Last year, I penned a eulogy of sorts to the horror auteur H.G. Lewis, who had passed away last year at the very ripe old age of 90. There were two purposes to that article – one, of course, was to actually pay tribute to the life and times of H.G. Lewis, who enjoyed a successful and prolific career. The other was just to alert horror fans to the guy’s existence. It’s fair to say that splatter movies would have eventually started to be made in the United States one way or another, but Lewis capitalized on that opportunity and in doing so influenced and informed what has amounted to America’s answer to France’s Grand Guignol. It amazed me that so many people who considered themselves aficionados of the genre had no clue who he was. I felt like that needed remedying.
Sadly, the horror world lost two more of its titans this year. In July, the world lost George A. Romero, the Father of the modern zombie movie. In August, Tobe Hooper passed away and chainsaws everywhere took pause and had a collective moment of silence. The lumber and discounted meat industries have only just recovered. So, being The Robot’s Pajamas (un)official contributor of material on the recently deceased, let’s take a moment first for the man who broke through with the seminal Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero.
Rather than get into the same sort of over view of the career of Romero that might have been necessary for Lewis vis-à-vis the Dead trilogies (Diary of the Dead was actually pretty decent, Land of the Dead mediocre but still fun, and take a hard pass on Survival of the Dead), or talk about his lesser known works and how criminally underappreciated some of them are (Bruiser, Nightriders, The Crazies), I think I’m just going to point to one singular creative choice that he made in 1968 that not only demonstrates his professionalism and his commitment to making the best possible movie he could every time – but also illustrates the kind of person he was as well.
I’m referring to the casting of Duane Jones as the hero Ben in Night of the Living Dead.
George Romero on the casting of Jones:
“Duane Jones was the best actor we met to play Ben. If there was a film with a black actor in it, it usually had a racial theme, like ‘The Defiant Ones.’ Consciously I resisted writing new dialogue ‘cause he happens to be black. We just shot the script. Perhaps ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is the first film to have a black man playing the lead role regardless of, rather than because of, his race.”
There’s actually a lot to unpack in that statement from Romero. First –‘ Duane Jones was the best actor we met to play Ben’. It seems like such a reasonable thing to say, you pick the best actor for the most important role. But Duane Jones was given this role ahead of anyone else – and, in that context, only Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? was the only other film in American cinema that shared any sort of commonality with NotLD – and that film had only came out the year before. The casting of Jones was revolution in of itself, but one that Romero either didn’t necessarily set out to start or one that he didn’t really care about once that it had. The priority was the movie, not what society’s preconceived notions about what race and who should get lead acting roles.
Additionally, Romero did not alter the original script to somehow accommodate the fact that he had cast a person of color in the role. Lines of dialogue remained the same; they just ‘shot the script’. Romero was and is far more pragmatic a director that some give him credit for. Romero is honest when he implies that race truly did not matter when he placed Duane in the role of Ben.
The line that truly sticks with me is ‘Perhaps ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is the first film to have a black man playing the lead role regardless of, rather than because of, his race.’ That’s a truly powerful statement – especially at a time when the civil rights movement had reached a head. Keep this in mind:
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated April 1st, 1968. Night of the Living Dead was released October 1st, 1968. Filming on Night of the Living Dead began in earnest in early May of that year; which means that Romero made his casting decision at one of the most volatile periods in American history. Romero and his production team broke their banks to make this film – Night of the Living Dead was going to make or break them…and to make that kind of decision, during such a crazy time in our history? That’s cojones, friends and neighbors. And that’s why, as far as horror directors go, George Romero belongs on everyone’s Rushmore.
In Night of the Living Dead, seven strangers are trapped in a remote farmhouse, and forced to attempt to fight off a zombie onslaught. Try to imagine being one of those people. Put yourself in Barbara or Helen, Tom or Harry, or Judy or Ben or Karen’s shoes for a moment and ask yourself this question: would the color of the person’s skin ever really cross your mind during that time? Would it matter even in the slightest bit that Ben was African American? These are questions that Romero likely asked himself while in pre-production, and in answering them, I feel like George said ‘of course not’ and casted Jones in service to his art, and in doing so, became a revolutionary.
George A. Romero, February 4, 1940 – July 16, 2017. You will be missed.
Today’s guest review was by Wally Quigley, a creative writer and director as well as a fan of horror movies. Last year he reviewed 2000 Maniacs.