Whilst the likes of John Carpenter’s Halloween, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th and Ari Aster’s Hereditary have helped transform horror over its decades of existence, few filmmakers have done quite as much for the genre as George A. Romero. The grandfather of the zombie sub-genre, Romero singlehandedly invented a brand new avenue of terror, setting the new rules and standards for the classic monster movie.
Moving away from the fantastical ghouls that had long existed in Italian horror, Romero’s living dead were gruesome, possessed flesh-eaters that were introduced in his influential 1968 horror movie, Night of the Living Dead. A simple siege narrative sets up the central story, following a ragtag group of people who barricade themselves within a Pennsylvanian farmhouse to escape the baying cries of the brain-hungry walking dead.
Made on a shoestring budget with rudimentary practical effects, it was the pioneering social commentary that lay beneath the foundations of the classic film that made it into something more than a throwaway midnight movie, transforming into an important cultural document of American history. Such emanated from the character of Ben, played by Duane Jones, the very first black actor to star as the hero of a horror film.
Carrying the film’s political message on his shoulders, Ben doesn’t appear to be the film’s lead character, introduced only once the siblings Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) have been brought into the film. Bumping into Ben once Johnny is transformed into a zombie, he and Barbra make their way to a nearby farmhouse for safety where they meet supporting characters Harry, Helen, Tom and Karen.
Quickly establishing himself as the leader of the group, Ben manages to survive the onslaught of zombies, outlasting the rest of the group including Barbra who was once set up as the film’s lead. Subverting audience expectations, Romero illustrates Duane Jones’ character as the powerful hero of the story as he emerges from the basement at the conclusion of the film. Outside, an American militia made up of white men dispatch of the surrounding zombies before approaching the farmhouse, shooting Ben dead through the front window of the building.
Defying the contemporary stereotype of black men, Romero presented Ben as a heroic, gentle and sympathetic character, with his final death at the hands of crazed white men being symbolic of the racism of the mid-20th century where many Americans dehumanised black people as ‘lesser’. Despite having worked throughout the whole film to protect those around him and finally reach salvation, it is the white characters who bookend the film that take all the credit for such leadership.
Demonstrating how horror could be used as a vehicle to carry important social messages, this narrative structure has since been adopted by the likes of Jordan Peele whose films Get Out and Us have twice caused a cultural stir due to its underlying racial messages. Discussing the impact of Romero’s film on Get Out Peele told the New York Times, “All social norms break down when this event happens and a black man is caged up in a house with a white woman who is terrified. But you’re not sure how much she’s terrified at the monsters on the outside or this man on the inside who is now the hero”.
Duane Jones’ character, and indeed the actor’s performance, in George A. Romero’s cornerstone horror film, represented a significant moment for black actors across Hollywood, as they were finally given proper representation in a film that would go on to become a cultural sensation. Though Jones’ character was killed off at the end of Night of the Living Dead, his impact has been forever memorialised as a victim, not of crazed flesh-eaters, but of manic, scared white men.