Mar 28, 2020

The 5 Gay Connections of "Night of the Living Dead"

Take a good look at this physique. The chest, the biceps, the interplay of muscles when he moves, the butt-and-baket close-ups.

Unless you contact his children and ask for family photos, this is the only time you will see Keith Wayne, aka Ronnie Hartmann, the Teen Hunk in Night of the Living Dead (1968).  His only movie role;  he was a Pittsburgh-area singer cast for his muscles rather than his acting ability.  Afterwards he continued his musical career, and then became a chiropractor.

Gay Connetion #1: the intimate attention to Keith's physique (although he seems to have been straight in real life).

The story of Living Dead is well known: After a few years of filming tv commercials,  26-year old George Romero wanted to try his hand at fiction.  So he gathered some Pittsburgh-area friends, started a production company, and wrote a script designed to meet the 1960's "taste for the bizarre."  He drew his inspiration from vampire movies, Richard Matheson's I am Legend, and The Tales of Hoffman, but not from the slow, lumbering zombies of Haitian folklore.

Everybody has heard of the movie, but few people have actually seen it.  Last night I did.  When I wasn't gawking over Keith Wayne's gorgeosity,  I noticed many differences from the contemporary zombie mythos:

We begin in an isolated rural cemetery, where "within-it" 1960s post-teens Johnny and Barbra (Russell Streiner, Judith O'Dea) have driven three hours from Pitsburgh to put flowers on someone's grave.

Gay Connection #2: Why are they brother and sister, and not boyfriend/girlfriend, like every other couple in every other horror and science fiction movie of the 1950s and 1960s?  It allows for a gay reading of one or both.

They clown around a bit, and then a man approaches.  He doesn't speak; he just stares and attacks.  Johnny falls to the ground, injured or dead, and Barbra runs to an abandoned farmhouse.  She spends the rest of the movie utterly useless, either catatonic or hysterical.

Ben (Duane Jones) appears, explaining that he has encountered many other silent, murderous people on the road.  Some approach the house, so they barracade themselves in (well, Ben does all the work, while Barbra whimpers).

Only through radio and tv reports do they discover that, due to some scientific balderdash, the newly deceased in funeral homes and morgues in several U.S. cities have risen and are trying to eat the living.  The government is taking action; refugee centers are opening.

Eventually other occupants of the house emerge from hiding in the basement: Teen Hunk, his Girlfriend, Imperious Guy, his Wife, and his Infected Daughter.

Gay Connection #2: Duane Jones (Ben),  who later became a professor of theater at SUNY Old Westbury, was gay in ral life.

Gay Connection #3: Ben never displays the slightest romantic interest in Barbra.Of course, they're in a stressful situation, and a black-white romance would have been problematic in 1968, just a year after the Supreme Court invalidated the miscegenation laws.  But still, there's a hetero-romance in every other post-Apocalyptic, zombie, horror, and science fiction movie of the era. We can easily read him as gay.

Surprising Racial Dynamics:  A black guy becomes the leader of a houseful of white people, and no one objects (well, Imperious Guy does, but not because of Ben's race). Romero claims that he hadn't planned specifically to cast a black actor, but he made some script changes in response, like making Ben intelligent and well-spoken rather than the dim-witted truck driver in early scripts.

The other refugees are killed one by one, leaving Ben alone.

Surprising Trust in the Government:  This is no Apocalypse.  By morning, the government has things under control (less than 12 hours after the first reports!).  Every city has FEMA centers set up. The national guard and local police are scouring the countryside, killing the remaining undead and finding survivors.

The Lynching:  In the shocking last scene, some good old boys with dogs and guns approach the house, see Ben inside, and shoot him.  But if they were looking for survivors, wouldn't they check to see if he is undead before shooting?  Unless.."Look!  A Zombie!" was just an excuse to lynch a black man. Strange fruit hanging from a Southern tree.

Gay Connection #4: Could you do a reading with Ben as gay rather than black?  Queer the text?

Gay Connection #5: This is the last photo you will ever see of Keith Wayne, just like the Grindr hookup who you can neve find again.


  1. Never watched it, I did hear about it. It's interesting to hear these fan-thoughts, though. Always! :)

  2. I'm surprise you had never seen Romero's horror classic until now. You do bring some interesting points - could the lead character be a gay man instead of the black. Yes but they have no time for romance because they are fighting hungry zombies. The brother could be read as gay. Now you've given me an slash fiction idea the hunky Keith hooks up with Ben.

    1. You don't need to have a romance to express gay identity. You could just have the characters flirt with each other -- it happens all the time between men and women in zombie movies. Or he could say "I just lost my boyfriend!" Or bring it up during the heart-to-heart conversations they always have to break up the action -- you can't be fighting zombies all the time, or it would stop being scary.

  3. I wonder has there ever been a zombie movies with gay men as heroes?

    1. There are gay characters in "The Walking Dead" and "Fear the Living Dead," and some children's postapocalyptic movies (with or without zombies), but I can't recall any specifically identified gay characters among the heroes in a zombie movie for adults.


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