By Frederick H. Lowe
Filmmaker George A. Romero, who cast black actor Duane Jones as the lead in the 1968 horror classic “Night of the Living Dead,” died Sunday after a battle with lung cancer. He was 77.
Romero launched the zombie genre in film with “Night of the Living Dead,” which was made outside of Pittsburgh, the city where he attended Carnegie Mellon University.
In selecting Jones as the film’s hero and lead, Romero broke a precedent that would not be repeated for decades.
At the time, casting a black man as the protagonist of a film in which all of the other characters were white was controversial, according to several reports.
While some saw the casting as significant, Romero said “Jones simply gave the best audition.” Jones was executive director of the Black Theater Alliance, a federation of theater companies, from 1976-81.
In the film, the dead buried in a country graveyard return to life to feast on the living, some of whom hide inside a house for safety.
Jones played the character Ben, the group’s leader. He barricades the house’s doors and windows to prevent the zombies from getting inside. He is also armed with a shotgun.
Although the living dead walk slowly and awkwardly, they manage to run down the living.
This movie, however, does not have a happy ending. The people inside the house fight among themselves and when the sheriff finally arrives, he shoots to death Ben, believing he is a zombie.
“Night of the Living Dead” was made for $114,000 and it grossed $30 million at the box office.
Jones, a native of Mineola, N.Y., died of cardiac arrest on July 22, 1988. He was 51.