Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead movie poster

Q: I know that the Jim Crow Museum includes objects and stories related to film. Do you have any objects related to horror movies? I am particularly interested in Night of the Living Dead, which made a statement about race relations.

~Brady West
Philadelphia, PA

A: I frequently tell visitors to the museum that we have the objects we need to tell the stories we want to tell. Questions like yours remind us that there are other stories we might consider telling.

We have a few objects related to the presence of African Americans in horror movies; however, there are no objects related to the Night of the Living Dead in our collection. That is somewhat surprising. I am a fan—a big fan—of this low budget zombie classic, and I appreciate the ground that it broke.

I was in the 6th grade the first time I viewed it. It scared the sleep out of me. There was gore, including a scene showing a zombie eating a human’s guts as if eating spaghetti. It seems comical today, but to my ten-year-old-brain it was scary.

I watched that scene—and many other scenes—peeking through my fingers. Yes, it scared me, but the movie had something that endeared it to me: a black hero.

That was enough for me.

The hero was Ben (no last name), played by Duane Jones, an unknown local stage actor. George A. Romero, the film’s director and co-writer (with John A. Russo), had intended to hire a white actor for the movie’s leading role. He changed his mind after meeting Jones. This was the first time an African American played the lead in a horror movie—and one of the first times a black person was given a central role when the part was written for a white actor. Romero did not change the script after Jones was hired—did not, for example, change Ben’s speech patterns or mannerisms. Ben’s race was not the subject of approval, disapproval, or even mention.

There is a lot to admire about Ben. Unlike many of the black characters in American cinema during the Jim Crow period, he is not a one-dimensional caricature. He is smart, sober-thinking, and resilient. Ben is also a badazz. If you hit him, he hits you harder. He does not kowtow to the living or the dead.

The movie begins with Barbra and Johnny visiting their father's grave in an out-of-the-way cemetery. They are attacked by a zombie—the living dead. Johnny is killed. Barbara escapes and takes refuge in an abandoned farmhouse. Soon afterward, Ben comes to the house looking for gasoline. Outside are relentless, lumbering zombies with an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Ben tries to secure the doors and windows. Barbara is traumatized—going in and out of shock.

Ben is surprised to find people hiding in the basement: Tom and Judy, a young couple, and Harry and Helen Cooper and their daughter, Karen—who is sick because a zombie bit her. They come upstairs after they hear the radio playing. Ben is furious with the men for not coming out earlier to help him barricade the house. Barbara awakens from her stupor. The people in the house must fight off the zombies trying to get into the house—and they must survive their mistrust of each other.

Harry insists that everyone hide in the cellar and wait for help. Ben says the cellar is a "deathtrap" and continues to barricade the house (now) with Tom's help. Harry angrily retreats to the cellar with Helen and Karen, and Judy comes upstairs to join the others. When Helen learns about the group—and that they have a radio—she demands that the people in the cellar go upstairs to help.

Later, the group decides that Karen needs medical care. Ben and Tom bravely leave the house to refuel Ben's truck. Harry hurls Molotov cocktails from an upper window at the zombies. Judy follows Tom, fearing for her husband's safety. Unfortunately, Tom accidentally spills gasoline on the truck, setting it ablaze. The truck explodes, killing the young couple. The zombies eat their remains. Ben returns to the house but is locked out by Harry, who is concerned about his own safety. Ben forces his way in, beats Harry, and says, “I ought to drag you out there and feed you to those things.”

The zombies break into the house. Harry grabs Ben's rifle and threatens him. Ben wrestles the gun away and shoots Harry who stumbles into the cellar, mortally wounded. Harry dies next to Karen, who has died from her illness. The zombies try to pull Helen and Barbra through the windows, but Helen frees herself. She runs to the cellar. Karen is reawakened and eating Harry's corpse. Helen is frozen with shock, and Karen kills her. Barbara sees her brother—he is a zombie. The horde grabs her. She will be devoured. Ben fights off Karen and seals himself inside the cellar, where Harry and Helen are coming back to life. He shoots them—killing Harry for the second time.

There are no happy endings in zombie movies—just a world in chaos, gory deaths, and set-ups for sequels. Morning arrives. Ben is the only one of the seven who survives the night. Most of the zombie throng has left the house, and the few who remain are killed by an approaching posse. Unfortunately, a member of the posse mistakes Ben for a zombie and shoots him in the head. The leader of the posse says, “Good shot. He’s dead. That’s another one for the fire.” His dead black body, grappled by white men carrying stevedore hooks. They dump Ben’s body in a large bonfire with the zombie corpses.

The film was released in 1968, a time of racial upheaval and protest in the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed six months before the film was released. There were dozens of race riots. There was talk of race wars. So, you have all this racial tension and Romero releases this low-budget horror movie with a black lead character. It is no wonder that many black people in 1968—including me—admired the character. I read that Romero did not make the film to make a statement about race relations. Nevertheless, by casting a black lead character, he did make a statement; he gave us a black man who not only defends himself against white aggression but demands that white people follow him.

Of course, people who watch film—or any other expression of art—bring their own interpretations to the art. For example, think of the posse that killed Ben. We notice that they are all heavily-armed white people. They have aggressive police dogs. We are reminded of the patrollers who brutalized enslaved populations and the mobs that lynched several thousand black people during the Jim Crow period. And, we are reminded of the police dogs that attacked black protestors during the civil rights movement. But, if Romero is truthful when he says that the role of Ben was written for a white actor, then the last killing—though tragic—is a different kind of evil: the killing of innocent people.

Ben’s death made me sick to my stomach. Why? I needed a black hero on the big screen. Even as a child I was tired of seeing subservient, Yes-suh-Boss black men in the movies. I was not alone. In a couple of years, beginning around 1970, many of us would exchange one set of caricatures—Tom, Coon, Sambo, and Mammy— for another set: pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, militants.

I don’t believe Night of the Living Dead set out to be a critique of race relations in the United States; though one can make a solid argument that it was a scathing critique of the United States generally—societal chaos, vigilante culture, and the failure of social institutions. There are those who have compared this movie to Jordan Peele’s scary satire, Get Out, but Peele’s movie intentionally tackled issues of race, race relations, and racism. I will concede this: they both led to discussions about race—and they both are scary as hell.

Jones reached his acting apex in Night of the Living Dead. Although he continued to work in film, the remainder of his professional life was primarily spent as an administrator and teacher in theater companies and academies. He continued as a theater actor and director until his death in 1988.

Thank you for your question. Here is a link to the film, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H91BxkBXttE.

David Pilgrim
Jim Crow Museum
June 2018