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.
Zombies are arguably the most well known and universally adored of all horror movie monsters. Although the Universal Horror films presented fans with horror staples like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man, zombie films are the undisputed kings of monster movies. Although George A. Romero is the incontrovertible father of the modern zombie film, film companies were cranking out zombie films as early as the 1920s. By analyzing what critics and theorists have accepted as the first solid zombie film, White Zombie and the “first” zombie film of the modern era, Night of the Living Dead, we can see a transformation in not only the treatment of the zombie subgenre, but horror storytelling in general. Focusing on the two most pivotal films of the beginning of history within the zombie subgenre creates a stronger through line and aides in presenting a clearer analysis.
"Clarence Muse stands out like a sore thumb amongst the “black” characters in this film, many of whom are white actors in blackface. The zombies who slave in Legendre’s sugar mills are given only a passing glance; it is the white zombies, they who form Legendre’s bodyguard, in whom the film’s horror is located.” Her statement agrees that is almost insinuated that the black characters are without soul and it is a much more devastating occurrence for a white person to be transformed into a zombie. This is further proven by the treatment of the white zombies vs. the black zombies. White zombies are seen to be Murder Legendre’s right hand men while the black zombies slave away in the factories and are shown in large groups, almost like cattle. It isn’t until analyzing from the mindset of a new-millennium individual that using monsters as a scapegoat for enforcing racism is apparent.
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 Zombie with 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.
Even for audiences not directly identified with the racial frustrations implicit in Ben’s actions, Ben is an attractive protagonist because he embodies a pragmatic militancy.”The narrative story shows Ben as the protagonist and the major antagonist to be a white man. Regardless of an individuals feelings on racial acceptance, the story is written to where the white man, Harry Cooper is impossible to root for and in turn, forces the audience to support the black man, Ben. Ben was one of the most prominent figures of African Americans in films portraying something outside of a parody or stereotype. The existing through line between both 1932’s White Zombie and 1968’s Night of the Living Dead clearly both utilize the setting and narrative properties in order to showcase the underlying correlation between the American zombie film and society’s viewpoints towards African Americans. While the 1930s used exotic landscapes and foreign practices to excuse their racist beliefs, the civil rights empowering late 1960s forced the horror in our own backyards and forced us to take a closer look at the way we treat our fellow man.