The First Black Lead In A Horror Movie Was A Zombie-Slaying Hero
Read this before you see ‘Get Out.’
Our Unsung Heroes series brings history’s unknown badasses out of the footnotes and into the spotlight.
According to Rotten Tomatoes, “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) is one of the greatest horror films of all time. Not only was the movie an early innovator of special effects and gore, it was the first time Hollywood had cast a black actor in the lead role of a horror movie.
That role was “Ben,” a handsome young man who — in the beginning of the movie — shows up (seemingly out of nowhere) to save a distressed white woman from murderous zombies.
Ben’s character shows zero development during the course of the film, but his presence still makes a statement: At the time “Night Of The Living Dead” came out, black characters were often relegated to playing antagonists, or sidekicks to white heroes.
“It never occurred to me that I was hired because I was black,” said Duane Jones, who played Ben. “But it did occur to me that because I was black it would give a different historic element to the film.”
Ben showed audiences that black people, too, could be heroes. Jones described his character as a “comparatively calm and resourceful Negro.” As a small group of people take shelter in a farmhouse during a zombie outbreak, Ben is the logical pacifist in the group. (Of course, he had to resort to violence in the end.)
Jones was an educator, stage actor and director in New York before “Night Of The Living Dead” (his first on-screen role), but the film’s popularity made Jones fear that people would forever see him only as Ben.
In an interview a few months before his death in 1988, Jones said he had only seen the film a few times and had never watched any of the five “Night of the Living Dead” movies that came after it. (The latest was released in 2009.)
After “Night of the Living Dead,” Jones starred in a handful of other movies before becoming head of the English department at State University of New York (SUNY) at Old Westbury. He served in the school’s theater program as a director for four years, and other employees remember the impact he had: “I think we all appreciated how he made [the] theatre a place where all of us came together,” one said in a 2014 SUNY memorial video.
Jones left such a lasting impression on the horror world, the creators of “The Walking Dead” named a character after him. The screenwriter and director Jordan Peele also mentioned “Night of the Living Dead” as inspiration for his comedy-horror movie “Get Out,” which was released Feb. 24.