‘Doomed to walk the earth as slaves to the lord of the living dead!!!’
The Plague of the Zombies is a 1966 released British Hammer horror film about a mysterious epidemic in a Cornish village.
Directed by John Gilling back-to-back with The Reptile.
The Hammer-Seven Arts production stars André Morell (The Mummy’s Shroud; Cash on Demand), John Carson, Jacqueline Pearce, Brook Williams and Michael Ripper.
The film is notable for its seminal imagery, which influenced many films in the zombie sub-genre, and its themes of colonialism, exploitation and tyranny.
In a Cornish village during the mid-1800s, the inhabitants of the town are dying from a mysterious plague that seems to be spreading at an accelerated rate. Even the local doctor, Peter Thompson, cannot combat the disease.
Alarmed, Thompson sends for outside help from his friend Sir James Forbes. Accompanying Sir James is his daughter Sylvia. In an attempt to learn more about the disease, Sir James and Doctor Thompson disinter the corpses that were recently buried. To their surprise, the men find all the coffins empty!
Conducting further investigations on the mystery lead the doctors to encounter zombies walking near an old, deserted tin mine on the estate of Squire Clive Hamilton. Sir James is informed that the squire lived in Haiti for several years and practised voodoo rituals, as well as black magic…
Review [contains spoilers]:
The Plague of the Zombies is an interesting bridging point between the voodoo-inspired zombie films that were previously released and the flesh-eating shockers that would arise just over a couple of years later with George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead.
And yes, there would be voodoo-related zombie movies carrying on into the 1970s because real life is never as simple and linear as history would like us to think, but by and large, we can all agree that Night of the Living Dead reinvented the zombie (even if they were referred to as “ghouls”) and – for better or worse – we’ve never really looked back.
Zombies have been a staple of horror cinema since the Universal movies essentially commercialised it into a recognisable genre – the glorious White Zombie with Bela Lugosi was made in 1932, just a year after he starred in Dracula. But even more so than the Mummy, who at least had a mind of his own, the zombie was always a bit of an ineffectual, second division monster and the films were almost exclusively poverty row productions.
Often, zombies were just mindless slaves, controlled by the real villain of the piece who would be some mad black magician or voodoo master or such, who has resurrected the dead to do his bidding as cheap labour. Sometimes, they weren’t even dead. While these zombies would occasionally get to walk, slowly and stiff-armed and carry off some screaming woman or even kill a side character, they were essentially no more of a threat than the person controlling them – and while some zombie characters looked suitably unnerving, they were not especially scary.
While Hammer’s zombies remain more mindless slaves than an autonomous dangerous threat, The Plague of the Zombies does at least allow them to take on a certain level of horror not previously seen. A few films like The Dead One (1961) had played with the idea of the zombie as a more threatening character and Dr Blood’s Coffin – which coincidentally also takes place in Cornwall – featured a more decayed and monstrous-looking zombie than we had seen before, even if it was the result more of bad science and so is closer to Frankenstein than traditional living dead narratives.
The Plague of the Zombies not only makes its creatures seem more genuinely cadaverous and creepy than anything that had gone before, it also shows them – to a certain degree – to be a genuine threat operating outside the control of others. Okay, it’s just one sequence – and a dream sequence at that – but it sets the scene for what was to come.
This film doesn’t seem so much like the end of the traditional zombie era as it does a crossover movie, pointing the way forward for the genre while still being influenced by the traditional. If people want to claim this film as the birth of the modern zombie film, that’s debatable but it was certainly involved in the conception.
As in The Reptile, The Plague of the Zombies sees exotic and sinister foreign cults transplanted to a small and insular Cornish location. In this case, Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson) is killing off and then resurrecting villagers to work as slave labour in his dangerous tin mine, using the knowledge he picked up living in Haiti (if we’ve learned one thing from horror movies, it’s that Haitian witchdoctors are pretty free and easy with sharing occult information with foreigners).
Local doctor Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) is helpless in the face of the mysterious deaths and the backward attitudes of the unfriendly villagers who not only refuse permission for post-mortems but also seem to hold him responsible for the mysterious spate of deaths plaguing the village (Hammer probably didn’t win any awards from the Cornish tourist board for these two films).
Even worse, his wife Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) has become sick and is about to become Hamilton’s next victim. It’s down to Peter’s old medical school teacher, the solid Sir James Forbes (Andre Morrell) and his feisty daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) – who have travelled to the village on a social visit after receiving a worrying letter from Peter – to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Much of what makes The Reptile so impressive is also the case with The Plague of the Zombies – a solid cast, an impressively insular location and a narrative that wastes no time in faffing around. Never slacking for a moment, this is one of Hammer’s most impressive movies – atmospheric, sometimes gruesome and action-packed – even James Bernard, not the most subtle of composers at the best of times, seems to be pulling out all the stops here with a soundtrack that is almost combustible in its franticness.
