BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES…BLACK MAN IN CHARGE!
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.”
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.
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 I’d 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 movie’s 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.
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.
“Your brother is dead.”
When she wants to leave ( he bluntly tells her, “Your brother is dead,” ) and can’t, 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 they’re all up against:
“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:
“Is this your house? If I stay up here, I’m fighting for everything here. The radio and the food is just part of what I’m fighting for. Now if you’re going down the cellar, GIT!!”
To be clear, he adds, for good measure:
“If you’re stupid enough to die in that trap, that’s 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. I’m 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.
Director Romero intersperses the tensions at the farmhouse with news footage from earlier in the day of how the townsfolk’re handling these zombies. A reporter questions the Chief:
Reporter: “Chief, if I were surrounded by six or eight of these things, would I stand a chance with them?”
Chief: “Well, there’s no problem. If you had a gun, shoot ’em in the head. That’s the sure way to kill ’em. If you don’t, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat or burn ’em. They go up pretty easy.”
Reporter: “Are they slow moving, Chief?”
Chief: “Yeah. They’re dead. They’re 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 couple’s panic, the escape plan goes tragically wrong.
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.
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:
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.
“I ought to drag you out there and feed you to those things!”
Director Romero releases the hounds, and zombies overtake the farm house in the last
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.
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 the 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.
“Alright Vince, hit him in the head. Right between the eyes. Good shot. He’s dead. Let’s go get ’em. That’s another one for the fire.”
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. ( I’m telling you he’s 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.
Please see “Night of the Living Dead” again. Don’t just blow it off as another one of those zombie horror movies. It’s done well for its budget, it’s 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.
Hey hey hey. Where’re 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.