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That's right. One of the hallmark zombie films of all time could have ended with Duane Jones surviving. But before we get there, let's back up.
The film's ending is often interpreted as a statement on race, but that wasn’t the intention.
Director George A. Romero said, “We didn’t cast Duane [Jones] because he was black. We cast him because he was the best actor.”
Jones actually got the audition thanks to a friend of the director and producer Russ Streiner. As soon as he auditioned, they knew he fit the part.
The role was originally written as a blue collar truck driver, who was described in the script as being "large and crude, in coveralls and tattered work shirt. He looks very strong, and perhaps a little stupid.”
And a little stupid was probably right, as the character's dialogue indicated.
His first lines were originally: “Aww right... 'ts awright now... Don't you mind the creep outside... Ahm outa gas... Ah get us some grub... then we beat 'em off an' skedaddle.”
When Jones got the part though, he decided to elevate the dialogue so that the character was “respectable.”
Romero said, “There’s nothing in the film that points to race. You have to interpret that into it.”
As they approached the ending of the film, Romero contemplated changing it, so that Jones survived. But it was Duane who convinced them to stay the course.
He said, “I convinced George that the black community would rather see me dead than saved, after all that had gone on, in a corny and symbolically confusing way. Besides, the heroes never die in American movies. The jolt of that and the double jolt of the hero figure being black seemed like a double-barreled whammy.”