Carson and Morrell’s characters dominate the plot as two sides of Hammer’s upper classes – the dependable hero and the decadent, unsavoury villain. The politics of Hammer’s horrors are often fascinating and frequently contradictory, and never has it been more so than here, where the rich really are exploiting the working classes and where ostentatious wealth is intimately connected to a more general decadence.
It’s not just Hamilton, a smug yet charming character who oozes the sort of confidence that comes from being told since birth that you are better than everyone else – his friends, the biggest bunch of obnoxious privileged yahoos seen in a Hammer film since The Hound of the Baskervilles, are genuinely, breathtakingly unpleasant characters from the off – we first see them charging through a funeral procession and knocking over a coffin on a fox-hunting rampage.
It’s the sort of none-too-subtle class war moment that you’d expect to find in a film by a radical filmmaker of the era, not a production from a company that was, by this time, already very much a part of the establishment. Notably, writer Peter Bryan had also written that Sherlock Holmes movie for Hammer, which might suggest an angry young man at work – but his other movies – including The Brides of Dracula for Hammer, The Blood Beast Terror, The Projected Man and the notoriously awful Trog – have little to suggest that he was anything more than a jobbing scripter.
The ever-dependable John Gilling does a bang-up job here – this is, without doubt, his best film and he creates several moments of impressive horror. The afore-mentioned nightmare sequence is rightly remembered as one of the finest moments in any Hammer film and the scene where Anna is attacked by a zombie has become one of the company’s most iconic images.
Gilling’s sure hand means that you rarely stop to think about the weakly written juvenile leads (Diane Clare has little to do apart from being a victim once the story starts and is just as one-dimensional as Jennifer Daniel was in The Reptile), the rather-too-obvious day-for-night shots and some ropey zombie masks glimpsed in the final sequences. None of that matters because The Plague of the Zombies is a first-rate horror adventure.
David Flint, guest reviewer via The Reprobate
” …the film delivered a frightening, gothic spin on the zombie mythos. With a class-based sense of social commentary, it foreshadowed much of the stylistic shifts that would soon be occurring in the genre. Employing chilling effects, rich production design and a discordantly eerie score by James Bernard, the picture wowed audiences and created a lasting impression.” Bloody Disgusting
” …a turning point in Hammer’s history, where the production values familiar from the company’s late ’50s classics combine with a more visceral and immediate style of horror.” Marcus Hearn, The Hammer Vault
‘The bleak mine setting provides the perfect environment for these memorable zombies, who represent the screen’s first troop of moldy zombies, even if the mood is ultimately diffused by the safe and comfortable atmosphere of Hammer’s glossy production values and conservative insistence on order and rationality.” Peter Dendle, The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia
“Gilling’s direction and Arthur Grant’s prowling camera set a feverish tone and gradually more and more sequences are shown framed through doors, fences, shelves and with objects and faces looming large in the foreground. Often the actors and camera engage in a well-choreographed dance.” Frank Collins, Cathode Ray Tube
“Much has been said of The Plague of the Zombies‘ influence on genre landmark Night of the Living Dead, made in 1968. A unique and shocking experiment in pushing the parameters of Hammer horror, The Plague of the Zombies perhaps deserves greater recognition in its own right.” Marcus Hearn, Alan Barnes, The Hammer Story
“John Gilling has contrived some truly terrifying effects.” The Daily Cinema, 29 December 1965
“Like nearly all Hammer films, this is very well staged, and one or two of the action scenes are as good as anything in the way of cinematic excitement.” The Kinematograph Weekly, 30 December 1965
Scream Factory released The Plague of the Zombies on Blu-ray on January 15, 2019. The package features a reversible cover with alternative poster art, plus special features:
Audio commentary with filmmakers Constantine Nasr and Ted Newsom and film historian Steve Haberman (new)
Audio commentary with author/film historian Troy Howarth (new)
World of Hammer – Mummies, Werewolves & The Living Dead
Raising the Dead: The Making of The Plague of the Zombies
Cast and characters:
André Morell … Sir James Forbes
Diane Clare … Sylvia Forbes
Brook Williams … Doctor Peter Tompson
Jacqueline Pearce … Alice Mary Tompson
John Carson … Squire Clive Hamilton
Alexander Davion … Denver (as Alex Davion)
Michael Ripper … Sergeant Jack Swift
Marcus Hammond … Tom Martinus
Dennis Chinnery … Constable Christian
Louis Mahoney … Black Servant
Roy Royston … Vicar
Ben Aris … John Martinus
Tim Condren … Young blood
Bernard Egan … Young blood
Norman Mann … Young blood
Francis Willey … Young blood
Jerry Verno … Landlord
Filming ended on 6th September 1965. It was trade shown on 20th December 1965 and the film was released on 9th January 1966 on a double-bill with Dracula: Prince of Darkness.
Some of the Blu-ray screengrabs above are courtesy of Cathode Ray Tube