“They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”
George Romero’s vision of the walking dead has done more to influence the zombie film genre than anything else. His undead are grotesque shambling corpses, which you may recognize from most—over half, by any account—of the following zombie flicks. If you look at the history of the zombie film sub-genre, there weren’t that many zombie films before Night of the Living Dead, which picked up in the ’70s and ’80s and exploded in the early 2000s.
The film’s plot is also something that has had a major impact on the genre: a group of random, innocent people trying to survive as hordes of the dead rise up, seeking to feast on flesh. Many modern films/games/novels attempt to justify or explain its zombie background—for example, viruses in 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead and I Am Legend, the latter having more influence on the zombie genre than it had zombies itself.
I think it works better in Romero’s version: we don’t know why they’re up, why they eat people, or anything else. Instead of coming across as campy, it’s damn creepy: those original zombies are complete unknowns, but visible, tangible threats.
It also started a groundswell of independent horror films, with Evil Dead taking the concept and making it into the How-To guide for shooting a budget horror flick. And it managed to add some interesting commentary to the civil rights movement happening around it—the lead male role is that of a black man, a very controversial move for the ’60s. Even if, as Romero claims, Duane Jones was cast only because of his performance, it ended up making an impact on critics and viewers.
Why is it scary?
Two reasons. First, the setting and characters. They’re pretty average, not particularly trained for a zombiepocalypse, nor do they have much group cohesion. They’re isolated, not sure what the hell’s going on, it’s dark out—which is stunning in a black-and-white movie, where Romero uses a lot of great shading techniques—and they’re not well armed. They hold out the best they can, and that’s where the horror comes from: it’d be like if you and some random people were holding out the best you could.
Second, this is the film that launched the zombie genre, and as such isn’t tied down by modern-day formulaic contrivances. Now, when you make a zombie movie, most often it’s a parody/comedy or an intentionally schlocky low-budget flick. Much like with anime and comic books, I think the formula of the genre—the audience’s expectations, and the film’s (or game’s, or novel’s) attempts to meet those expectations—do the genre a disservice, not taking itself seriously as anything but another example in the genre niche. And the zombie over-exposure, like with vampires and werewolves, means they aren’t scary any more on their own.