This 'Twilight Zone' episode was the first modern-day zombie appearance on a TV show
Rod Serling had the braaaaains to start giving the undead air time in 1964.
Read to Me
Today, zombies dominate TV, with The Walking Dead leading the staggering pack when it comes to mass popularity and critical acclaim. But what shows, if any, paved the way for The Walking Dead, Dead Set, Z Nation, and other shows that gobble up viewers' brains these days? We went digging to find out.
When considering the history of zombies in film, many point to the 1932 film White Zombie as the first to embark on this craze, followed by I Walked With a Zombie more than a decade later in 1943. From there, zombie movies became another common monster motif, up there with werewolves and vampires, leading up to the present day when special effects crews can finally more easily contend with George Romero's more imaginative creatures composed (and decomposed?) for Night of the Living Dead in 1968.
Romero is credited with completely changing the definition of what a zombie was, moving away from the Voodoo brainwashing of early zombie installments in movies and TV, and ushering culture toward the notion of zombies as corpses beings resurrected from beyond the grave. Instead of living victims whose brains were under the control of sorcerors, Romero's zombies were the undead. This was a game-changer, and The Walking Dead owes a clear debt, as does all zombie entertainment that followed.
However, in our search for evidence of the undead in early TV shows, we unearthed two compelling episodes that dabbled in Romero's zombie definition that actually predate Night of the Living Dead.
The first is a 1961 episode of Thriller, a horror anthology series hosted by Boris Karloff. It's called "Pigeons from Hell," and its central zombie is not like typical Voodoo-inspired zombies in many ways. She's an evil force that inhabits a mansion and uses a Siren song to lure victims to her basement where she murders them. She is immortal, which is different from Romero's ideas about the undead, and closer to werewolf mythology, especially when it's revealed a special bullet is the only way to kill her. She does feature some killer pre-zombie makeup, though. See images from the episode below.
Although Thriller did not directly invent a zombie that went to the culture-defining lengths that Romero did, this episode is an often-overlooked turning point in the history of zombies on TV, because it blended Voodoo zombies with more mythical undead qualities society would later come to associate with zombies.
Where Thriller left off, The Twilight Zone picked up, with an episode in 1964 that is the first TV show that we could find showing the dead literally resurrected right from their graves. The episode is called "Mr. Garrity and the Graves," and it's buried all the way near the end of Twilight Zone's original run. It features a con artist who comes to the old western town Happiness, Arizona, to swindle gullible townsfolk with a story that he can raise their loved ones from the dead. We'll get to the zombies in a minute, but for now, take a moment to admire Mr. Garrity's dapper vest:
Garrity explains that what he does is not the devil's work or black magic, aka not Voodoo, and promises to raise the dead at midnight after demonstrating his talents on a dog that's been struck by a wagon. He boldly declares, "The dead will be returned to you." And then describes how the undead emerge, claiming "It would do your heart good to see them wiggling around under the sod." Of course, Mr. Garrity (spoiler alert) can't really raise the dead, but he has a pretty good scheme to get over on the townsfolk, as he fakes a dramatic entrance of the first "zombie" he has risen:
That's all it takes for a funny little plot twist where the townsfolk realize they actually don't want the dead brought back. Garrity is all flustered, saying, "After a resurrection has taken place, it requires a maximum effort to make them die all over again." This is a departure from the special weapon mythology of monsters and ties zombies more to the humanity they spring from.
The townsfolk start making deals with Garrity to put the dead back to rest, revealing the awfulness of what they did to those who had passed. As Garrity leaves with their money, his cart passes by the cemetery, and here we have what we believe is the first appearance of modern-day zombies on a TV show — and it happened in 1964! See a closeup of these zombies from The Twilight Zone below:
Serling didn't stop there, though, as fans of his Twilight Zone follow-up Night Gallery know well. After Romero's Night of the Living Dead debuted in 1968, a super-creepy episode of Night Gallery brought a gorier zombie to TV with the episode "Cool Air" in 1971.
It features a couple who live together in a heavily refrigerated apartment, when the air conditioning suddenly dies, the man unexpectedly snaps, urgently needing it repaired. His lady doesn't understand why it can't wait until morning. We see the man shrouded in a robe, upping the suspense for viewers, until it's finally revealed why he needs the apartment so cold in a creepy conclusion that belongs in any thorough history attempting to document zombie culture in film.