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Romero Started It

“Romero started it,” Get Out director Jordan Peele tweeted following the news of the horror maestro’s death. In his tweet was an image of Ben, the hero of Night of the Living Dead and the first major black protagonist in a horror film. He was a revolutionary character appearing on the tail end of a real-life revolution.

Night of the Living Dead came out four years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, but merely five months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The country was teeming with race riots and racial tension, and yet here at the center of a defining horror movie, was a black man. Romero has famously said that he cast Duane Jones as Ben because he was simply the best person to audition, and any racial undertones were unintentional:

“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. Perhaps Night of the Living Dead is the first film to have a black man playing the lead role regardless of, rather than because of, his race.”

And yet, every one of Ben’s actions and each scene with the alternately comatose and hysterical Barbra feels like pointed commentary. When Ben first enters, Barbra is frozen in fear, unsure if she’s traded in one villain for yet another (coded) villain. There’s an undercurrent of discomfort whenever Ben tries to shake Barbra out of her hysteria — even today, watching the scene of him unfastening her coat after he knocks her unconscious (with a punch!) is uncomfortably tense. The imagery of a black man accosting a white woman is stark even if it’s unintentional, and Streiner, who also produced the film, admitted they were aware of this. “We knew that there would be probably a bit of controversy, just from the fact that an African-American man and a white woman are holed up in a farmhouse,” Streiner said.

But intentional or not, Romero was a progressive director. The white male who “should” be the protagonist is killed almost instantly; meanwhile the black man who for decades has been coded as a threat, is the hero. And Ben is more than just a hero, he’s a sensible everyman who is thwarted at every turn — first by the incontinent Barbra, then by the arrogant Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), whose whiteness would usually have made him a de facto leader. But despite these physical and mental tussles, Ben comes out on top, more sympathetic and exemplary than ever.

That’s what makes Ben’s ultimate fate all the more horrifying. Having watched Dawn of the Dead, I fully expected a subversive ending like the one we saw at the end of that 1978 film — where the only survivors were a pregnant woman and a black man, a hopeful vision of society’s future. Instead, the horrors are piled on top of each other in the last 20 minutes of Night of the Living Dead. The innocent daughter killing and eating her parents is traumatizing enough — though something I knew to expect from pop culture osmosis — and Barbra dying at the hands of her undead brother was almost predictable.

So I was shocked when Ben dies senselessly at the hands of the militia, his supposed rescuers gunning him down without a second thought. It would have been harrowing enough for the scene to simply cut to black, but it continues, with the credits rolling over the audio and news reel-like images of the men hauling Ben into a bonfire alongside countless other corpses. It is absolutely brutal.

I don’t need to point out the obvious parallels to the countless number of black men who have been murdered by police officers or lynch mobs. It doesn’t make the ending any less potent 50 years later, even after decades of zombie movies pushing us to an oversaturation point. It may have come at the very beginning of the zombie movie craze, but Night of the Living still has the most bite.

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Final Thoughts

Although Night of the Living Dead is ostensibly a B-movie, it rarely feels like one. That’s thanks in part to Romero’s efficient, moody direction that heavily pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock (the rapid zoom effects paired with screeching music, the stark noir-ish lighting, the Hitchcockian blonde), and in part to Duane Johnson’s stunningly naturalistic performance. He gives Ben an astonishing and modern countenance (save for perhaps his very measured enunciation), a sharp departure from the theatrical artifice of his co-stars.

It’s probably what makes him so instantly sympathetic compared to his fellow archetypal survivors, whose introduction midway through the movie suddenly transforms the narrative into “Six Angry Men and Women.” The wall-to-wall emotion threatens to make the film feel like a glorified play, until the tempers finally come to a boiling point between Ben and Harry, and the scene turns into a chaotic Lord of the Flies-style battle royale. Barbra’s childish hysteria is frustrating to witness (it’s one of the few elements of the film that hasn’t aged well), as were the typical “beautiful people in a horror film acting dumb” storylines that we see, courtesy of Tom and Judy. Though were those so typical at the time?

Powerful, persuasive, and just a touch pulpy, Night of the Living Dead is yet another confirmation that the zombie genre is ideal for providing cultural commentary on a specific time and place. Night of the Living Dead strikes that perfect balance between glorious B-movie and unqualified masterpiece.

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