Fifty years ago, on October 9, 1968, the low-budget horror film, Night of the Living Dead, surprisingly reached mainstream America. It’s the story of ravenous corpses returning to life to prey on society.
Not only did the movie create the modern zombie genre, but also its African American leading actor, Duane Jones, made history all his own.
“There’s a sort of odd black history fact to Night of the Living Dead. To easily say it, it didn’t matter that he was black in this role, and it’s the first time as a starring, as a starring role, that that was the case," says Antioch College alumnus and history major, Steve McQueen, on a brisk October day at historic Woodland Cemetery. "It’s the first movie to ever do that. Every other movie that starred a black person, we’re talking mainstream Hollywood, always usually addressed race. Also, [he was] the first black person to star in a horror movie."
Night of the Living Dead director George Romero, known as the father of the zombie movie, noted the role of Ben was actually written for what he called a “hillbilly trucker.”
"George Romero, he said, 'Look I picked the best actor,'" says McQueen. "And when they decided to go with Duane, the writers immediately said, 'Do we need to rewrite anything?' And he said, 'Absolutely not.' However, Duane absolutely changed dialogue."
Jones studied at the Sorbonne and acted in New York City before taking the role. He also spoke multiple languages. Jones was extremely gifted, but he had no idea he would change film history.
“He had no idea [the movie] would get as popular as it and that’s because that’s its own story. It was never copyrighted. They copyrighted the original title of it, which was Night of the Living Flesh Eaters, and they changed it last minute. They changed it to Night of the Living Dead, but they forgot to copyright it. So, it became the biggest thing all by accident."
But Duane Jones notoriously refused to speak about Night of the Living Dead after the film’s release. Instead, he was more interested in academia, and he taught at Antioch College.
"From 72 to 74, he was the associate professor of humanities and chairman of the department of literature. He also taught courses in theater and black literature as well," says McQueen.
Duane Jones left Yellow Springs in the mid-1970s. He continued to act and teach all over the world. And on December 13, 1987, he gave his final interview. He spoke in-depth about Night of the Living Dead for the first time about how the film may have changed the world, but he refused to let it change him.
"And it should never be misconstrued that my enigmatic, mysterious persona that I have, in some instances deliberately created, just to have the space in which to have a private life, is a lack of gratitude. It’s not. But it is my absolute insistence that I be seen as a total human being. And not as Ben," he said.
Jones died of a heart condition at age 51 in his home of New York. And while he doesn’t live on in the same way the ghouls do in Night of the Living Dead, Duane Jones’ legend is very much alive.
Culture Couch is made possible by a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.