George Romero claimed it pure accident that he chose Duane Jones, an unknown African American actor, to play Ben in the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. I’m sure he wasn’t lying but I’m sure his answer to this often asked question came with a wink and a nod.
In fact, much of the director’s half century long relationship with audiences came to be defined by exactly this kind of affectionate ribbing, half-truths that told larger truths, feints and jabs that spooked us but left us thinking more than a hundred op-eds could ever do. It went with the apocalyptic territory of telling white, middle class America, over and over again, things we didn’t want to hear. He spoke hard truths spoken through the medium of zombies, monsters who have always teetered somewhere between fever dream horrifying and utterly ridiculous.
Halloween seems a time to honor Romero, so much beloved by fans for his creation of the modern genre from bits a scraps of American culture no one had taken seriously before…comic books, low budget flicks about Caribbean zombies under the control of the racist imagination’s “witch doctor,” and films like The Last Man on Earth about Vampire apocalypses. Horror in Romero’s day, and before he raised the Dead, remained that most “disreputable” of genres (Robin Wood).
Romero changed this forever and, along with Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, created “the new horror” that would include oblique, and just as often on-the-nose, critiques of American society.
Perhaps most satisfying about Romero, he never assumed a political commissar’s attitude even as he produced some of the most culturally-charged genre films of the modern era. He didn’t really like to talk politics and he wouldn’t, at least not much. Hundreds of fans got to know him at Horror Con’s across the country as avuncular, accessible, and not too far from his working class roots. He’d show up at the hotel bar to share a beer rather than just charge you for an autograph. His eyes sparkled behind his hilariously uncool glasses and he laughed at himself, and the world, easily and heartily.
This didn’t stop him from creating some of the darkest indictments of American culture ever seen on film, any kind of film.
In perhaps his last great flick, the post- September 11th/Invasion of Iraq Land of the Dead, Romero created an allegory rather than simply using politics as subtext. The character of Paul Kaufman, played viciously by Dennis Hooper, wage a senseless war on the living dead while he guards the privilege of a high-rise one percenters against the Black and Brown survivors who live in a surrounding slum city.
Romero is no stranger to this kind of cultural comment. When Night of the Living Dead hit the drive-in and grindhouse circuit in April of 1968, Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. Sometimes seen as a trip wire for the emergence of Black Power, the historians who write the textbooks gloss the fact that before the death of Dr. King, Black America pressed toward open revolt against a system that had begun to make cosmetic changes with no real shift in social and economic power.
The Black Panther Party had been founded in 1966 and had formed chapters for education, self-defense, and community health and safety programs. The year Romero’s breakout film showed the National Guard and what amounted to local lynch mobs murdering a Black man with a gun, J. Edgar Hoover called the Panthers “the greatest threat to internal security. of this country.” He then set out both to destroy their organization and erase the memory of just how revolutionary and widespread their influence had been.
But, more importantly, as Romero worked on the film in 1967, 30 major uprisings by Black Americans in cities across America (many of them during what the white counterculture remembered as the “Summer of Love”) showed that the white liberal assumption of “racial progress” essentially meant nothing to Black Americans who continued to attend segregated schools in segregated communities while being denied the fruit of American economic prosperity. Locked out by discriminatory insurance, real estate, and mortgage practices, or victimized by predatory ones, only the use of massive violence against their communities silenced them. In 1967 alone, police and National Guard killed seventy protestors in Newark and Detroit (see Peter Kuznick’s renegade The Untold History of the United States for more).
Romero’s Ben appeared, large in charge, in this world; he’s the only levelheaded character in Night of the Living Dead. He smacks a white woman (Romero understood that he didn’t understand feminism at this stage and viewers of Dawn and Day of the Dead meet very different female characters and radically different interactions with men). Ben beats up a middle aged white man when his actions endanger the survivors.
I’ve written about Romero in my books and articles on American horror narratives but the people to read are those that have spent much more time than I have with the man and his zombies. Check out Kim Paffenroth’s award winning The Gospel of the Living Dead and Kelly J. Baker’s The Zombies are Coming! for thoughtful explorations of how these films intersected with American culture (Baker has another work on zombies on the way). See Kendall R. Phillips work on Romero found in two fine books, Projected Fears and Dark Projections. Kyle William Bishop’s American Zombie Gothic meets all your zombie needs with an especially close reading of Romero. Greg Garret’s Living with the Living Dead is another highly original approach.
Above all, let Romero’s film’s come trick or treating at your house this year. He brought us a bit of both.