In his filmography of nine acting credits, Duane Jones made the biggest impact of his on-screen career in the 1968 picture “Night of the Living Dead,” where he held the starring role of Ben.
His work in the film marked the first time an African American held a leading part as a protagonist in the horror genre and his performance was a key piece of making NOTLD the genre-game changer that it is.
While Jones’ performance might not be as well known as some of the others I’ve looked at, his work in the flick is still highly memorable and effective. Undoubtedly, the main strength of his acting in the picture is just how real it felt.
His performance never feels over-exaggerated or too melodramatic, the only thing that comes through the screen is an every-man trying to survive. From start to finish, Jones displays the emotions that most people would have in his situation, and he does so convincingly. We get to see the pressure put on his character, his adrenaline pushing him to continue working and his resolve to make it through the night.
Another example is how he can be both sympathetic toward and yet frustrated with Barbra. Also, Jones’ character shows that he knows that there is a need to work together to stay alive, but also has plenty of grievances with the other character Harry.
The result is a character who makes the entire movie feel more believable.
Another example of this is how well Jones manages to show Ben as a man who’s resourceful and quick-witted but is also prone to make some mistakes.
Again, this gives the character the every-man appeal, subsequently giving the protagonist more depth than some of the other horror protagonists that had come before him.
Also, despite some of the mistakes his character makes, Ben remains one of the most likable characters throughout the picture and Jones’ performance lends a great deal to this. Jones portrays the character with charisma and steadiness, always seeming to be the calmest, most forward thinking person in the room.
Likely the best scene of his performance is where he’s describing his early encounters with the zombies. Despite the scene mostly just being Ben describing his experience, it’s quite gripping because of how well Jones brings across his character’s fear, sadness and uncertainty of what’s all going on.
Thanks to his performance, the horror genre was changed forever and he opened doors for other African American actors for decades to come.