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Oh, The Horror: Night of the Living Dead

Hana Shafi

Horror is an endlessly fascinating genre. The idea alone is weirdly sadomasochistic—it’s a genre that profits off watching fictional characters get scared, attacked, murdered, while simultaneously scaring the viewers themselves. But taken at a deeper level, horror explores the disturbing side of human nature, our own twisted, often unspeakable, fantasies coming to life on the big screen. Horror asks us uncomfortable questions: who deserves to live in this movie? Who should die? Who is guilty? Who deserves it?

From its major lack of racialized characters to helpless screaming women running through the night in their underwear, horror is notoriously problematic genre. Still, at 20-years-old, I’ve gone from avoiding all horror-related things throughout my adolescence (I will always be teased by my family for bolting out of a cheap haunted house in terror) to watching several horror movies a week. I’m still an incredibly easy scare, but I just can’t resist horror: the opportunity to see society’s deepest fears and  to examine society’s deepest prejudices—acted out in hyperbolic spectacles of evil and terror. And so, for the next six weeks of my internship, I will examine my most favourite horror films, the most loathsome, and everything in between, all to combine two equally scary things: horror movies and politics.

First up, let’s look at a classic: George A. Romero’s iconic 1968 zombie flick Night of the Living Dead. Romero’s choice to cast black actor Duane Jones for the lead role was hugely significant. The main character, Ben, was initially written as a part for a white actor (they were going to cast Rudy Ricci, who was one of the writers of the film). Needless to say, it was kind of a big deal that a black actor landed the lead role, in a movie that wasn’t explicitly about race, nor part of the Blaxploitation trend of the 60s and 70s.

Now, had the character been explicitly written as black, there’s a chance the script would’ve been littered with racist stereotypes. But the script was left unaltered even after Jones was cast. His character Ben, is by far the most capable person in the film. While other characters bicker and wail, he gets the job done. However, one very problematic scene occurs when Ben lays the lightheaded and overheating Barbara, played by Judith O’Dea, down on the couch and attempts to take her coat off. It’s a scene that certainly made some viewers uncomfortable, or at least those who internalize racist suspicions of the black man that lusts for white women. Barbara then smacks Ben, and Ben proceeds to punch her in the face. The scene is also odd—it doesn’t really fit with Ben’s character. He’s tough and takes no shit, that’s for sure, but this scene is overboard, and was apparently, not an original part of the script.

The sad part is in 2014, if a black actor were cast in the lead role for a horror film that was not explicitly about race, it would still be a big deal. The presence of racialized characters in lead roles in horror is an area in which the genre is still lacking—something that can be said about many genres, such as fantasy and sci-fi.

Other then the Night of the Living Dead 1990 remake starring Tony Todd,  two more recent films with black actors in the lead are Def by Temptation (1990), and The People Under the Stairs (1991), neither of which match the commercial success and cult following of original Night of the Living Dead. Todd also stars as the Candyman in the Candyman movie franchise—not the lead per se, but the villain. There’s also British horror/comedy gem Attack the Block (2011), which follows a group of underprivileged teenagers in Brixton fighting off monsters, but the movie falls more closely into the sci-fi genre. Forty-six years later since Night of the Living Dead was released it seems little has changed.

Mention black characters in the context of horror movies, and everyone jumps to the go-to “joke” that “the black guy always dies first.” Unfortunately, it’s true: black characters, and most racialized characters for that matter, tend to play minor side roles in horror films and are quickly killed. It’s this horror movie reality that everyone pretty much laughs about, despite the fact that it has deeply problematic connotations as to the way we view black and other racialized characters: as unimportant, disposable, laughable side tokens available for the first kill.

While Night of the Living Dead was in no way a perfect pinnacle for diversity—especially concerning the portrayal of the female characters—it’s still, unfortunately, more progressive then so much of mainstream horror today.

Next week, I’ll be exploring the demonic possession genre and its obsession with female sexuality. Cue the theme from The Exorcist.

Hana is an intern at This Magazine, and a self-described angry feminist. She spends her time blogging, illustrating, and re-watching Lord of the Rings.

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