living as a teacher and an actor. Duane happened to be in Pittsburgh visiting his family, and we auditioned him. And immediately everyone, including Rudy Ricci, said, ‘Hey, this is the guy that should be Ben.’” Director George Romero agrees with that recollection: “Duane Jones was the best actor we met to play Ben. If there was a film with a black actor in it, it usually had a racial theme, like ‘The Defiant Ones.’ Consciously I resisted writing new dialogue ‘cause he happens to be black. We just shot the script.”
And then there’s this piece: “While still earthy and capable, Ben acquired an at once intense and understated quality that Jones brought to the role. According to the late Karl Hardman: “His [Ben’s] dialogue was that of a lower class/uneducated person. Duane Jones was a very well-educated man. He was fluent in a number of languages.” A B.A. graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Jones had dabbled in writing, painting and music, studied in Norway and Paris, and was completing an M.A. in Communications at NYU between “Night” shoots. “Duane simply refused to do the role as it was written. As I recall, I believe that Duane himself upgraded his own dialogue to reflect how he felt the character should present himself.”
And then there’s this: “Jones also contributed what proved to be an important component in perfect synch with the zeitgeist, an element vital to the film’s runaway success: black rage. In that pre-“blaxploitation” era, Jones’ Ben emerged as a cross between contemporaneous characters in a Sidney Poitier vein (e.g., “In the Heat of the Night’s” Virgil Tibbs) and the edgier African-American protags, like Richard (“Shaft”) Roundtree and Ron (“Superfly”) O’Neal, who would soon change forever the image of black men on screen. And while he earned audience support, Jones’ Ben made for an unusually harsh “hero,” even shooting an unarmed Harry Cooper in cold blood (though it would be hard to say he didn’t deserve it). But that was a large part of the point: Ben wasn’t a hero. He was an average guy, an everyman of any ethnic stripe, who simply reacted to an irrational situation with strong survival instincts and a competence that, though far from infallible, surpassed that of his five adult companions trapped in that zombie-besieged farmhouse.”
As I noted above, even though Ben was written as a black man, and there really isn’t any overt reference to race in the film, the fact that he is black added another layer to his contentious exchanges with Harry (who’s white), and a tension that probably wouldn’t have been there otherwise, in his moments with the hysterical Barbara.
But Romero and his production team certainly were aware that casting a black man in the role would probably draw controversy during those years. As screenwriter John Russo pointed out: “And then she [Barbara] falls into his arms. And I know that a lot of the bigots in the country are going to be thinking, ‘Oh my God, now what’s he going to do? He’s got this white woman in his arms,’ and lays her down on the couch and he unfastens her coat…and so I was aware that it might have those kind of vibes.”
As it was written in the script, Barbara was supposed to slap Ben several times without him retaliating in any way. But Duane Jones didn’t care for the idea, saying that he didn’t mind being smacked once or twice, but not so many times, without him doing anything in response. He insisted, and the scene was rewritten to include Ben smacking Barbara back, right in the face.
So imagine – it’s 1968, and not only is there some sexual tension in the room, during that scene between Ben (an alpha black man) and Barbara (a white woman, and proverbial damsel in distress); and then Ben smacks Barbara in the face. I’d argue that the entire scene would probably still generate some debate today.
This was before Sidney Poitier’s so-called slap heard around the world in “In the Heat of the Night.”
Also, Romero and Russo actually considered shooting an alternate ending to the film that would’ve seen Ben survive the zombie apocalypse, but Duane Jones, once again, insisted otherwise, stating, “I convinced George that the black community would rather see me dead than saved, after all that had gone on, in a corny and symbolically confusing way.”
Again, layers added – thanks to his race – that wouldn’t have been considered otherwise.
Some good stuff in the book that you might want to read. If so, go here to purchase.
“Night of the Living Dead” spawned several sequels, and remakes, notably a 1990 reboot that starred Tony Todd playing the role of Ben.
If you’ve never seen nor heard of “Night of the Living Dead,” you can watch the entire 96-minute original film on Hulu right now.