In terms of racial resonance, Don’t Look in the Basement is sort of like the underachieving little brother to Night of the Living Dead. Whereas that George Romero classic has received widespread recognition for its ahead-of-its-time casting of an African-American lead, Don’t Look in the Basement, released just five years later, has flown under the radar for its portrayal of a black hero — its relative anonymity in line with an overall cult appeal that has kept it out of the mainstream consciousness for over four decades.
Of course, given Blaxploitation cinema had already begun to gain a following by the time Don’t Look in the Basement came out (no doubt spurring the hiring of Rosalind Cash and Lincoln Kilpatrick in prominent roles in The Omega Man, for instance), it wasn’t as groundbreaking — nor as good — as NOTLD, but it’s still a landmark of racial casting that a black character in the early ‘70s would basically single-handedly save the day in an otherwise lily-white movie. (Hell, it’s still pretty rare in the 21st century.)
Granted, the role of the Sam (Bill McGhee) is a potentially troublesome one in that he could be seen as fitting the big, dumb “brute” stereotype whose childlike persona (due to a lobotomy) represents an emasculating removal of the “threatening” nature of black men — in sharp contrast to Night of the Living Dead‘s Ben, who had no problem slapping around hysterical white women to make them shut the hell up. But despite his shortcomings, within the context of maniacal, one-note characters in Don’t Go in the Basement, Sam is damn near Sidney Poitier.
In the film, he’s a sweet, dim patient (think black Lennie from Of Mice and Men) at the secluded Stephens Sanitarium in rural Texas whose version of acting out — sticking his tongue out at people — pales in comparison to fellow patients who tend to stab out their emotions.
Although the lead character is Charlotte (Rosie Hotolik), a young blond nurse who has the misfortune of being hired just as the patients get particularly stabby, Sam’s the only one with the knowledge of what’s going on behind the scenes and the moral compass to do something about it. As such, he ends up standing up to his fellow patients — not only literally carrying Charlotte to safety (She is a woman, after all, and as dictated by this era’s cinematic standards, her legs must atrophy in fear.), but also by venturing BACK into the asylum to literally bury the hatchet with (read: in) his housemates before calmly finishing his popsicle. “I’ve come here to eat popsicles and dismember crazy people, and I’m all out of popsicles,” is what I imagine he’d say without the lobotomy.
Don’t Look in the Basement is cult-worthy cheesy exploitation with increasingly screamy dialogue and over-the-top performances in even more over-the-top roles, but aside from its noteworthy color-blind casting (race is never mentioned in the film), its surprising social consciousness extends to an indictment of draconian mental health practices like lobotomization. Don’t look now, but things are gettin’ deep in the basement.