DUANE JONES: JUST A MAN

BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES…BLACK MAN AHEAD!

NITE OF THE LIVING DEAD ( MOVIE POSTER )

Why did director George A. Romero do this. Was it some type of allegorical political statement? Was it something more akin to, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I’ll have to do more research on that score. All I know for now, for this piece is, Romero picked the best actor for the role of hero in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.”

BLOGATHON ( ACTING BLACK BLOGATHON 2:15 - 17: 2016 )

THE ACTING BLACK BLOGATHON features performers of color for the next three days over at the Dell on Movies Blog. Click on the banner to see the other great entries to this event. Now truth be told, I wanted to make my contribution more relative to the classic era, (YAY! For the Theresa Harris entry by Kristina of Speakeasy!!) but when I went through the rolodex of my mind this cult classic came up. 

NITE OF LIVING DEAD ( Barbara & Johnny (I was a teenager when this movie came out. ( I was a teenager a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. ) I was in shock when I saw that a Black man was leading the way, being in charge in a very unapologetic way. Sidney Poitier, yeah Id seen him. But he was a big Hollywood movie star. But Duane Jones? Granted, this is a low-budget horror movie…but who IS he, I wondered back then. I won’t get too bogged down in the movies plot ( you know it already: the dead come to life ) or how artfully crafted this low-budget film unfolds in its simplicity and laser-beamed vision. Just know I love it. Briefly, the plot is set off by brother and sister Barbara’s and Johnny’s ghoulish encounter at the cemetery when they visit their father’s grave. Barbara manages to escape this slow moving ghoul and makes it to an abandoned farmhouse. At this point she’s traumatized and fairly catatonic.  Enter Duane Jones…tall, chocolate and handsome.

NITE OF LIVING DEAD ( I )

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He’s managed to escape to here too. Jones plays Ben, and he hits the ground running in trying to secure the house. Since Barbara is of no use, we mostly get a monologue from Ben as he tries to figures things out.

 

NITE OF LIVING DEAD ( VIII )NITE OF THE DEAD ( VI ) NITE OF LIVING DEAD ( V )“Your brother is dead.”

When she wants to leave ( he bluntly tells her, “Your brother is dead,” ) and cant, she becomes hyserical and slaps Ben. He hits her right back. ( And you know… I’m not so sure it was one of those “calm-yourself-snap-out-of-it” movie slaps, either.  )

A new wrinkle is revealed…there are people in the cellar!! ( Mr. and Mrs. Cooper, their daughter and a young couple: Tom and Judy. ) The whole lot of them’re almost more trouble than help. He’s got to herd these cats. Television news gives them a clue as to what theyre all up against:

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“Dead bodies will continue to be transformed into the flesh-eating ghouls. All persons who die during this crisis, from whatever cause, will come back to life to seek human victims unless their bodies are first disposed of by cremation.” 

One of the men ( Mr. Cooper ) is a pain in the ass naysayer. Cooper represents the faction of “every man for yourself.” He’s negative and pooh poohs every idea Ben has. While Ben rustles up food, boards up the place, gets torches and makeshift molotov cocktails ready, Cooper continues to challenge Ben every step of the way and be a nay-saying obstructionist. ( ACK! Does that sound familiar? ) But Ben puts Cooper in his place:

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“Is this your house? If I stay up here, Im fighting for everything here. The radio and the food is just part of what I’m fighting for. Now if youre going down the cellar, GIT!!”

To be clear, he adds, for good measure: 

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If youre stupid enough to die in that trap, thats your business. However I am not stupid enough to follow. It is tough for the kid her old man is so stupid. Now get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there. Im the boss up here!

We have these two factions. Ben: proactive / Cooper: bitch and moan. Ben makes no bones about staking out his territory. He’s unequivocally in charge, and he’s also protective of Barbara. Tom and Judy wisely throw their lot in with him.

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Director Romero intersperses the tensions at the farmhouse with news footage from earlier in the day of how the townsfolkre handling these zombies. A reporter questions the Chief:

NITE OF LIVING DEAD ( XXV )

Reporter: Chief, if I were surrounded by six or eight of these things, would I stand a chance with them?
Chief: Well, theres no problem. If you had a gun, shoot ’em in the head. Thats the sure way to kill ’em. If you dont, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat or burn ’em. They go up pretty easy.
Reporter: Are they slow moving, Chief?
Chief: Yeah. Theyre dead. Theyre all messed up.

( Alright alright…I confess. The Chief’s delivery makes me chuckle. Clearly not an actor 0R very convincing that this is REALLY happening. ) As more and more of the dead make their way to the farmhouse, staying there becomes an untenable position. Due to the young couples panic, the escape plan goes tragically wrong.

NITE OF LIVING DEAD ( XXXV )

Ben is still outside the house, running from the burning truck and waaaay outnumbered by the walking dead. He needs to get back inside pronto. He bangs on the door. Cooper does not let him in.

