This week we start our exploration of Black representation in horror films by watching “Night of Living Dead” (1968), the feature debut from George A. Romero who went on to become of the horror genre’s great directors and to create his own cottage industry of “living dead” movies.
Romero famously said he co-wrote the movie’s script (with John Russo) without either of them thinking much about the race of characters. During pre-production, Romero cast Duane Jones in the lead role of Ben merely because he was the best actor to try out for the part. Even once Jones became part of the production, the scripted dialogue and narrative action were never modified to account for or draw attention to Ben’s race in contrast to the other characters.
These understated decisions on Romero’s part – the simple choice to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion in a common-sense way – turned what would likely already have been a popular horror film into a truly groundbreaking work. The film shocked and delighted audiences on its release.
While earlier horror films from the 1920s to the 1950s had at least included Black actors in bit parts, even if those roles primarily served either as comic relief or as demonstrations of the mortal dangers faced by more central, white characters, most of the largely Cold War focused American science fiction and horror of the late 1950s and 60s had so thoroughly sublimated issues of race that Black characters had entirely disappeared. It was as if Black people didn’t even exist in those visions of America.
Against this prevalent, Hollywood erasure of Blackness, both George Romero and Gene Roddenberry (the producer of “Star Trek”) demonstrated the importance and power of representation on television and in film.
Assembling a diverse, multi-cultural crew of commanding officers for the starship Enterprise on “Star Trek” (1966-69) Roddenberry cast Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhuru, a capable and intelligent Black woman scientist, certainly no novelty in the world but a major step forward in terms of Black representation on American television, set in a utopian future no less. The story goes that Nichols apparently accepted the role on a silly sci-fi show mostly to advance her serious acting career, which it did in short order. She had planned to leave the show after only one season until a prominent “Star Trek” fan, Martin Luther King, Jr., personally convinced her she needed to stay on the show to further the important Black representation she had accomplished.
Duane Jones’s role as Ben in “Night of the Living Dead” performed a similar advancement of Black representation. Ben’s position as the central hero of the film felt as unexpected as it was natural. The film’s device of interjecting realistic radio and television broadcasts about the government response to an invasion of flesh-eating ghouls would have echoed for 1968 audiences with the ubiquitous news footage showing police violence against Black Civil Rights activists and Vietnam War protestors. Further, the film’s shockingly downbeat ending resonated powerfully with King’s assassination earlier that same year.
Shocking for its violence and its innovations, “Night of the Living Dead” became a sensation at the time and quickly built a devoted fan base, not least among Black audiences who delighted in seeing themselves represented on screen. I suspect you’ll be surprised at how well the film holds up. Despite its grainy black-and-white film and sometimes shaky camera work, over fifty years later this movie remains one of the true groundbreaking gems of horror cinema.