Foree, who was actually in the same civil rights activist and theatre group in Harlem as Jones, says he brought his indignation with racial inequality to his performance as Peter, who takes on the hordes of zombies with calm authority. “Any African-American in those years carried anger,” he tells BBC Culture. “You couldn’t help but carry anger in those years. It was a time for heroes and young men who wanted to get out there and change the world.” When he was cast in the protagonist role in his mid-20s, he was keenly aware it was an unusual one for a black actor in the 1970s. “[In films] there’d be one black person here, the token black [person] there, and that was about it. So there wasn’t that much work for everyone. People just weren’t used to seeing black [actors] doing very much, or you were a curiosity more than anything else.” Foree reveals he wasn’t even expecting the film to be released in the US because of how violent it was but it turned out to be a massive hit and resonated long after with black audience members. “I found later that so many African-Americans were so happy and impressed that I survived. And they were proud of it; it was something of an accomplishment in their eyes… a lot of African-Americans approached me and said: ‘Hey man, you lived through it. You’re the first African American who lived through a horror film.'”
But if Dawn of the Dead should have been a watershed moment for racially enlightened horror, it proved to be a false dawn – for years afterwards, black actors continued to be either invisible in the genre or playing disposable and stereotypical characters.
In the 1990s, a few more black actors did start to appear in US horror movies, among them the 1995 Spike Lee-produced anthology film Tales from the Hood, which comprised a quartet of scary stories all centred on African Americans, and highlighted issues such as police corruption, institutional racism and gang warfare. But perhaps the era’s most prominent “black horror”, though made by a white filmmaker, was the original Candyman. However while, in centring black trauma, it was doing something new with the genre, it was ultimately still very regressive, with its central plotline of a white woman being preyed on by an African-American antagonist. “It is a good example of a film that really wanted to have a sophisticated take on race,” says Due. “It has moments where it accomplishes that, but at the same time falls victim to racial tropes. It’s a story that presents visually almost as if it’s a black story. But it really isn’t a black story.”
An actress sidelined
Another Hollywood horror from the 1990s to feature a black protagonist was The Craft (1996), the now-cult teen movie about a coven of high-school witches, including rising mixed-race star Rachel True. However, as True attests, the depiction of her character Rochelle was very problematic: the script didn’t give her a proper backstory, or family, unlike her white peers, a sketchy characterisation that was emphasised by one particular scene, in which a male character introduces new girl Sarah to the coven, and gives a description of the other two witches to her, but doesn’t even mention Rochelle. “At the time it was 1,000% the norm that my black character [would be treated this way],” True tells BBC Culture.