One of countless books I've bought in the last 12 months that I'm finally making my way through; I buy at least one book a week, often 3 or 4 at a time. But I may not get to any of them for months, because I'm reading others that I bought in previous months.
It gets a bit nutty at times around my apartment, with books scattered about.
But anyway... with Halloween looming, I'm finally reading Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever, by Joe Kane. It was published in 2010. I bought it last year, when I first heard about it. We've written about the landmark film several times in the last 3 1/2 years, and while I'd like to think I know a lot about it, I bought the book aware of the fact that there's plenty I don't know, and should, like some of what is in the excerpt I included below.
Of course, it's about the making of George Romero's 1968 independent black-and-white horror classic, Night of the Living Dead - the $114,000 film that is considered subversive on many levels, which starred Duane Jones, a black actor, at a time when it was very unusual for a black man to be the hero of a film, in a cast of primarily white actors and actresses; and Romero's casting choice proved to be quite significant, really opening the film up to various interpretations and analyses.
If you haven't seen it, you really should.
Jones died in 1988, but his memory lives on in this film, and others (like Ganja & Hess - another title we've talked about quite a bit on this blog).
If after reading this excerpt, you decide that you want to read more, CLICK HERE to buy the 272-page paperback via Amazon, for just about $12.
Here's a juicy excerpt I lifted from it:
... As originally written, Ben was a resourceful but rough and crude-talking trucker, a role initially envisioned for Rudy Ricci. Those plans changed when a 31-year-old African-American actor named Duane Jones competed for the part. “A mutual friend of George’s and mine was a woman by the name of Betty Ellen Haughey,” producer Russ Streiner relates. “She grew up in Pittsburgh, but at that time she was living in New York and she knew of Duane Jones. He’d started off in a suburb just outside of Pittsburgh, yet he was off in New York making a living as a teacher and an actor. Duane happened to be in Pittsburgh visiting his family, and we auditioned him. And immediately everyone, including Rudy Ricci, said, ‘Hey, this is the guy that should be Ben.’” Director George Romero agrees with that recollection: “Duane Jones was the best actor we met to play Ben. If there was a film with a black actor in it, it usually had a racial theme, like 'The Defiant Ones.' Consciously I resisted writing new dialogue ‘cause he happens to be black. We just shot the script.
While still earthy and capable, Ben acquired an at once intense and understated quality that Jones brought to the role. According to the late Karl Hardman: “His [Ben’s] dialogue was that of a lower class/uneducated person. Duane Jones was a very well-educated man. He was fluent in a number of languages.” A B.A. graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Jones had dabbled in writing, painting and music, studied in Norway and Paris, and was completing an M.A. in Communications at NYU between “Night” shoots. “Duane simply refused to do the role as it was written. As I recall, I believe that Duane himself upgraded his own dialogue to reflect how he felt the character should present himself.”
Jones also contributed what proved to be an important component in perfect synch with the zeitgeist, an element vital to the film’s runaway success: black rage. In that pre-“blaxploitation” era, Jones’ Ben emerged as a cross between contemporaneous characters in a Sidney Poitier vein (e.g., “In the Heat of the Night’s” Virgil Tibbs) and the edgier African-American protags, like Richard (“Shaft”) Roundtree and Ron (“Superfly”) O’Neal, who would soon change forever the image of black men on screen. And while he earned audience support, Jones’ Ben made for an unusually harsh “hero,” even shooting an unarmed Harry Cooper in cold blood (though it would be hard to say he didn’t deserve it). But that was a large part of the point: Ben wasn’t a hero. He was an average guy, an everyman of any ethnic stripe, who simply reacted to an irrational situation with strong survival instincts and a competence that, though far from infallible, surpassed that of his five adult companions trapped in that zombie-besieged farmhouse.
Since Ben’s character was written sans a specific ethnicity, there’s never any overt reference to race in the film -- not even in those heated shouting matches between Ben and Harry (though one senses the ever-seething Harry’s unvoiced bigotry) -- yet the character’s black identity undeniably added another layer of anger to the pair’s ferocious battles for alpha-dog status. Ben’s blackness also lent greater tension to his relationship with the alternately comatose and hysterical Barbara.
As Russ Streiner admits, “We knew that there would be probably a bit of controversy, just from the fact that an African-American man and a white woman are holed up in a farmhouse.” When Barbara claws at her clothes, citing the house’s unbearable heat, the scene suggests a subtext of sexual repression and fear.
John Russo points out: “And then she falls into his arms. And I know that a lot of the bigots in the country are going to be thinking, ‘Oh my God, now what's he going to do? He's got this white woman in his arms,’ and lays her down on the couch and he unfastens her coat…and so I was aware that it might have those kind of vibes.”
A panicky Barbara then angrily lashes out. “It was written in the script that Barbara was to smack Ben at least three times,” says actress Judith O’Dea. “But this was a very sensitive issue for Duane Jones at that time and he said, ‘I can accept being smacked once. But I don't want to play it the way that you've written it.’ It was rewritten…I gave him a smack. And he gave me the fist -- right in the face.” And when Ben punches Barbara, a white woman -- this before Poitier’s groundbreaking smack of a racist aristocrat (Larry Gates) in “In the Heat of the Night” -- that act supplied another envelope-pushing note to the proceedings.
Those scenes provoked palpable reactions in audiences of the day. At one point, when the filmmakers considered lensing an alternate ending that would permit Ben to survive, it was Duane Jones who stood firm. “I convinced George that the black community would rather see me dead than saved, after all that had gone on, in a corny and symbolically confusing way.”
As I said above, some good stuff in this that you might want to read. If so, CLICK HERE to buy the book on Amazon's website, for about $12.
It's been remade twice - first in 1990, with Tony Todd playing the role of Ben, and 2006, in 3-D, however, Ben was played by a white actor named Joshua DesRoches.
And if you've never seen nor heard of Night Of The Living Dead, you can watch the entire 96-minute original film below, courtesy of Hulu (it was streaming on Netflix at one point, but it no longer is):