The zombie subgenre often allows filmmakers to explore social issues in ways other horror films can't, with some audiences pointing towards George Romero's Night of the Living Dead as a defining example of addressing racism through its tale of the dead coming back to life. The filmmaker regularly refuted the idea that he was attempting to address social issues, with member of the crew Gary Streiner confirming the commentary on race was an unintentional result of the film.
"People got blindsided by the social commentary of it. We had probably one of the biggest blessings that we could've had by having Duane Jones play the lead," Streiner shared with ComicBook.com when discussing the film's lasting legacy. "That was never a plan, that was totally by accident. That role was originally meant to be played by Rudy Ricci and some friends of ours knew of Duane and he actually lived in a community near Pittsburgh called Duquesne, Pennsylvania and he was home for a weekend. Somebody said, 'Hey, you've gotta read him, he's in town, I think he'd be great for the part.' George had a reading with Duane and that was it, but he was picked for his acting ability, not his social commentary."
Jones played Ben in the film, a character who takes charge of a group of survivors hoping to outlast wandering ghouls that have surrounded a farmhouse. The film might not have explicitly addressed the racial issues in America at the time, though the conflicts Ben has with other characters evoke a sense of that racial tension.
Additionally, many scenes showing victims of the ghouls eerily echoed imagery of racially-motivated murders taking place in America at the time.
This accidental social commentary helped make the film much more effective, even if Romero was merely focused on hiring the most talented actor he could find. Streiner pointed out that another reason the film is so well-regarded after 50 years is what it was able to accomplish for such an independent production.
"The other thing, I think it's a genius script and a lot of other people happen to think that, take it out of the horror genre, it's one of the best independent films ever made in America," Streiner noted. "That's the way a lot of the lovers of it feel. That happened not only because it's a good script, compelling script and it has lots of layers. Wow, if these five people that were in this house could've only gotten together, they might have been able to not have it end the way it ended, but they couldn't they had to keep quibbling and they couldn't keep it together."
To celebrate the film's legacy, you can attend a screening of the film at the theater in which it had its premiere. The Byham Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania will screen a restoration of Night of the Living Dead on October 6th with many of the cast and crew in attendance.
You can visit TrustArts.org to buy tickets and learn more about the screening.
Do you think the film would have been as effective with a different lead actor? Let us know in the comments below or hit up @TheWolfman on Twitter to talk all things horror and Star Wars!