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.