Plot: who or what is causing the dead to rise in a sleepy Cornish hamlet?
The house of Hammer could never be accused of not pouring their everything into whatever they were producing. If it has attained any kind of longevity these days it’s because The Plague Of the Zombies was the second in a double feature with the much more high-profile Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). While that’s hardly the worst company to be in even Hammer’s secondary features always ooze with charm. The Plague Of the Zombies has the benefit of a lovable cast of reliable second-stringers headlined by one of Hammer’s unsung leading men, the always prim and perfectly groomed André Morell. The Plague Of the Zombies is a delightfully old-fashioned zombie movie and spiritually far closer to, say, something like Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) or Del Tenney’s I Eat Your Skin (1964/1971). As such it was likely the last of its kind before George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) would immediately and profoundly change the zombie movie as it was understood. Five decades and a half later it’s nigh on unfathomable to grasp what a stark difference these two years make. In good old Hammer tradition The Plague Of the Zombies is overflowing with atmosphere and even without any of their big stars it’s well worth checking out.
Great Britain, 1860. Sir James Forbes (André Morell), a retired doctor and respected medical professor, receives a letter from his friend and former student Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) who’s currently practicing in a sleepy hamlet in Cornwall. In the letter Tompson explains that his village has been engulfed by a mysterious plague in the last year and that the affliction has claimed the lives of twelve so far. He hopes that his old mentor might be able to shed some light on the disease given his decades of experience and breadth of knowledge. Tompson is married to Alice (Jacqueline Pearce), a good friend of Forbes’ daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare). At Sylvia’s insistence Forbes decides to travel to Cornwall and assist Tompson in investigating and combating the disease any way he can. In the village the Forbes carriage run into a group of mounted fox-hunters and draw the ire of their leader Denver (Alexander Davion, as Alex Davion) when Sylvia misdirects the hunters away from their prey. In town the fox-hunters surround the carriage, threatening life and limb of Sylvia and the chaos and confusion that follows is enough to disrupt a small funeral procession. Denver and his men knock the casket over the guardrail of a bridge spilling its contents, local man John Martinus (Ben Aris) into the water. The man’s brother Tom (Marcus Hammond) blames the Forbeses for Denver’s conduct and assures them that trouble awaits next time they meet. Their acquaintances with the locals made the Forbes hurry to meet the Tompsons. Sir James’ interest in the case is piqued when he lays eyes on young Alice.
Tompson has been unable to conduct any serious investigation into the affliction as the superstitious villagers don’t approve of autopsies and de facto town governor nobleman Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson) has no intention is issuing him, or anybody else for that matter, the neccessary paperwork. Under the cloak of night the two men of science do what anyone in their position would and take to exhuming the dead Martinus brother themselves. Meanwhile Sylvia sees Alice skulking away in the darkness and decides to follow her. While Sylvia runs afoul of Denver and his gang Sir James and Peter are caught in flagrante delicto by sergeant Swift (Michael Ripper) and arrested for grave-robbing. The doctors are able to convince Swift to postpone proceedings for 48 hours and buy them some time to conduct their investigation. When Alice is found dead the following morning this leads to the arrest of the living Martinus as he’d been spotted where she was last seen alive. Tom explains that he last saw his brother carrying a woman in the woods and Sylvia agrees that the ghoul she saw bore enough of a resemblance to Tom’s deceased brother. Sir James seeks an audience with a local vicar (Roy Royston) to consult his vast library on the occult. From there he deducts that someone must be practicing Haitian Vodou. The next day Hamilton finds an elaborate excuse to procure Sylvia’s blood during Alice’s funeral ceremony and that night she’s summoned to his tin mines. While Peter follows Sylvia and Sir James investigates the squire’s dwelling the men of science conclude that they have identified the perpetrator at the root of the village’s apparent plague of the walking undead.
While he may have not been a Hammer leading man the way Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were, André Morell was a beloved force in British cinema. Morell debuted in 1938 and crossed paths with Anita Ekberg twice. First in Terence Young's Zarak (1956) (wherein Ekberg did a bellydance that would make Bella Cortez, Nai Bonet and Diana Bastet proud) and then again in the Anglo-American thriller Interpol (1957). He had prominent supporting roles in everything from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) to Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), and the big budget peplum Ben-Hur (1959). For Hammer he was a reliable lead when none of the big names were available and for the company he figured into other John Gilling-directed romps The Shadow of the Cat (1961) and The Mummy's Shroud (1967) but also She (1965) and its sequel. He alternated his horror pulp with prestigious big budget fare as Julius Caesar (1970), Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975), and The First Great Train Robbery (1978). Diane Clare was hardly a screamqueen as such but she had appearead in The Haunting (1963) and Witchcraft (1964). Jacqueline Pearce went on to have a respectable career in television but at this early stage in her career she was nothing more than a Barbara Steele wannabe. John Carson would later star in Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974). Hammer’s secondary features never lacked in charm and The Plague Of the Zombies easily can match itself with The Kiss of the Vampire (1963) from three years before.
The Plague of the Zombies was written by Peter Bryan who had written The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and The Brides Of Dracula (1960) for the company as well as The Blood Beast Terror (1968) for Tigon and the piss-poor Herman Cohen-produced prehistoric monster slog Trog (1970) (legendary for its embarrassing drunken performance from Hollywood Golden Age leading lady Joan Crawford). Posthumously Bryan was credited with co-writing the Antonio Margheriti giallo Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye (1973) along with fellow Hammer alumnus Gilling. As was the money-saving tradition with Hammer by this point this was filmed this back-to-back with The Reptile (1966) allowing them to use many of the same sets, most noticeably the main village set on the back lot at Bray Studios. The score by James Bernard is his typical portent, pompous fare and nothing out of the ordinary as such. The special effects by Les Bowie and Roy Ashton are quite good, especially the ghoulish decayed zombie make-up is remarkable for the decade. Outside of one very obvious night-for-day section during the conclusion at the tin mine this is another Hammer feature that has aged quite gracefully. The costumes and locations are lovely as always and with someone like Morell standing in for Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee their absence isn’t really felt. Diane Clare is homely as Hammer starlets of this decade tended to be (nobody was going to mistake her for, say, Veronica Carlson or Susan Denberg) and the Jacqueline Pearce part could easlly been played by someone like Isobel Black.
What more is this if not a very British take on the Bela Lugosi monochrome horror classic White Zombie (1932)? By 1966 it was painfully clear that Hammer could no longer keep up with the rapidly changing European cinematic landscape and the latest Hollywood productions. The studio that once led to British horror through some of its greatest stylistic victories now had become a relic of a bygone era. In a desperate attempt to stay relevant in the wake of the explosion of erotic vampire horror following Emilio Vieyra's Blood Of the Virgins (1967), Jean Rollin’s The Nude Vampire (1970) and Jess Franco’s Soledad Miranda spectacular Vampyros Lesbos (1971) Hammer did the most logical from what they were famous for. Were before their productions were awash with heaving bosoms and gratuitous cleavage now they spiced up its gothics with an abundance of bare breasts and blood as models (nude and otherwise) took the place of actresses. And yes, this is where Norwegian black metal troublemakers Carpathian Forest took that songtitle for 2001’s “Morbid Fascination of Death” from, eventhough the song in question has no lyrical (or thematic) connection to the movie. For all intents and purposes, The Plague of the Zombies was about the last of its kind before Night of the Living Dead (1968) set the new standard and continental Europe (primarily Italy, and to a lesser degree Spain) dominated the genre by the next decade. As far as enduring legacies go, it’s hardly the worst thing to be remembered by.