One can suppose it was inevitable for Hammer to take on a lesser celebrated (at the time) yet influential sub-genre such as zombies; the ’30s and ’40s were certainly a heyday, with such films as White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) setting a template of voodoo curses and unwilling (and undead) subjects. By the ’50s, they were already used for comic effect, until Hammer took their chance with The Plague of the Zombies (1966), an atmospheric yet rousing period piece that would help set up another template for zombiedom’s biggest sea change two years later.
Part of a four picture co-op with Seven Arts Productions, Plague was released stateside by Twentieth Century Fox in late January to better than average reviews; mind you, Hammer usually found an appreciative press, if even for set design and production values alone. But critics at the time liked the fact that they added some new colors to their palette, even if the canvas was pretty familiar.
To whit: we open on a subterranean voodoo ritual, complete with tribal drummers and a masked leader who’s busy pouring blood over a cloth doll, while in a bedroom young bride Alice (Jacqueline Pearce – The Reptile) wakes up screaming. Cut to the Forbes manor in London, where Sir James (Andre Morell – The Mummy’s Shroud) receives a letter from his prize medical student Peter (Brook Williams – The Medusa Touch); it seems his practice in the small Cornish village that he and his betrothed Alice (see above) reside has hit some snags—an apparent blood disorder has killed off a dozen people and he has no reason why. This gives Sir James, his trusty doctor’s kit, and daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare – The Haunting) an excuse for him to visit his former pupil, and for her to see her old high school chum Alice.
After a run-in with a gaggle of lascivious aristocratic fox hunters near the village, James and Sylvia head to Peter and Sylvia’s; he’s out, and she looks… peaked. James finds his protégé at the local pub, where he’s being harassed by the villagers for not stopping their ongoing population depletion. The problem is that Peter isn’t allowed to do any autopsies due to the village overlord, Squire Hamilton (John Carson – Doomsday), denying access to the dead. Sir James and Peter decide to dig up the graves of the death-filled dozen, and find the sites… lacking. All except for the formerly warmer Alice, who succumbed to the same sickness; she seems to rise without issue, if not more than a little grey around the everything. What is the deadly secret behind The Plague of the Zombies?
Well, if you’re familiar with the story of Dracula, you know damn well what the secret is; a mere swapping out of archetypes conveys the tale in efficient fashion. So yes, Hamilton is Drac, Sir James is your Van Helsing, Peter assays the Harker role, and our Squire has a dozen or so zombies instead of vampires at his disposal. To do what, you may ask? Take over the world, perhaps? Seek revenge on those who have robbed him? Nope. He uses them as cheap labor in a tin mine beside the village.
So what we have then with The Plague of the Zombies is a cheeky takedown on elitism and class structure; Hamilton and his rogue band of highway dandymen rule the village with a pompous and toxic flair (they corral Sylvia with the intent of raping her) before Sir James puts an end to their insidious chicanery. (See? Not all rich people are bad!) The fact that someone of similar stature is needed to save the poor, uneducated folk undercuts the commentary, but the seed is still there.
As is the one that would bloom two years later with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead; which isn’t to say Plague paved the way for Night with a scathing mirror held up to a racist society. Rather, it’s the aesthetic that forecasts the evolution in zombie history: these undead appear undead; wearing the muddied and caked disgrace of entombment with nothing but vacant, milky white eyes to guide them above ground in obedience to their master. Not quite there yet (the arms are still raised in a stiff salute to their horrific forefathers), Romero made them truly chilling by having them be a slave to nothing but their unending bloodlust (well that and the graphic cannibalism certainly dotted every ‘I’). But this was definitely the bridge between wide-eyed somnambulism and rotted perversion.
Director John Gilling (The Reptile) and writer Peter Bryan (The Brides of Dracula) have fun upending the normal Hammer tropes of the day; while it is set in the 1860s, it isn’t reliant on lack of modern convenience to put the protagonists in peril, but rather has them using science (however cockeyed it may be) and common sense to solve the mystery. Helping them are a solid cast, with Morell especially bringing that Cushing heat with an extra dash of wit; I could have seen ten more films with Sir James leading the charge against the Monster of the Day.
But it was not to be. Hammer was soon back to its normal ways before slowly fading away the next decade. The Plague of the Zombies is worth a look alone for the fresh paint it splashed on the canvas; that some bled off onto the next artist’s easel may be its greatest victory.
The Plague of the Zombies is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: A BLADE IN THE DARK (1983)