Much like the lycanthrope myth in Terence Fisher's The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Hammer only forayed once into the world of the zombie.
Originally storylined in 1962 by John Bryan under the working title The Zombie, the screenplay (aided in part by Hammer maestro, Tony Hinds) was re-written to become Horror of the Zombies -- at least according to the 1964 promotional art announcing the movie.
The film itself would not start production until 1965 at Bray Studios, and was finally released in 1966. Hammer would leave Bray less than a year later in 1967 after completing John Gilling’s The Mummy’s Shroud.
Only two years after Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies came out, independent film maker George Romero redefined the walking dead forever with Night of the Living Dead.
Compared to Romero’s visceral and groundbreaking tour de force, John Gilling’s more traditional zombie pales (pun intended) by comparison in the gore and horror department.
Gilling’s first venture into horror is a very British movie, both in attitude and tone. Having said that, Plague does offer some truly visually compelling moments, scattered throughout some, arguably, sluggish narrative. Much of this success is due to Roy Ashton’s wonderful makeup, which saves the day, and is responsible for some truly iconic zombie creations.
We open on a voodoo ceremony as a mysterious masked man uses a doll in a quasi-religious, blood ritual. In a series of cuts, Alice Thompson (Jacqueline Pearce, also in The Reptile) appears restless in her sleep, as blood seeps from a bandaged wound on her wrist. With the beat of primitive drums, blood is poured on a small, female doll and we cut once again to Alice, as she wakes, screaming hysterically.
In London, Sir James Forbes (played with great avuncular aplomb by Andre Morell) receives an ominous letter from his former student, Dr. Peter Thompson (Brook Williams), informing him of a mysterious illness that has befallen his little village in Cornwell. Sir James and his beautiful and innocent (innocent because she’s blond, I assume) daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare) make their way to the village.
En route to Cornwell, they come across a fox hunt in progress, led by a local group of arrogant gentry, a lustful posse known as the Young Bloods headed by Squire Hamilton (whom we will meet shortly). Alice, feeling sorry for the hunted animal, makes sure the men head off in the wrong direction in pursuit of the poor creature.
We soon learn that Hamilton -- the landed gentry man who controls the aforementioned fox hunters -- has been dabbling in the Haitian supernatural, manipulating it for his own nefarious purposes.
While it may be true that Hamilton’s Young Bloods have very little meat on their bones as characters, and are woefully underwritten, that's precisely the point—these men are no more than zombies themselves, blindly following Hamilton, in the same way that he controls the zombies through his ‘white’ appropriation of Haitian religious ceremonies.
In the village, Sir James and Sylvia meet a somber funeral procession being held by the locals for a man who has died from the mysterious illness. Only the funeral is interrupted by the returning fox hunters who knock over the casket, spilling out the corpse. Obviously this is less of a concern for them than Sylvia’s deception. With the arrogance of their class, they threaten the young girl and ride off to continue the hunt.
Sylvia and Sir James arrive at Dr. Thompson’s and meet Alice, a school friend of Sylvia’s, who looks wore down from lack of sleep, snaps at the visitors, and still sports the bizarre scar on her wrist. Something’s not right. All this concern is couched in a Victorian restraint only the British can muster.
That night, Sylvia witnesses Alice leave the house alone and follows the girl across the moors to an old abandoned tin mine. Alone in the dark, Alice is accosted by Hamilton’s Young Bloods and brought back to the estate, where they pass her around like a play thing—we are to infer that the next step is actual rape, as these young men are nothing more than animals, acting on instinct, intent on the hunt.
Hamilton interrupts and berates the men, all the while exuding his best Christopher Lee, gentlemanly charm, and sends a distraught Sylvia on her way, unharmed.
Here, in the moonlight (shot day for night more than likely) we see our first Roy Ashton zombie in all its glory, unseeing eyes milky white, dressed in rags and carrying the body of Alice. The image is certainly memorable as it stands, scabs and all, fully formed from our worst, Cornish nightmare, the industrial tin mine towering in the background.
