In the darkness of a movie theater, I learned my first lesson about race in America.
My mother would often take us to weekend matinees, and one Saturday morning in 1968 the feature was “Night of the Living Dead.” Since Mom loved horror movies, I’d already seen a few zombie flicks, but they were inadequate preparation for this film co-written and directed by horror master George A. Romero, who died last Sunday.
Watching zombies feast on human flesh was scary, but that’s not what left me shaken and in tears. It was an ending so grim and unexpected it would be more than 40 years before I could watch the film in its entirety again. Ben, the film’s hero, survives the onslaught only to be shot dead by a member of a zombie-hunting posse. “That’s another one for the fire,” one of them drawls. Then the men sink meat hooks into Ben’s body and carry him toward a roaring pyre.
Everyone in the posse is white. Ben is African-American. I was a child, but the message I received was depressingly clear: They killed Ben because they believed a black man had to be a threat. A black hero equaled a dead hero.
In an interview years later, Romero said his film’s coda was “never intended” as a statement about racism, but admitted that he and co-writer John Russo often wished they had thought to “weave in some sort of racial tension.” But that wasn’t necessary. A black man as an authority figure in a house full of white people provided tension enough. Avoiding race as a focal point in the film made its ending even more gutting.
Played by Duane Jones, Ben was the first heroic black character I ever saw. Raised on movie good guys like John Wayne, I never imagined that any film would show an African-American as a symbol of strength. Ben risked his life to save others. “Get the hell down in the cellar,” Ben tells a man who challenges him. “You can be the boss down there. I’m boss up here.” Even with zombies clawing at him through a window, he never wilts.
At a pivotal moment, Ben slaps a hysterical woman to prevent her from endangering herself and others holed up in a house. As Romero recalled it, Jones was worried about how white audiences would react to a black man hitting a white woman. Even if Romero was oblivious to the film’s racial overtones, Jones was not.
I had never rooted as hard for a character as I did for Ben. He was riveting. Since he was the film’s only black character, his tall, handsome presence loomed even larger.
Then, he was shot between the eyes.
Already, 1968 had been a beast of a year. On an April night, as my family prepared to celebrate my father’s birthday, a TV bulletin announced the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Two months later, still wearing a costume from my dance recital that evening, I stood in front of the television watching mourners wave, weep, and salute as a train carried the body of Robert F. Kennedy, murdered days earlier. For months, every adult around me walked around in agony and silence.
Yet nothing that year affected me as profoundly as watching Ben die. Of course, the film’s white mob of civilians and cops would likely claim that they feared for their lives, though Ben was nowhere near them. He had a rifle for self-defense, but never fired a shot at them. To me, Ben was punished for his lack of deference to those determined to assert their own sense of superiority by any means necessary.
Nearly 50 years later, that scene still makes me cringe. It now evokes the callous killings of Philando Castile, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, and too many others whose only crime was to be black in a nation that irrationally fears us.
“Night of the Living Dead” made Romero a legend by expanding the audience’s concept of what a horror movie could be. Its resonance for me still cuts deeper. Whatever his original intentions, Romero’s classic taught me early and indelibly that the real monsters who threaten us aren’t undead ghouls stalking the night.