“Now get the hell down in the cellar! You can be the boss down there, but I’m boss up here!”-Duane Jones as Ben/“Night of the Living Dead”
Growing up in Chicago, we had one of those late night B-movie programs, where some obscure horror flick would get shown every once in a while. This is where my love of zombie flicks began…with George Romero’s “Night of The Living Dead.”
This film was my introduction to one of the greatest horror films of all time, and a film that gave birth to a sub-genre that has influenced the creation of numerous films, television series, novels, comics, video games, and even music videos.
At the age of 28, Romero and writing partner John A. Russo crafted a solid script that followed a group of individuals who find themselves trapped in a remote farmhouse, as the dead rise around them.
The film featured some of the most suspenseful filmmaking of its time. It was a forerunner for the use of gore effects in horror films, and featured an omnipresent sense of despair that left viewers tense throughout the film. In light of all this, what sealed the deal for me with this film was one character: Ben.
Played by Duane Jones, Ben was the take charge survivor, who used his wits and resolve to get through the hellish night. One thing that was awesome about this guy, outside of being such a resourceful and intelligent badass, was the fact that he was Black.
We often find African American characters being the first to die in such films. It’s even become something of a joke. If they weren’t inspecting a dark corner where the killer obviously was, the character was often relegated to being the comic relief or sidekick. This got old pretty quick.
Imagine how it felt to finally see a strong Black male lead taking hold of the catastrophic situation, attempting to keep things from getting worse. Add to this, and I know it’s been pointed out numerous times before, that it’s amazing that a film like this was made during the late 1960s. This was during a time where the idea of a competent African American character as a leader was anathema to a large swath of America.
In the film’s script, Ben was described as a blue collar truck driver, where his race was not specified. The character wasn’t fully fleshed out until Duane Jones was cast in the film, causing Romero and Russo to perform rewrites for his character. Romero explained he simply cast the best actor for the role, highlighting the amount of acting skill that Jones brought to the role of Ben.
As Jones explains in an interview featured on Dimension Films 40th Anniversary release of “Night of The Living Dead,” “Ben didn’t really have a biography. Ben was just passing through.”
As Jones further explains in another interview, “It never occurred to me that I was hired because I was Black. But it did occur to me that because I was Black it would give a different historic element to the film.”
Ben never falters in his resolve to survive the night, even coming to verbal and physical blows with the other survivors. Now I know in today’s world we have a wide variety of African American leaders in a host of industries, but once again, you have to place this in the context of the time in which the film was made.
Others might even argue why even focus on something like this? What’s the big deal when we’ve got countless examples of African Americans making it to the finish line of many of today’s slasher/horror films?
Whether it’s Naomie Harris in “28 Days Later” or Ving Rhames in the 2004 remake of Romero’s “Dawn of The Dead,” there are a number of individuals making it to the end of the major studio films. This doesn’t even include numerous examples that may abound in independent films.
I’ve just taken the time to just show some appreciation for the guy who set the standard (whether he meant to or not), for those who’ve come since.
If you’re looking for a great horror flick, with a standout performance courtesy of the film’s star actor, definitely check out “Night of the Living Dead.”