The first time I saw—really saw—George Romero’s classic 1968 film Night of the Living Dead was in a college horror-film class. The class was rumored to be a “gut”—little to no reading, no exams. Just write a couple of papers and get an easy A, people claimed.
It was anything but.
The professor took his horror-film analysis seriously and got annoyed at graduating seniors like me who did not.
I’d seen Night of the Living Dead before—it was a staple of our local Detroit TV station’s annual Halloween “fright fest.” But it wasn’t until I found myself sitting in a darkened classroom in Ann Arbor, in a building on the campus of the University of Michigan, that I realized that the film was, and remains today, a brilliant allegory about race relations in America.
A black man—Ben—seeks refuge in a house full of white people to escape the onslaught of the undead. As the undead seek to invade the house, Ben tries to tell the members of his group how to survive, but no one will listen to him. Eventually the house is invaded by zombies who feast on Ben’s mates and turn them into zombies. Ben cunningly manages to defeat them all. The next morning, exhausted, Ben leaves the house, only to be mistaken for a zombie and killed by snipers.
Romero, who died July 16 at age 77 after a brief battle with lung cancer, denied in interviews that he intended the film to have any sort of deeper racial meaning. Romero said that Duane Jones, the black actor who played the lead and the hero in the film, was simply the best actor for the role. Romero, the son of a Cuban father and Lithuanian mother, may have made one of the best films to analyze race relations in America quite by accident. But the film’s lasting impact on the horror-film genre, and on film in general, remains intact. Jordan Peele has cited the movie as one of the inspirations for his own horror masterpiece, Get Out.
Writing for Slate, Caetlin Benson-Allott argues that the defining feature of Romero’s film oeuvre is not zombies but commentary on class and social issues. But Romero also should be hailed for promoting diversity in his films long before #OscarsSoWhite.
Sequels to Night of the Living Dead, such as 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead, also featured African-American men in leading or strong supporting roles who wind up defeating the zombies and—in a twist on the dispensable-black-guy horror-film trope—triumph and survive at the end. We all remember Ken Foree as Peter in Dawn of the Dead as he sat toward the end of the film contemplating suicide but, along with Francine (Gaylen Ross), ended up the lone survivors in the film.
The “Dead” films are notable for showcasing black men as protectors, saviors and heroes instead of violent gangbangers. Unfortunately, although the popularity of the zombie genre has increased in recent years, the strong black lead character is nowhere to be found in these more recent films. Instead of a Duane Jones, white megastars like Brad Pitt save the world from CGI zombies in films like World War Z. And even on television, it never seems to pan out with black men and zombies. We’ve all seen some of our favorite black male characters on The Walking Dead meet their fate.
Even with the success of Peele’s Get Out, it is premature to presume that the movie represents a return to filmmakers leveraging the horror-film genre as a milieu for exploring the everyday horrors of racism and socioeconomic injustice. The market for big-budget blockbusters featuring white men who save the world appears unending.
But as filmmakers consider Romero’s legacy and place in American filmmaking, they would do well to learn from the example of Night of the Living Dead: that casting nonwhite actors in leading roles can add dimensions and depth to a film and transform it from cheap entertainment to art.