The Plague Of The Zombies (1966) – Review


As much as Hammer Films changed the landscape of horror during their reign throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, you can’t help but wish they’d diversified their portfolio a little more. I mean, sure, they had the odd werewolf, gorgon and even an appearance from Jack the Ripper’s possessed daughter, but you also have to understand that at one time the studio released something like three vampire films in as many months which showed a massive preference toward nubile bloodsuckers.
It’s a shame because when they stepped outside their safety zone of plunging neck lines and pointy dental work, the Hammer guys put out some great stuff when experimenting with other beasties that went “rowr” in the the night. There’s no doubt I’ll eventually go through the exact same lament when I get round to reviewing the superlative The Curse Of The Werewolf, but right now I’m focusing on Hammer’s sole foray into the territory of the zombie.


t’s 1860 and a small Cornish town is undergoing a rash of deaths from a mysterious plague in their community that’s almost solely been affecting young men and the local doctor, Peter Thompson, has written for assistance from his mentor, Sir James Forbes. With his daughter, Syliva, in tow (who is a childhood chum of Peter’s wife, Alice), they race to aid the out-of-his-depth doc and almost immediately run afoul of the 1860’s version of a bunch of boorish, rich lads out on the lash on a Saturday in the form of a gaggle of dickish fox hunters who rudely acknowledge the pair and even cause the latest funeral procession to drop their coffin. This group of ass-hats are the hangers-on of Squire Hamilton, the man who owns the local tin mine, but is unable to reap the benefits due to apparent unsafe conditions, but while his entourage are uncouth and entitled, he seems quite the dapper gentleman.
Upon arriving in town, Sir James instantly realises something’s afoot when he finds that Peter was forbidden to perform an autopsy, so when he decides to unearth the bodies himself, he barely bats an eye when he finds the latest coffin emptied than my bank account. From here, Sir James stars putting the pieces of the puzzle together, but is too late to save Alice, who Sylvia witnesses being murdered by a white-eyed, grey-skinned man after being put in a trance-like state due to a mysterious cut on her hand.
It soon becomes apparent that this quiet, mist shrouded, town has a voodoo problem, as someone is killing people only to have them revived as mindless drones by the strange Hatian magic. Who is responsible for such an inhuman act and what are their plans for Sylvia?


Released a mere two years before George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead impacted the genre like a nuclear blast, those expecting your typical zombie shenanigans might be quite taken aback at how much the zombies take a back seat to proceedings – but what you have to remember is that pre-Romero, the living dead are a very different kettle of fish than the over saturated, flesh crunching, metaphors for societal dysfunction we know and love today. Here, they are products of voodoo, brought back from the dead in order to be slaves as seen in such movies as I Walked With A Zombie and White Zombie back in the 30’s and 40’s and as a result, the shambling corpses aren’t the main focus of the story and instead it’s more of a mystery tale as our heroes scramble around, trying to unravel the insidious plot that’s claiming so many lives.
All the standard Hammer tropes are present and correct, but it’s truly refreshing to see it in a slightly different context – there’s still a young, overwhelmed man who is bailed out by his older mentor (Hammer was a freakin’ goldmine for middle-aged protagonists) and there’s a rich, powerful cad lording it over the local peasants who, instead of using them for blood or body parts like Dracula or Frankenstein, is killing people to have their zombified forms work in the tin mines as free labour. It’s nice to know that zombies were already making political statements even before Duane Jones caught that fateful bullet in the end Romero’s classic, but the real reason to show up to the party is seeing the living dead lumber their way through those delicious production values the studio is renowned for and when it happens, it’s well worth the wait.


Equipped with a a moldy, grey complexion and blank, white eyes, they may look like a cross between the types of crusty, shambling ghouls seen in Lucio Fulci’s gory epics and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, but they are capable of some truly memorable images. A dream sequence that sees clutch of corpses pull themselves out of their graves only to slowly surround Peter is prime Hammer creepiness – as is the sight of a decapitated female zombie with bulging white eyes – but the true show stopper is the truly startling image when one of the rotting rotters murders Alice (Jacqueline Pearce from Blake’s 7) and screeches at Diane Clare’s understandably horrified Sylvia through blackened teeth.
Even the human villains are memorable as the sight of John Carlson’s dastardly bad guy kitted out in full voodoo regalia is genuinely striking, even if it raises a few questions about exactly how his operation works. Does he keep his scantily clan, Haitian worshipers in his mine, beating their drums the entire time? Is it wise to have a workforce that must smell worse than the butthole of a decaying vulture? Also, zombies work slow, dude and – as we find out during the perky climax – they’re incredibly flammable too which raises some pertinent health and safety issues.


Of course, the film is atmospheric as hell and the sight of the entrance to the tin mill, silhouetted against a dusk sky, does its job nicely as does the hellish sight of the tatty zombies staggering around underground as the inferno begins to take hold and you really do start to wonder why Hammer didn’t make more ventures into the land of the dead. Maybe it’s because there’s no centralized Dracula, Frankenstein, Mummy or even a Carmilla Karnstein to bring back for a sequel – presumably the whole voodoo-in-Cornwall plot doesn’t lend itself to a string of similar adventures – but it’s a legitimate shame the studio couldn’t whip up a least one more adventure before sticking their memorable approach to the undead back in the grave for good. Those more attuned to zombies who are either gorier, more socially relevant, or able to sprint like Usain Bolt, may find The Plague Of The Zombies a little dry for their tastes, but this Plague ultimately needs no cure.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s