Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny Blair (Russell Streiner) drive to rural Pennsylvania for an annual visit to their father's grave. Barbra is attacked by a strange man (Bill Hinzman) walking in the cemetery. Johnny tries to rescue his sister, but the man throws him against a gravestone; Johnny strikes his head on the stone and is killed. After a mishap with the car, Barbra escapes on foot, with the stranger in pursuit, and later arrives at a farmhouse, where she discovers a woman's mangled corpse. Fleeing from the house, she is confronted by strange menacing figures like the man in the graveyard. Ben (Duane Jones) arrives and takes her into the house, driving the "monsters" away and sealing the doors and windows. Throughout the night, Barbra slowly descends into a stupor of shock and insanity.
Ben and Barbra are unaware that the farmhouse has a cellar, housing an angry married couple Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman), along with their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon). They sought refuge after a group of the same monsters overturned their car. Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), a teenage couple, arrived after hearing an emergency broadcast about a series of brutal murders. Karen has fallen seriously ill after being bitten by one of the monsters. They venture upstairs when Ben turns on a radio, while Barbra awakens from her stupor. Harry demands that everyone hide in the cellar, but Ben deems it a "deathtrap" and continues upstairs, to barricade the house with Tom's help.
Radio reports explain that a wave of mass murder is sweeping across the eastern United States. Ben finds a television, and they watch an emergency broadcaster (Charles Craig) report that the recently deceased have become reanimated and are consuming the flesh of the living. Experts, scientists, and the United States military fail to discover the cause, though one scientist suspects radioactive contamination from a space probe. It returned from Venus, and was deliberately exploded in the Earth's atmosphere when the radiation was detected.
Ben plans to obtain medical care for Karen when the reports listed local rescue centers offering refuge and safety. Ben and Tom refuel Ben's truck while Harry hurls molotov cocktails from an upper window at the ghouls. Judy follows him, fearing Tom's safety. Tom accidentally spills gasoline on the truck setting it ablaze. Tom and Judy try to drive the truck away from the pump, but Judy is unable to free herself from its door, and the truck explodes, killing them both; the zombies promptly eat the charred remains.
Ben returns to the house, but is locked out by Harry. Eventually forcing his way back in, Ben beats Harry, angered by his cowardice, while the zombies feed on the remains of Tom and Judy. A news report reveals that only a gunshot or heavy blow to the head can stop them, aside from setting the "reactivated bodies" on fire. It also reported that posses of armed men are patrolling the countryside to restore order.
The lights go out, and the zombies break through the barricades. Harry grabs Ben's rifle and threatens to shoot him. In the chaos the two fight and Ben manages to wrestle the gun away and shoots Harry. Harry stumbles into the cellar and collapses next to Karen, mortally wounded. She has also died from her illness. The ghouls try to pull Helen and Barbra through the windows, but Helen frees herself. She returns to the refuge of the cellar to see Karen is reanimated and eating Harry's corpse. Helen is frozen in shock, and Karen stabs her to death with a masonry trowel. Barbra, seeing Johnny among the zombies, is carried away by the horde and devoured. As the zombies overrun the house, Ben fights off Karen and seals himself inside the cellar, where Harry and Helen are reanimating, and he is forced to shoot them.
Ben is awakened by the posse's gunfire outside the next morning. He ventures upstairs; the posse spot him through the window and mistake him for one of the ghouls, shooting him through the forehead. Ben's body is thrown into a pile of bodies, laid next to the original zombie from the cemetery and the bodies are all lit on fire.
Why It Rocks
- Although it is not the first zombie movie (the first one would be White Zombie), it is the first film to depict the flesh eating zombies.
- In addition to inventing the flesh-eating zombie, Night of the Living Dead also introduces the most famous method of defeating a zombie; destroying the brain.
- The introduction of flesh eating zombies would soon become one of the greatest sub-genres in horror, with thousands of movies, video games, and television shows depicting them.
- George A. Romero wanted to use zombies as a disaster to show how even in the worst scenarios, it's hard for some people to get along.
- The famous "They're coming to get you, Barbra" line.
- At the time, this was one of the most graphic and violent films ever made in America.
- Considered to be the movie that ushered in the splatter film genre.
- The Walter Reade Organization neglected to put a copyright indication on the prints. This neglect caused the film to go into public domain, which kind of screwed Romero over. This however can also be a good thing as it means very easy access to the movie.
- The film was made before the ratings system came into place allowing many young children to walk right in and grab a ticket at the time. This created quite a bit of controversy at the time.
Night of the Living Dead is considered one of the best independent films ever made as well as one of the most important horror films of all time. It was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 1999.