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What's the Most Successful Zombie Movie Ever?
An image from the movie Zombieland.
Credit: Columbia Pictures

The most successful zombie movie ever is Zombieland. The 2009 horror comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson as survivors trying to escape a zombie-filled landscape earned $75 million at the box office, according to industry tracking site Box Office Mojo.

However, a look at the zombie genre beyond the box office totals reveals that the most successful zombie movie ever, in terms of profit and cultural impact, is George A. Romero's 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead.

Romero has crafted a career out of his fascination with zombies. The writer-director's sixth film about the slow moving, flesh-eating undead, Survival of the Dead, hits theaters May 28. But he will be hard-pressed to top his greatest zombie success, which was also his first.

"Night of the Living Dead" influenced every zombie movie to follow in its slow-moving path, according to Baylor University assistant professor and zombie authority James Kendrick. He credits the movie with inventing the now-standard genre template of a zombie as a reanimated corpse with a taste for human flesh. Before then, zombies in movies were typically people in a trance or under the control of someone else.

Thus, every movie since 1968 that features reanimated corpses running amok owes something to Romero's black and white masterpiece, said Kendrick, who has written several books on zombies and teaches a course on zombie films.

The movie also changed attitudes toward horror movies.

Romero's film helped to revive the horror genre in the U.S., which had largely sunk into parody in the 1950s, with all the 'Abbott and Costello Meets...' movies, Kendrick said. He pointed out that the word 'zombie' is never uttered in Night of the Living Dead."

Aside from the fact that it basically launched its own sub-genre of horror, Night of the Living Dead is perhaps the most profitable zombie film in history. The movie was made on a budget of just $114,000, and it's earned more than $30 million worldwide, when the totals from its re-releases over the years are included.

Despite the film's enormous success, Romero and the film's producers didn't earn much of a windfall. Due to an oversight by the distributor, who left the copyright notice off the film, the movie lapsed into the public domain, so it's available to view or legally download for free from many websites, including YouTube.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of the success of Night of the Living Dead is the subsequent good fortune of the horror film genre as a whole.

Along with Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), "Night of the Living Dead" made horror horrific again, mostly by taking the genre seriously and using it to sociopolitical ends, said Kendrick, explaining that the film served as a metaphor for the social issues of the time.

It seems the Library of Congress agrees. In 1999, it selected Romero's landmark picture for preservation in the National Film Registry, citing its cultural significance.