What the…

This is my favorite moment of the film. Ben knocks and bangs, zombies on his tail. He busts down the door. That awkward moment ( cinematically but not dramatically ) when he busts in and stops and glares at Cooper is the moment I WAIT for:

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It only lasts one frozen moment but WoW! The two men band together to board up the door. Then Ben gives Cooper the beatdown he’s been deserving since his first whiny entrance.

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I ought to drag you out there and feed you to those things!

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Director Romero releases the hounds, and zombies overtake the  farm house in the last
NITE OF LIVING DEAD ( JOHNNY )moments of the film. They break into the house en masse. The dead that are already IN the house come alive. Ben can’t save Barbara when brother Johnny ‘comes marching home’. Ben shoots Cooper, point blankly settling up their score.

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Ben’s focus is survival. He barricades himself in the cellar while all Hell breaks loose upstairs. He waits it out. Comes the dawn. The homemade militia has been going around the countryside shooting zombies in theNITE OF LIVING DEAD ( XXXIII ) head led by the Chief, to augment the National Guard. Frankly, seeing those men with rifles sends a primordial chill up my spine that I cannot explain…but I think you “know” what I mean. 

Perhaps it’s the ending of “Night of the Living Dead” that makes the film the cult classic it is. It brings out all the bittersweet emotions of an “Easy Rider” or “Casablanca.” A different ending with this movie might not still resonate with us after almost fifty years later.  Look at the movie again and tell me if Ben’s situation is not an allegory on Barack Obama’s presidency. Black man leading, strong, staying the course, thoughtfulll, challenged by obstructionists. Am I wrong…am I crazy? Having a Black actor as the lead is just one of the reasons that makes “Night of the Living Dead” unique. But most specifically it’s Jones himself in a movie with the best worst ending ever.

NITE OF LIVING DEAD ( XXXIX-A ) DUANE ( THE END-I ) NITE OF LIVING DEAD
Alright Vince, hit him in the head. Right between the eyes. Good shot. Hes dead. Lets go get ’em. Thats another one for the fire.

NITE OF LIVING DEAD ( XXXXI )

I like Duane Jones in this very much. He’s a good actor, and sold it. He didn’t have that halting stilted delivery of non-actors. I found him believable. He looked like he was thinking on his feet right then and there. He faced this existential threat proactively and resourcefully. He was smart. He didn’t back down. He was direct, took charge, perhaps in a bit of a ‘my-way or the highway’ kind of way but not overbearing or bullying. He was like: ‘make a decision – either you’re with me or get outta my way.’ Duane Jones is unique in horror film. ( Im telling you hes the Obama of horror film. ) We don’t see another Black man be the hero in this genre. We’re now reduced to “suburban” teens running from Freddie, Jason, Ghostface etc. with not a person of color in sight except in some tangential way. You can correct me if I’m wrong down in my comments section.

DUANE JONES

Please see “Night of the Living Dead” again. Dont just blow it off as another one of those zombie horror movies. Its done well for its budget, its the first of its kind in horror and Duane Jones does a fine acting turn in this. He is plain and simple. Actually, I should say unembellished, and direct. He doesn’t play it suave and supercool like Denzel or super-heroish like Wesley. He’s not comic relief like Mantan or edgy like James Edwards or supernoble like Sidney and Canada Lee. Nor wise like Juano. He is not a badass like Samuel L. or Richard Roundtree in Shaft. Duane Jones Ben is just trying to survive. He plays this like a man. Not a Black man. Just a man. And THAT is what I like best of all.

BLOGATHON ( ACTING BLACK-II ) 2:15-17:2016

Hey hey hey. Wherere you going? You’re not done yet. There are other posts in this blogathon about actors of color for you to check out. Also covered will be Whoopi Goldberg, Paul Robeson, Laurence Fishburne, Pam Grier, Lupita Nyong’o and many more.  Please..click onto this banner to read more entries.

 

16 thoughts on “DUANE JONES: JUST A MAN

  1. Great write-up Tess. As odd as it may seem, I have never seen this film. Another horror-sci-fi film from around this time that features prominently black actors, if not the leading man (who’s Charlton Heston) is “The Omega Man” (1971) in which Rosalind Cash has the leading feminine role and Lincoln Kilpatrick plays an albino zombie, one of the notorious bad guys.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi there my friend, my friend. Oh yeah…”THE OMEGA MAN.” I’ve never seen that one all the way through and I remember Cash and Kilpatrick from back in the 70’s. Ha…there were more Black actors woring in the 70’s than there are working now. ‘Murica is moonwalking backwards. But that’s for another venue. Here it’s all about classic films baby.