Meanwhile, Peter and Sir James, against the wishes of the locals, decide to exhume the body of the man who prematurely vacated his coffin at the beginning, only to find the body is missing. Little do they know, Sylvia has already met its former occupant. In their resurrectionist activities Peter and Sir James are caught by the Sergeant Swift (the ever reliable Michael Ripper).
However, just before Sylvia stumbles back into the village, Sir James catches the sergeant’s interest by suggesting there are bigger problems in the village and that the cause of these deaths may be more sinister than previously imagined.
Next day, the bloodied body of Alice is found in the forest near the tin mine. After burying Alice, the local priest, Peter and Sir James wait for Alice to join the undead and rise from the grave (much like how Van Helsing and Holmwood wait to dispatch Mina in Fisher’s Horror of Dracula).
After a distraction from Hamilton’s men ( garbed in hellish, horned masks), who hope to take the body of the poor girl for their devilish ceremony, Alice raises from the grave, only to be dispatched (as in decapitated), by the ever resourceful Sir James and a very handy shovel. Little blood is shown—thanks to the censors at the time--but we do see a nice headless trunk resting peacefully by an open crave.
Soon Sylvia comes under the spell of Hamilton, via a bloodied cut on her hand (blood calls to blood) and he attempts to lead her to the same fate as the rest of the people in the town: a sacrificial slave to his economic concern.
The finale takes place in the no-longer abandoned mines, as we see zombie slaves working for the master, pushing carts and mining the vein. Cheap labor. Sir James arrives just in time to save Sylvia, and Squire Hamilton, his cronies, and the revolting (both disgusting, and turning on their master) zombies are purified in fire, as the mine is consumed.
Plague is a languid movie, and despite its 90 minute running time, it can often feel longer. There are some highlights, and these for me more than make up for the plodding direction and pacing.
Gilling’s directoral style, while fairly pedestrian for most of the movie, shows real signs of experimentation with the movie’s centerpiece: a dream sequence in which Peter imagines the ground erupting and spewing forth the undead.
In the midst of a surreal, billowing mist and blanketing fog, Gilling’s camera tilts and tracks as the savage zombie bodies attack the petrified Peter. Director of Photography Arthur Grant works wonders, and one wishes the rest of the movie had the dynamic nature of this momentary frisson of excitement.
Shot back to back with Gilling’s The Reptile (also set in Cornwell and using Squire Hamilton’s estate house as a set-piece), Plague is the weaker of the two movies.
Gilling’s undead (unlike Romero’s flesh eaters in 1968) are more like the manipulated dead of Victor Halperin's White Zombie (1932) or Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie (1943), where the white man’s raison d'être is simply to appropriate and manipulate a higher, supernatural power for his own ends.
The manipulated are usually the members of a population less able to resist—like the ‘simple folk’ of the Cornish village—and therefore succumb to the imperialist force of power and influence. A little Marxism never hurt anyone.
In Bryan’s script, the enlightened middle class doctor restores order, vanquishing the heretic and his foreign religion: voodoo is described as ‘witchcraft’ at various points in the movie, and avoids ever suggesting to the audience any Christian or Native American connections. Evil here is black and white; there's not much nuance.
Morell is wonderful as Sir James, the man of science and progress, who must battle superstition and the uncanny-- a strong and persistent Hammer archetype. John Carson’s turn as Squire is also memorable and he secures his place as a reliable Lee alternate. The rest of the cast handle themselves adequately, but unfortunately are underserved by the script.
Despite being shot back-to-back with The Reptile, Plague went out on a double bill program with Dracula, Prince of Darkness in 1966. Incidentally, The Reptile doubled with Rasputin, The Mad Monk, which was shot on the same sets as Prince of Darkness -- both did very good business, both in Britain and the U.S.
However, Prince of Darkness has aged better. Despite the nit-picky commentary, this Hammer classic (and it is a classic), is worth a viewing. At least as an example of how things used to be back in the old days before flesh was consumed and shopping malls became near-perfect escapes.