Judging by the record-breaking 7.3 million viewers who tuned into the premiere of the second season of The Walking Dead on AMC Sunday night, zombies haven’t lost a step.
Like that requisite black dress or suit, they never go out of style. And, of all the sub-genres of horror, including those hard-to-kill vampires, zombie-themed entertainment frequently includes black people who aren’t always the first to die. Because, as even the casual viewer of horror fare knows, black characters can virtually vanish right before a viewer’s eyes.
So what’s made zombie fare slightly different? It certainly doesn’t hurt that a black actor, Duane Jones, played the lead character Ben in the undisputed classic in the genre, Night of the Living Dead, written and directed by George Romero.
Given the social upheaval of 1968 when the film was released, that casting decision was profound. Romero has always insisted that Duane Jones was simply the best actor for the role.
Still, there’s no disputing the cultural impact of that decision. Plus Jones, according to Joe Kane’s article, “How Casting a Black Actor Changed ‘Night of the Living Dead’”, contributed many significant changes that enhanced the film.
Even before the game, which is produced by the Japanese company Capcom, by the way, was released, the trailer alone generated much debate, most notably from Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal. In an extended interview with the gaming blog MTV Multiplayer, Croal discussed his shock in detail.
What we’ve come to accept as mainstream entertainment may have origins of which we are unaware that subtly perpetuate racist ideals that we do not cosign. Still it is noteworthy that more so than other horror genres, we seem to always have a place in the world of zombies and that isn’t all bad.
But zombies interestingly enough have always been tied to race.
Stephen Harper notes in his essay “Night of the Living Dead: Reappraising an Undead Classic” that “it is important to remember the zombie’s origin in the voodoo tradition in Haiti.” In fact, another zombie classic was titled The White Zombie, presumably for that reason. Although that 1932 film is set in Haiti, all of the main characters are white, even the voodoo master.
Zombies, as most films in the U.S., are considered a white medium. Meaning that, in most zombie films, the main characters are white. But the distinction is there’s more room for a person of color in zombie fare than in horror in general. The Walking Dead, for example, has T-Dog. He may not have gotten much action in the premiere but, as the sneak peak reveals, he will be far more pronounced in this Sunday’s episode. Even more interesting, he’s not ignoring race at all.
“And I’m the only black guy. You realize how precarious that makes my situation?” he says to the older Dale, who is white, as he tries to convince him that they should run off from the others. T-Dog even references the racism he feels and brings up lynching.
This kind of conversation is rare for any form of American entertainment of course but maybe there’s something about zombies that makes this permissible. Certainly Michael Jackson’s classic video Thriller put race out front. There are many black zombies, including the King of Pop himself. Would Thriller have been as powerful if the bleached Michael of later years had starred in it instead of the brown Michael the world initially fell in love with?
It’s hard to believe that seeing a brown MJ did not make a difference. Thriller had to have widened perceptions of the gruesome creations, especially considering that it played almost every Halloween even before Jackson’s untimely death.
The flashy zombie franchise Resident Evil, which is a video game series brought successfully to the big screen, has been very progressive, by Hollywood standards, in its casting. The list of black actors is long and includes British actors Colin Salmon and Razaaq Adoti as well as Mike Epps, Ashanti even and most recently Boris Kodjoe, who made his debut in the fourth installment Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) and returns for the fifth one, Resident Evil: Retribution, due out September 2012.
Still, these films are tenuous. Although the video game for Resident Evil 5 is set in South Africa, the film was not. The problem with the game, as noted by the website Pop Culture Transgressions is “some of the scenes do not make a clear distinction between the bad behavior of the undead and everyday thugs.”
Even before the game, which is produced by the Japanese company Capcom, by the way, was released, the trailer alone generated much debated, most notably from Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal. In an extended interview with the gaming blog MTV Multiplayer, Croal discussed his shock in detail.
“It’s like they’re all dangerous; they all need to be killed,” he said of the black faces in the game’s trailer.
As Croal noted in his initial Newsweek piece, “This imagery has a history.”
Members of the Haitian community whom I knew weren’t too pleased with the 1988 film The Serpent and the Rainbow either. All of this brings attention to the fact that the zombie idea in itself can still be controversial. What we’ve come to accept as mainstream entertainment may have origins of which we are unaware that subtly perpetuate racist ideals that we do not cosign. Still it is noteworthy that more so than other horror genres, we seem to always have a place in world of zombies and that isn’t all bad.