Although it is Women In Horror recognition month, it is also Black History month. In honor of the monthly celebration, I present an analysis of two of the most prominent zombie films of all time, and the historical context of African American characters.
George A. Romero ushered in the modern zombie movie as the world accepts it today in a post-Civil Rights Movement, post Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. society. It was now deemed unacceptable for filmmakers to write characters, African Americans in particular, in the same light in which they were previously exploited. Instead of portraying African Americans as useless, or even worse, actively evil, this time around George A. Romero created an African American protagonist as the voice of reason. The closest thing to a hero in Night of the Living Dead, Ben, was a black male character. He is the protector, the leader, and even the one person to order around a white woman. Unlike White Zombie, in which the entire basis is the subjugation of the blacks and the untouchable nature of white women, it is accepted that Ben had the liberty to speak as he pleased, not because he was black, but because he was a fellow man. Romero even went as far as to add depth by making the character flawed, just like every other human being. Ben loses his temper, and not all of his decisions are correct. He's not perfect by any means, but he's a real person rather than a caricature. Much like White Zombie, Night of the Living Dead was a great example to exploit the mentality of society at this point in time. Kendall Phillips states in his book Projected Fears,“Not only does Night draw on the political images and concerns relevant to the counterculture of the 1960s, but also its narrative structure parallels the emergence and dissolution of the counterculture’s political aspirations.” At this time, the flower child and civil rights movements were emerging in the wake of Vietnam, and African Americans were finally beginning to be recognized as more than just second-class citizens. By Romero utilizing an African American as a protagonist, he helped enforce the changing political and social norms of the time. Unlike White Zombie, Night of the Living Dead takes place in rural America, a very familiar territory for most audience members. By bringing this fear into the backyards of those watching the films, it removed the safe sense of separation audiences had when watching White Zombiewith its Haitian background and now forced audiences to see the world how it really was by pointing the lens at Middle America. Romero firmly claims that when Duane Jones auditioned for the role of Ben, he earned the role because he was the better actor, and not because of the color of his skin. It is still debated whether or not this is fully true, but regardless of intent, Ben still remains to be one of the most progressive characters for African Americans in horror films.
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