Perspective: An Appreciation of Duane Jones

Duane Jones holds a flaming torch in a black and white imageIn a year that seemed like something right out of a George Romero movie, my Pitt students and I embarked last spring on a class called Making the Documentary: George Romero and Pittsburgh. It was full of unexpected twists and turns, but one of the most profound revelations of the journey was discovering that the lead actor of Romero’s iconic 1968 film, “Night of the Living Dead,” Duane Jones, was a Pitt alumnus (EDUC ’59).

Jones played the lead role—a first by an African American actor in a horror film. And with the blockbuster success of films like Jordan Peele's 2017 “Get Out,” which also featured a Black lead, and the 50th anniversary of Romero’s “Night” in 2018, much has been written in the last few years about Jones’ role as Ben as a seminal film performance.

But through some super-sleuthing from my students, using the University’s recently acquired George A. Romero Archival Collection and a memorable interview with one of Jones best friends at Pitt, Richard Ricci, we were able to uncover so much more about this extraordinary human being. 

Connected through Romero’s widow Suz Romero, we were able to hear from Ricci over Zoom about what a great talent Jones was while at Pitt. Ricci said Jones’ voice was smooth as silk. Jones had starred in plays while studying education as an undergraduate and was so talented that Richard said he often could not tell when he was acting. Jones’ sister Marva Brooks spoke to us about the charisma of her older brother who always drew people to him, including a young art major from the school then called Carnegie Tech—George Romero. 

Romero and Ricci had met after George had read a poem Ricci had written. They had coffee in Oakland for what apparently lasted about three days and started talking about movies, because Ricci was the projectionist at Pitt and had access to Pitt film equipment. Before long, Romero dropped out of Carnegie Tech and Ricci and Romero, along with Ricci’s cousin Rudy Ricci and Russ and Gary Streiner, had started their own company on Pittsburgh's South Side called Latent Image. The new company produced commercials for Buhl Planetarium and Calgon Detergent as well as short pieces for “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,” including “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” Inspired by Pittsburgh’s televised Chiller Theater, which showed horror movies late Saturday nights hosted by “Chilly Billy Cardille,” they decided to produce a feature which initially was called “Night of the Flesh Eaters.” 

According to Ricci, what led to Jones being cast in the film as Ben was some creative differences between the lead actor and Romero. Romero and Ricci immediately thought about the best actor they knew: Duane Jones. Romero asked Ricci if he could convince Jones, who had earned a master’s degree in New York and was now teaching theater, to come back for an audition.

According to producer Russ Streiner, while the initial part was much more “blue collar,” Jones brought an intellect to the part and changed the language, giving Ben more dimension. When Jones first read the script, he apparently expressed apprehension about him, a Black man, playing a part in which he had to slap a white woman and shoot a white man. Romero and Ricci did not think it was much of a big deal, but Jones knew its significance and apparently joked about whether they would have a witness protection program for him. Some of the scenes Ben has in the movie—such as when he and Harry Cooper are arguing about whether the main floor or the basement is better to evade the ghouls descending upon them and Ben tells him, “Get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there. I'm the boss up here”—are still being written about today for their racial overtones. 

But what seemed at first to Romero and Streiner as just colorblind casting took on a whole new significance when, on the way to New York with a print of the film, now called “Night of the Living Dead,” they heard the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.

Romero acknowledged, at that point, this film where the protagonist (spoiler alert), a Black man, is mistaken for a zombie by a white posse and shot dead, suddenly became a “Black film.” 

Ironically, a legal error because of the name change put the film into public domain, and so while the film grossed an estimated $30 million, because of that error and disputes with the distributor, almost none of that money made it into the hands of the filmmakers, investors or stars of the film. 

Still, with their newfound celebrity, as Jones’ sister Brooks noted, both Romero and Jones could have gone out to Hollywood to pursue fame and fortune. Instead, Jones shied away from being known as the zombie fighter Ben and performed in the theater and in avant-garde films. These included the experimental horror film “Ganja and Hesse,” in which he plays an anthropologist who becomes a vampire, directed by Black director Bill Gunn and remade by Spike Lee in 2014 as “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.”

In addition to his acting work, Jones thrived as a teacher and was director of the Maguire Theater at the State University College at Old Westbury (New York) and artistic director at the Richard Allen Center for Culture and Art in Manhattan. From 1972 to 1976, he headed the literature department at Antioch College in Ohio.

While he achieved international fame through “Night of the Living Dead,” Brooks says Jones’ true legacy may be in teaching. She talked about his commitment he had to teaching some who others might deem uneducable. In a film my students and I made to honor Jones with the 2021 George A. Romero Pioneer Award, National Book Award winning poet and Center for African American Poetry and Poetics Creative Writing Fellow Justin Philip Reed spoke of his admiration for how Jones could reach students outside traditional institutions. Jones mentored them privately and accepted leadership positions such as executive director of the Black Theater Alliance. Brooks spoke movingly about how, after Jones died tragically at age 51 of cardiopulmonary arrest, his memorial was attended by doctors, academicians and theater professionals who had become so, in part, because of Jones’ influence.

Though he spoke positively about the experience of making “Night of the Living Dead” with his friends, Jones had expressed ambivalence about being too associated with the role of Ben. As a serious intellectual, he probably had good reason, as horror has not always been acknowledged for the impact it has had, despite addressing issues such as trauma and race. But thanks to the recently acquired George A. Romero archives and a new Horror Studies Working Group through Pitt’s Honors College, attention is beginning to be paid. At a time when diversity and racial equity are once again appropriately at the forefront of discussion, it is more essential than ever that we remember and live up to the legacy of pioneers like Duane Jones. 

Carl Kurlander is a senior lecturer in the Department of Film and Media Studies in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

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