      I wholeheartedly recommend you see “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD” Fernando. It is low budget…but it’s well made, and you have it in you to see beyond beyond. Thank you again for reading…AND commenting. I appreciate that. ( How ELSE will I know what folks think? ) Thanx man.

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  2. Just a man…yes!!! At the time, I believe the film served more as an allegory for the nation’s resistance to The Civil Rights Movement. Thus, it was no accident that Ben is a black man, and a take charge sort. However, I love that you have applied that to Obama’s presidency. It fits perfectly as you have pointed out. And Jones is excellent in the role.

    Ben is an amazing character, but not quite totally unique. A few years back, before he achieved Star Wars fame, John Boyega played a teen named Moses in wonderful little British film called Attack the Block. In place of zombies, it’s an alien invasion. I highly recommend giving it a look. It’s great fun with a much lighter tone than Romero’s classic.

    Thank you so much for participating! I look forward to checking out more from your blog as you are fairly unique yourself. I haven’t come across many black bloggers with a focus on classic films. Thanks again!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • WHEW!!! You’ll never know how I had to get my butt in gear to contribute to your blogathon. I saw it quite by accident and had to scramble. Now, your blog is on my radar. I read just a tad about Romero’s making this movie and I don’t think HE even had the Civil Rights Movement in mind in casting the film. But I will have to do a fullblown research on that score. I’m actually waiting for people to comment ( or scream in horror ) that I referred to Obama’s presidency in my piece.

      Yes…my main focus on my blog is classic films. I absolutely LOVE the movies from the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s. When I saw the contributors for your blogathon I was over the moon to see that blogger SPEAKEASY is going to cover one of my favorite actresses from the 30’s Theresa Harris. I can’t wait to read her piece. Thank you for including my work. And thank you for your comments.

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  3. Duane’s sudden death in the end so disturbed me (and the film itself) that I could not sleep that night (this was 1969, I was just a kid). I like that there’s no mention of his blackness in the movie. He just happened to be the hero you wanted on your side. Genuinely scary film, and the first of its kind, to my knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As much as that ending was a shocker and a downer and hit me in the gut…it’s probably this ending that has made the film resonate for almost fifty years. Thanks Rob for reading. I don’t take that for granted:

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  4. This movie is a big deal for me, it was the first scary movie I was allowed to stay up and watch on the late show on TV. What a choice, right? So I’ll never forget it, thanks for spotlighting the film and Duane this way, a groundbreaking movie and role in so many ways. Also thanks for mentioning me, loved bringing attention to Theresa! Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kristina. I remember seeing “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Haunting” on tv waaaay back in the 60’s and they both scared the wits out of my sister and I. But now that I am a grown-up ( well…I’ve got the age for grown-up status but ofttimes not the behavior ) I see the skill in story telling that Romero exhibited. It’s a well put together, well thought out movie. All I know is this…seeing Johnny come back ( I forgot that watching it this time for my review ) was a sad and frightening thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I can’t decide about inclusion of this film as an actor-of-color. Duane is anything but a man of color in this film. I don’t think there’s single reference to race in the film, is there? I don’t think so. So, it’s either not a good film for this category. Or PERFECT.

    The real question for me is “What happened after that? Why wasn’t Duane feted and toasted and hauled off to Hollywood heights?” He is the total strength and acting-character of this film. No one else delivers on-screen time of such quality, no one else commands all attention. (Just think of the scene where he’s ascending the stairs after first arriving at the home, only to find – well, never mind. He winces. He almost barfs.)

    I’ve always considered this one of the great performances in film history because he literally had no one else setting any better marks. He did it all, for everyone, in every scene. Can there be a more difficult task of acting? I can’t think of one.

    As for those certain Fedo types who haven’t seen it, or the 1990 remake, this is why God invented mail. The 1990 remake has that “different ending” and a different champion, indeed. And was made because Romero has lost control of bootlegged or mis-printed copies that theaters exploited to make fortunes for themselves but never sent money back to George. He couldn’t do battle with everyone, so he remade the film and this time had better control of the copyright process. It’s a good film, too, but different.

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    • “Duane is anything but a man of color in this film. I don’t think there’s single reference to race in the film, is there? I don’t think so.”

      When I say ‘Duane Jones: Just A Man’ I am referring to the fact that he played this part as just a man…not a Black man, but just a man. I’m not sure why Duane didn’t parlay his career into a success. It’s a sure thing the powers-that-be weren’t impressed with the success of a mere “zombie” film. Oh yes, I know the moment you referred to when Duane finds what the lady of the house…at the top of the stairs.

      I hope the “Fedo” types take advantage of your postal skills, Ollie. This ’68 version is excellent. Thanks for taking the time out here, Ollie.

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  6. Wasn’t there two (2) versions of Night of the Living Dead? (1) One where Ben lives, and (2) one where Ben dies. How can one obtain the living ??

    I know there was a version that he lived !!!

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