Zombies appeared in movies early on, in White Zombie (1932), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Last Man on Earth (1964), and -- to some extent -- Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). But the infectious, flesh-eating, undead creatures we know today originated in George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). No other horror movie was such a cornerstone, breaking new ground for its time, establishing the hard and fast rules for an entire subgenre and remaining a much-copied source nearly 40 years later. On top of all this, it's actually a great film, and hardly dated at all. When I first saw it, all alone in a dark room late at night, it gave me the shivers. But it also gave me food for thought.
Many have studied the complex relationship between the film's human characters, all trapped in an abandoned house trying to survive the night. Barbara (Judith O'Dea), after losing her brother to a zombie, becomes nearly catatonic. She's like the child of this twisted family. Ben (Duane Jones) is the leader, and though Romero apparently hadn't written the role for a black man, he evokes echoes of the Civil Rights movement that was brewing at the time. Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) is white, middle-class America, with a wife, Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and a daughter (Kyra Schon). And Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) are typical teenagers, hoping to get married and settle down. It's easy to see all kinds of social commentary within this group of characters and their behavior, but even without all that, the film works very simply as a dramatic clash of personalities.
Romero starts the action very simply: one zombie appears at a graveyard and attacks Barbara and her brother (who, incidentally, does a funny Boris Karloff imitation, as if to say goodbye to old school horror movies). Each time a zombie kills someone that person gets up and becomes a new zombie. The zombies wish only to eat flesh, and their numbers increase exponentially. The humans hide in the house, board up the doors and windows, listen to the radio and watch TV, and argue about whether to stay on the main floor or barricade themselves in the basement. At one point a news broadcast shows a gaggle of scientists who won't commit to any kind of explanation for the outbreak, nor do they seem capable of coming up with any kind of solution. All they've been doing is forming committees and having meetings.
Everyone's fate lies in the hands of three potential saviors. Ben remains cool and collected, and he's a natural leader. Harry is angry and panicky and tends only to think of himself (though, strangely, he's not a bigot. He never refers to Ben in racial terms). Finally, there is a third, collective hero, a band of rednecks with rifles, marching through the countryside, blowing holes in zombies' heads. It's not much of a choice. And even Ben is not above slapping Barbara when she babbles too much. But it's an ironic comment on humanity and the benefits of our existence. Just what do we have to offer that the zombies don't? Why are we superior to them? Do they bring out our good side, or do they emphasize our flaws?
As for the movie's more physical side, Romero ingeniously made the zombies slow, tapping into a kind of nightmare state. Running from them is like one of those dreams where your feet feel like lead and you can't move. Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) is, ironically, much less effective with its fast zombies. In the latter film the conflict becomes more like a standard chase scene, a cop dashing after a purse-snatcher, than anything scary or supernatural. Night of the Living Dead is also an early experiment in gore; we see zombies tearing at and munching on fleshy limbs, but only enough so that we get the idea. As flawed as we humans are, no one deserves that kind of fate. The film's great black-and-white cinematography, rather than the stately design of early horror films, now works like more of a documentary/newsreel, underlining realism on a ground level.
Other horror subgenres, the vampire film, for example, have been explored in dozens of unique ways. But the zombie film remains fairly constant. No amount of sequels or remakes or spinoffs is going to change the rules much. (Though I must admit I'm very fond of the comedies, especially Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead and Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead.) Romero's own sequels have continued to experiment with social criticism, and often brilliantly. The equally masterful Dawn of the Dead (1978) had something to say about consumer culture; Day of the Dead (1985) took on military vs. pacifist thinking in the Reagan era; and Land of the Dead (2005) looks at the current widening class struggle in a country where everyone is supposed to have a chance. Romero's zombies have also evolved. In Day of the Dead, a zombie called "Bub" learns several rudimentary tasks, and in Land of the Dead, a zombie leader (black, like Ben) emerges.