While George Romero rightfully gets the majority of the credit for the success of Night of the Living Dead, Duane Jones doesn’t get nearly enough praise for his performance as Ben. Whether or not, as Romero claimed, Jones’ casting was simply a matter of him giving the best audition, I find it hard to believe that Romero didn’t recognize the potency of a black male lead forced to navigate rural white America in addition to the impending zombie apocalypse.
It’s also important to note that the film would not have worked with just any black actor. Jones balances Ben’s flaws with a sympathetic portrayal that makes his brutal end all the more tragic. It’s a phenomenal performance that left me wondering why Jones didn’t have more opportunities in the genre, so I was delightfully surprised when I recognized him in Bill Gunn’s 1973 quasi-vampire flick Ganja & Hess.
Jones plays anthropologist Hess Green, who as the films opens has taken on a new assistant named George Meda (Gunn, taking on acting duties in addition to writing and directing the film). Meda’s got some significant issues as an assistant, the most glaring of which is that in his first night at Hess’ house, he stabs him in a schizophrenic episode. The weapon he uses happens to be a dagger from an ancient Myrthian tribe, and as it turns out, side effects of being stabbed with such a dagger include immortality and an overwhelming addiction to blood. Hess tries stealing from blood banks to get his fix, but once he realizes that only fresh blood will do, he resorts to attacking pimps and prostitutes to satiate his cravings. When Meda’s wife, Ganja (Marlene Clark), comes asking about her husband, she and Hess quickly fall for one another, leading to Hess turning Ganja in the hopes of having a partner who can share his burden.
This is a film as eccentric as its creator, as Gunn’s credits only feature a couple of films, but also include extensive work as a playwright and author of two novels. He seemed adept at taking the road less traveled, as evidenced by the fact that he made an arthouse horror film at the peak of the blaxploitation era of the early ’70s, when black filmmakers and actors took classic stories and centered them in the experience of black communities.
Ganja & Hess, on the other hand, is a wholly original story that actively subverts expectations. It’s a vampire story stripped of all the genre’s tropes, save blood drinking and immortality. It’s a movie with a predominantly black cast and crew that doesn’t look to delve into race beyond letting black characters exist in a film where their sole purpose isn’t to serve as a contrast to white characters. It’s even a horror movie that doesn’t feel like a horror movie, as Gunn veers away from traditional scares and instead creates a sense of unease by leaning into the tragedy of addiction and mental illness.
For instance, there’s George Meda. Gunn takes what could be a throwaway character meant to simply push the plot forward and imbues him with complexity. He avoids the stereotypical “madman” tropes and instead conveys a character coping as best he can with a serious affliction. Gunn takes his time with Meda, performing the character as one who is aware of his illness while still being unable to control himself, and framing shots to reflect how disorienting the ordeal must be for Hess as he tries to talk Meda down from a tree in a scene that only allows us to see Hess’ face, Meda’s legs dangling from the tree branch where he’s perched, and the noose that Meda may or may not intend to use on himself.
After he’s stabbed with the Myrthian dagger, Jones is left to do the heavy lifting in terms of performance as, in a similar fashion to Night of the Living Dead, he’s tasked with playing a man who the audience won’t see as awful even as he does awful things. And once again, Jones is up to the challenge. We can believe that on one hand he’s capable of being a warm, caring father to his son, while on the other hand he’s capable of killing strangers when his need for blood gets strong enough. It’s also interesting that Gunn’s screenplay never bothers with having Hess grapple with the origin of his addiction or attempt to break the curse. He’s just trying to find a way to manage it as best as he can.
To that end, Gunn makes great use of camerawork and sound to convey the oppressive nature of Hess’ addiction. Quick cuts, overlaid images, and wonky angles create a disorienting atmosphere, while a soul soundtrack injected with warped effects reminds us that all is not right in Hess’ world. His compulsions even have their own musical theme of sorts, as his urge to drink blood is always accompanied by a repetitive tribal chant that pounds with the regularity of the urges themselves.
Finally, thrown into this whirlwind is Marlene Clark’s Ganja, a woman forced to contend not only with her own demons, but those thrust upon her by both Meda and Hess. She’s initially aggressive and confrontational with Hess, which makes her seem cold and hostile until considered in the context of what must have been a difficult relationship with Meda. As she eventually lets her guard down with Hess, you can’t help but feel for her as she escapes one damaged relationship only to fall into another. Clark, like Jones, expertly navigates the tightrope of a deeply flawed character whose charm keeps her from completely losing the audience (watching her mess with Hess’ servant is a sight to see). Once she’s turned, Ganja grapples with the ramifications of her newly acquired cravings and the layers of her hard exterior strip further away, hinting at the lonely, abusive childhood that shaped her as an adult.
In the end, Ganja’s and Hess’ stories resolve in as an unorthodox a manner as the rest of the movie. (SPOILER ALERT) Hess finds religion and kills himself by allowing the shadow of a crucifix to cover his heart, finding peace in the only way he can. Ganja is left alone to continue coming to terms with her curse, but seems much better suited to do so than Hess would have been. Their fates are both somehow simultaneously tragic and empowering, one final paradox in a film that’s filled with them.
Ultimately, Gunn’s sole foray into the horror genre defies description, so I can only hope I’ve done it some measure of justice. But it’s the film’s odd qualities that make it such an interesting watch. So, if you’re willing to follow Bill Gunn off the beaten path, I think you’ll find a worthwhile experience that will leave you satisfied until you too need your next fix.
Image credit: Above image from Kino Lorber.