To say that the horror genre is having a moment would be an understatement. Gone are the slasher films of the 80s, and thoughtful movies like Hereditary, Babadook, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night are taking center stage. Within this larger horror revival lives a renaissance of Black Horror. From Get Out to The First Purge, Black writers, producers and directors have illustrated the magic that unfolds when black people have full control of their own art. This moment owes its existence to a movement that for decades shifted the landscape of horror by increasing the visibility of Blackness in within the genre.
In 1968, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead came to life on the silver screen. It wasn’t the only thing to come to life, for this was a zombie film — and a momentous one at that. It was not the first zombie film — filmmakers appropriated and capitalized Haitian folklore in the decades before. No, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was iconic because it erected the modern zombies that form the foundation of today’s corpse-laden thrillers: The Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead, etc. Romero’s film was special in another way — it marked one of the first occasions on which a Black actor (Duane Jones) starred as the lead in a Hollywood horror movie.
Night of the Living Dead follows Ben (played with Duane Jones), a Black man who inadvertently finds himself protecting a small group of white people during the beginnings of a zombie apocalypse. He becomes the group’s lone survivor — that is, until Ben is shot by a white mob that mistakes him for one of the monsters. Sounds eerily familiar doesn’t it?
Romero did not intend to produce a commentary on race. He simply believed that Jones gave the best audition for the role of Ben. Still, Jones’ Blackness introduced nuances into the movie. Actions that would have seemed normal for a white-casted Ben, read very differently with Jones in the role. “He’s asserting himself as the alpha of the group. He’s not only killing white zombies, but he’s punching white Mr. Cooper who is the character who most represents the white power structure in the story,” says Tananarive Due, award-winning Black Horror writer, scholar, and producer. This movie did, after all, come on the heels of the Jim Crow era. Due continued…