In 1959, one of the last of those 1950’s films about politicians and generals working together to create a strategy to stave off an invasion by aliens was released titled Invisible Invaders. The title characters manage to reach the earth safely and begin their invasion dressed like IBM salesmen, with faces as pale as the moonlight and lumbering along like Tor Johnson in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Invisible Invaders quickly established a legacy that made its existence as difficult to find as its titular extraterrestrials.
Roughly a decade later, however, an extraordinarily low-budget film that also seemed destined to be forgotten featured a bunch of ghouls—dead people resurrected from their burial grounds—that looked and acted almost exactly like those aliens from the earlier film. The primary difference between the invisible invaders and the living dead is attire: only some of those who would go on to incorrectly be described as “zombies” actually looked like IBM salesman. Indeed, one of the living dead was not just a woman but, infamously, completely nude.
When George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead premiered on October 1, 1968, few could possibly imagined that this black and white movie featuring not one single recognizable actor and made on a measly budget of just barely over $100,000 would become the foundation for a multimedia franchise every bit the equal of the most successful film series at the time: James Bond.
While it is highly likely that director Romero was influenced by Invisible Invaders in the creation of his living dead, one element of previous film history notably absent from the story is zombies. In fact, the word “zombie” never appears in the film and Romero did not conceive his horror characters as being zombies. The historical and subsequent mythology of zombies has nothing to do with resurrecting the dead; zombies by definition are living humans with souls.
Nevertheless, despite the fact the film as conceived and produced had nothing to do with zombies, its legacy is as the godfather of the zombie genre which eventually displaced the vampire film as the pre-eminent horror genre of the 21st century. The real legacy of Romero’s film has been the wholesale change in meaning of the concept of the “zombie.”
Pretty heady stuff for a low-budget flick that seemed destined to be remembered—if it was remembered at all—for being the movie that Roger Ebert famously targeted for making a 9-year-old girl sitting across the aisle from start uncontrollably crying and which Variety magazine termed a sadistic orgy of immorality.