Professor Forbes and his daughter arrive in a small Cornish village to come to the aid of the local doctor who wrote to them for help when young workers are dying mysteriously. The locals fear it is marsh flu but the results are far more sinister as the owner of the local tin mine has been resurrecting the dead using voodoo and forcing the zombies to work as slaves in his mine!
Hammer diversified into other territories once their Dracula and Frankenstein series had become a little stale and one such effort saw Hammer turn their horror attention to the walking dead - the zombie! The Plague of the Zombies marks their only effort into this sub-genre and although it's not the best Hammer film ever made, once again it personifies the Hammer film to perfection - strong plot, interesting characters, reliable cast, superb gothic sets, atmosphere and of course, splashes of blood. This also pre-dates Night of the Living Dead by a few years too and it's easy to see where Romero got some inspiration from. This has been criminally overlooked in the Hammer pantheons and it's a much more effective shocker than people give it credit for.
Given that the budget was obviously lower for this than it had been for any previous Hammer films (this shot at the same time as The Reptile in order to use the same sets and pretty much the same cast), director John Gilling had to go back to film school to try and think of ways to create the necessary atmosphere and look without the money. He does a brilliant job on both counts. The zombies don't look particularly convincing given what we're used to now but it's hard to really explain what makes good zombie make-up - it depends on the circumstances and here, the zombies are used perfectly in small doses. And with it being 1966, I suppose the zombies will have scared the hell out of the viewer because they won't have been used to seeing zombies on the big screen.
They don't follow what would become the conventions of the zombie film either, meaning that they don't live to eat human flesh - they just live to work and be slaves. It's not ultra-violent so the zombies aren't going to rip people's arms off or start chewing their necks. This is the film were zombies were turned from those lumbering buffoons in cult classics like White Zombie into the modern day "freshly buried" fiends which burst from their graves to feast on the flesh. The graveyard resurrection sequence where the zombies come out of their graves amidst fog is simply amazing and I'd challenge anyone to think of a better scene in any other Hammer film (Dracula's resurrection from Dracula, Prince of Darkness being one of my favourites). It's a scene which has been reworked time and time again since in the zombie but to see it for the first time, it's pretty chilling. The production and set design is once again top notch but what would you expect from Hammer?
One of the strengths of a Hammer film is the casting and this one lacks any "traditional" Hammer star power so it's down to a few semi-regulars to carry the film and what a great job they do of it. André Morell (The Hound of the Baskervilles, She) steps comfortably into the lead role and he has the same fine screen presence as a Lee or Cushing would have. In fact it probably benefits the film more without them in because their popularity and fame would inevitably overshadow the entire film. Someone a little low key like Morell meant that Hammer were getting a very dependable deputy and that the focus would on the film, not the main actors.
Morell appeared in a couple of Hammer films during his time but was never really considered a big enough name to hold the lead role. Well this film proves otherwise and his performance is exactly the sort of professional, entertaining role that Peter Cushing would usually bring. John Carson is equally as slimy as the Squire who runs the mine. It's not a "boo me, I'm the bad guy" style performance but one with enough venom, nastiness and sleaze to warrant the audience wishing that he would meet his demise at the hands of his undead slaves sooner rather than later. Also appearing is Hammer regular Michael Ripper as the police constable. You know it's a true Hammer film with Ripper involved!
The Plague of the Zombies came at a time when Hammer was starting to suffer from stagnation and its budgets were being cut back. You couldn't really tell that here and director Gilling has crafted a well-worked, atmospheric flick which manages to avoid formula as much as it can and set the stall out for zombie films in the future to better. Definitely one of their most underrated films and a real gem of British horror.