“I’m Boss Up Here”: The importance of “Night of the Living Dead” in Black horror history
Content Warning: The following piece contains spoilers of the films “Night of the Living Dead” and “Get Out”
I’ve never been a fan of old horror films. Though I can understand why people love movies like “Psycho” or “Frankenstein,” I can’t seem to find them satisfying or entertaining to watch. That was until I watched the 1968 independent horror film, “Night of the Living Dead.”
The black and white film is a classic horror story. A mysterious zombie apocalypse plagues the country and strangers are forced to band together in order to survive from the man-eating creatures. The film starts off with Barbara, played by Judith O'Dea, running from a herd of zombies after her brother was murdered by one of them. She arrives at an empty house in complete despair. I was annoyed with her nonsensical actions at this point in the film and felt myself getting bored until a new character made his entrance. A tall Black man named Ben, played by Duane Jones, arrives at the house and quickly jumps into action, unfazed by Barbara’s state of shock.
Ben quickly became my favorite character. He wasn’t overcome with fear at the horrors outside of the house. As more people joined the group, he adapted to the situation and became a natural leader. He was boarding up the house, making plans and ensuring the safety of others. He got shit done. Until recent years, I hadn’t seen many horror films where the token Black characters weren’t playing a trope or a villain. So to have a Black lead as the responsible, smart, bad-ass leader of a group of white people in a movie from the 60s was shocking. My jaw dropped multiple times throughout the film at his assertiveness and bravery. When Ben proclaimed “I'm boss up here” to a hardheaded group of white folks, I understood why so many Black viewers love this movie.
“Night of the Living Dead” holds an important space in Black history. Duane Jones was one of the first African Americans to have a lead role in a mainstream horror film. This is even more notable because there is no mention of Ben’s race in the film. The director George Romero said that, though the character wasn’t written to be a Black man, Duane Jones had simply given the best audition, so they hired him. In a time period as tumultuous as the late 1960s when Black people were participating in sit-ins, planning marches and receiving violent push back from white America every step of the way, Ben was taking charge and leading a group of white people to safety. Duane Jones’ performance as Ben showed audiences around the country and the world that Black people could be dynamic leaders. We could play more than side characters or troublemakers, and our storylines should hold more substance than just making a social commentary stance.
I found myself really enjoying the movie despite my admitted disdain for old movies until I reached the ending. As I had hoped, Ben was the last survivor. Throughout the film he didn’t make rash decisions, he put himself in danger to help others and he tried his best to find a way out of the house and to a nearby military base for safety. He earned his survival. In the last few minutes of the film, a rescue/zombie-killing team made its way toward the house. Ben crept upstairs from his hiding spot in the basement. He laid low in the house and waited for help to come his way. Instead, the armed mob shoots Ben in the head and kills him after mistaking him for one of the undead. The film ends with a slide show of stills as the mob carries Ben’s lifeless body to be burned with a pile of dead zombies.
My heart sank to my stomach. I sat in front of my screen in disbelief as the credits rolled to the end. Of course, many good horror movies end in a ‘gotcha’ death of the protagonist but knowing that didn’t make me feel better. Ben made it all that way, and in the end he was still murdered. Not by the undead, but by a gun-toting mob of white men. A truly horrific sight for Black people in rural America in the 1960s. His murder was unjustified and felt a little too familiar to the lynchings of Black folks throughout American history. The imagery of his body being carried by smiling white men was jarring. I couldn’t help but make a connection to those old photos of lifeless Black men hanging from trees or their mangled bodies held up like trophies with a crowd of smiling white people in the background.
Despite how I felt about the ending, I wholeheartedly believe we need more characters like Ben in horror films. Horror is not a film genre that Black folks are usually given the chance to shine and be the hero. But nearly fifty years after “Night of the Living Dead,” Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” changed the narrative.
The widely successful 2017 film tells the story of Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, who finally meets his white girlfriend’s parents on a weekend getaway trip only to find out the family has a disturbing secret hiding in the basement. To me, “Get Out” is one of the most well-written and thought-out horror films of all time — Jordan Peele won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his creative brilliance.
While the film remains an exception and not the standard representation of Black people in horror, it’s major success shows white-run studios that there is a demand for movies that are actually representative of the people that watch them. And one of the most impactful aspects of the movie is the fact that Chris survives in the end! Not only does he avoid going to jail and murder, but he defeats the racist white family and is rescued by his best friend, another Black man.
Peele’s intentional decisions to turn the presence of Black horror characters completely around is why Chris’ ending feels so different to Ben’s. “Get Out” challenges the stereotypical, white supremacist image of Blackness while “Night of the Living Dead” purposefully remains colorblind. White people stealing the bodies of Black folks is not a new story of America but in this case Chris is the hero. He became the survivor that Ben didn’t have a chance to become. It’s a triumphant ending and I think it really shows how far Black horror has come and how far the Black community has come as well. We are the creators, leaders and heroes of our own stories.