In George Romero’s ‘dead’ horror films, a Black man could be a hero.
According to Carolyn Edgar, who’s writing for The Root, George Romero 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,” she recalls.
— Ashqui Ventures (@Ashqui_Ventures) July 20, 2017
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. George 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 the commentary on class and social issues. But Romero also should be hailed for promoting diversity in his films long before #OscarsSoWhite.
— Racial Injustice (@ThisisAmeriKKKa) July 19, 2017
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 Deadmeet their fate.
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.