The original 'Night of the Living Dead' remains one of my favorite movies and helped establish the modern conception of the zombie. But the flesh-eating walking dead that shamble across the screens of movie theaters and television actually represent a radical distortion of the original zombie legends, which are rooted in Voodoo mythology.
One of the best movies to feature "old school" zombies is the 1943 classic 'I walked with a Zombie,' which was part of a series of atmospheric films produced during the 40s' by Val Lewton. This film is interesting on a number of levels -- not the least of which is how the traditional view of sinister Voodoo-yielding blacks is subtly inverted. It is losely based on the Charlotte Bronte novel 'Jane Eyre' and is about a wealthy sugar plantation owner whose wife may or may not be a zombie (there is a potential rationalization for all the supernatural occurences in the film).
Lewton is perhaps best known for the original 1942 version of "Cat People." He produced a whole string of horror films with a unified vision that used suggestion rather than overt fantasy and left viewers wondering whether the characters were truly facing the supernatural ('The Body Snatcher,' which features Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, remains a personal favorite). A fuller discussion of Lewton's influence and his re-discovery by modern critics falls outside the scope of the rant.
Director Jacques Tourneur, who also directed the classic "Curse of the Demon," uses shadow and the landscape to wonderful effect in "I Walked with a Zombie." He also uses sound and music played by characters to build mood (it's amazing how little incidental music is really used).
The screenplay by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray is interesting in that Voodoo is ultimately portrayed as a less sinister force than one would expect. The practitioneers seemed to be more comfortable with the integration of death with life and misery with happiness in the cycle of existence.
The white characters seem to be portrayed in the opposite fashion -- unable to reconcile misery and death with the scheme of things. There are hints that a few of them are complicit with the more sinister occurences in the story.
This film comes highly recommended for zombie fans that want a break from the usual flesh-eating cliches.