Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) drive to rural Pennsylvania for an annual visit to their father's grave. Noticing Barbra's discomfort, Johnny teases, "They're coming to get you, Barbra", before she is attacked by a strange man (Bill Hinzman). Johnny tries to rescue his sister, but falls and bashes his head on a gravestone, killing himself. Barbra flees, with the zombie in pursuit, including the de rigueur stumble-and-fall and the loss of her shoes. She arrives at a farmhouse where, to her horror, she discovers a woman's mangled corpse. Running out of the house, she is confronted by strange menacing figures like the man in the graveyard. Ben (Duane Jones) arrives in a truck and takes her back inside the house. Barbra slowly descends into shock as Ben drives the zombies from the house and begins boarding up the doors and windows. The zombies swarm around the house, searching for living human flesh.Ben and Barbra are unaware that the farmhouse has a cellar, which is housing married couple Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman) and their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who sought refuge after a group of zombies overturned their car; and teenage couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), who arrived after hearing an emergency broadcast about a series of brutal murders. Karen has fallen seriously ill after being bitten on the arm by one of the zombies. They venture upstairs when Ben turns on a radio, while Barbra awakens from a stupor. The overbearing, self-righteous Harry demands that everyone hide in the cellar, but Ben deems it a "deathtrap" and remains upstairs, continuing to barricade the house with Tom's help.
Radio reports explain that a state of mass murder is sweeping across the eastern United States. When Ben finds a television, the emergency broadcaster reports 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 returning from Venus, which was deliberately exploded in the Earth's atmosphere when the radiation was detected. (Though the radiation of a detonated satellite returning from Venus is theorized to be the cause of the dead rising and attacking the living, according to the filmmakers, the actual cause is never determined.) The Cooper family hiding in the cellar.When the reports list local rescue centers offering refuge and safety, Ben plans to leave and obtain medical care for Karen. Tom states that the closest center is in the town of Willard, several miles away. Ben and Tom venture outside to refuel Ben's truck, while Harry hurls Molotov cocktails from an upper window to keep the zombies at bay. Fearing for Tom's safety, Judy follows him. At the pump, Tom accidentally spills gasoline on the truck, setting it ablaze. Tom and Judy try to drive the truck away from the pump, but Judy gets her jacket caught in the car door and is unable to free herself. The truck explodes, instantly killing both Tom and Judy and setting their corpses on fire.
Ben flees back to the house, but finds himself locked out by Harry. He pounds on the door and shouts without result, finally kicking the door in. Angered by Harry's cowardice, Ben issues him a sound beating, while the zombies feed on the remains of Tom and Judy. In the house, a news report reveals that, aside from setting the "reactivated bodies" on fire, a gunshot or heavy blow to the head will stop them, and that posses of armed men are patrolling the countryside to restore order.
Moments later, the lights go out and the zombies begin to break through the barricades. Harry grabs Ben's rifle and threatens to shoot him, but Ben wrests the gun away and fires. Mortally wounded, Harry stumbles into the cellar and collapses next to Karen. The zombies try to pull Helen and Barbra through the windows, but Helen frees herself and goes down into the cellar - to find a reanimated Karen eating Harry. Helen, paralyzed by shock, falls as Karen stabs her to death with a masonry trowel. Barbra, seeing Johnny among the zombies, is carried away by the horde and devoured. The undead overrun the house, and Ben fights off Karen as he seals himself inside the cellar. He finds Harry and Helen starting to reanimate and shoots them.
The next morning, Ben is awakened by gunshots as sheriff's department deputies move through the fields, shooting all the zombies they find. Venturing upstairs, he is killed by a member of the posse, who mistook him for a zombie. The film ends with a series of still shots as Ben is placed onto a burning pyre, along with other dead bodies.
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