Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny are visiting their father’s grave in the Pennsylvania countryside. The car radio dies and a strange, pale-faced man in a tattered suit kills Johnny and attacks Barbra. She runs and takes shelter in a farmhouse, but the woman who lives there is dead and half-eaten. The man from the cemetery has followed her along with a bunch of ghoulish friends. Ben (Duane Jones) arrives and boards up the doors and windows, then drives away the ghouls with a rifle he finds in the closet, and with fire.
Barbra is so shocked, she is catatonic. Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) and Tom (Keith Wayne) emerge from the cellar. Harry’s wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) is there, and their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) has been bitten. Tom’s girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley) is there too. They are hiding out after hearing about brutal killings. Tom helps Ben secure the farmhouse and Harry goes back to the cellar. More and more ghouls gather outside.
The group hears and sees reports of mass murder all across the East Coast, committed by an army of reanimated corpses. Groups of armed men are also out there, killing the ghouls with bullets or a blow to the head, or by fire. The theory is that this is the result of radiation from a space probe returned from Venus, but there is no more discussion about it
Ben wants to get medical supplies for Karen and get the others to a rescue center, but he has to refuel his truck. But the fuel spills, the truck explodes, and Tom and Judy die. Ben has to run back to the house and break in when Harry will not open the door. Ben beats up Harry. While the ghouls eat Tom and Judy outside, the others try to escape. But the ghouls break down the barricades. Ben shoots Harry for not helping. Karen dies from her injuries and awakens from death to eat her father’s remains, then stabs Helen to death. Barbra recovers from her catatonic state but is dragged away by a reanimated Johnny.
The horde breaks into the house and Ben takes shelter in the cellar. He has to shoot Harry’s and Helen’s reanimated corpses. The next morning an armed posse arrives and begins shooting ghouls. Ben emerges from the cellar and the posse shoots him dead. The posse shoots the first black man they see. Imagine that. His body is thrown on the fire.
The movie was written, directed, photographed, and edited by George Romero, and co-written by John Russo, both of whom had been doing TV commercials and industrial films and wanted to make a feature. They used Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend to start with. It cost $114,000 dollars and grossed 30 million bucks. It was excoriated by critics, but it is now a classic, if there ever was one.
The word Zombie was never used. At the time, Zombies were corpses re-animated by voodoo to cut sugar cane on plantations in Haiti. Ben was pretty much the first black hero in mainstream movies. Ben was supposed to be a white truck-driver, but Duane Jones was the best actor to show up, and he made the character educated and heroic. Martin Luther King was assassinated the next day, and the hero’s death in the movie took on new meaning. Romero made five sequels between 1978 and 2009, and there were many re-makes made by all and sundry because the studio, in changing the name, left off the copyright notice and it went immediately into public domain.
The house was scheduled to be torn down and they were allowed to trash it. One of the actors owned a butcher shop and provided ham and intestines for the ghouls to eat. The clothing came from Goodwill. The film was 35mm black-and-white. Romero’s previous job was making short films for Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Romero refused to tack on a happy ending. There was no MPAA film rating system at the time and the audience was largely adolescents, who were stunned and thrilled to see exactly the movie their parents would not want them to see. I suppose you could make a case for this movie helping to create the rating system.
Because of the public domain snafu, it was reproduced and shown everywhere, and it was colorized, restored, remade, animated, politicized, and otherwise monkeyed with for years. Its bastard child was the slasher film. The blood in the movie was Bosco chocolate syrup. Just after the film’s production, a tornado hit the graveyard in the cemetery in the opening scene and 200 bodies came out of the ground. Gale Anne Hurd, producer of The Walking Dead TV series said that all the rules governing zombies came from this movie.