John Gilling, 1966
Starring: André Morell, Diane Clare, Brook Williams, Jacqueline Pearce
A plague is spreading throughout a Cornish village and local authority Dr. Tompson is at a loss. His esteemed friend Sir James Forbes arrives to help out, along with his daughter Sylvia, and the two men are alarmed to find a series of empty coffins where the plague victims were allegedly buried. There seems to be a connection with local aristocrat Clive Hamilton, who has a nearby mine and previously learned voodoo and black magic while living in Haiti. And when Hamilton targets Sylvia, Tompson and Forbes must rush to save her and find a way to break Hamilton’s hold over the area.
Not a far leap from White Zombie (1932) and Val Lewton’s magical I Walked With a Zombie (1943), Hammer’s sole zombie film, The Plague of the Zombies, follows a standard pre-Night of the Living Dead zombie movie plot: a wealthy white man uses voodoo to enslave those he regards as socially inferior and also seeks to ensnare a beautiful woman. Making strides from White Zombie, Roy Ashton’s zombies are actually undead rather than merely hypnotized and their white eyes and mouldering rags seem an obvious influence on George Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead came out just two years later.
The zombies — all once downtrodden villagers — are forced to work in the Squire’s mine, equating his occult prowess with economic and even social power. Class conflict would become a major theme in British horror in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, and many of Hammer’s villains are aloof aristocrats who exploit the poor and uneducated masses. The Plague of the Zombies is a little general in this case, blending themes of colonial exploitation with the aristocratic manipulation of the working classes and, of course, there is a fair amount of white washing as voodoo is appropriated by an upperclass white man. It certainly would make an interesting double feature with the similarly themed The Oblong Box (1969), with Vincent Price and Christopher Lee in a parallel tale of aristocratic privilege and the misuse of voodoo.
Thanks to the involvement of director John Gilling, this makes for a loose trilogy with his films The Reptile (which he also directed) and The Gorgon (which he wrote). Like those other two films, the ending feels rushed with Hamilton suddenly unmasked as the villain and Sylvia’s life hanging precariously in the balance. And like The Reptile, the conclusion involves the manor burning down around the protagonists as they flee to safety through the tin mine. But while the fire feels sort of random in The Reptile, here it serves to destroy Hamilton’s spells and voodoo dolls, erasing his power over the area’s undead.
Also like those films, one of The Plague of the Zombie’s strongest points is its excellent use of atmosphere, thanks to DP Arthur Grant, who flooded the fictional Cornwall — the same set pieces used in The Reptile — with fog and shadows. This is actually one of Hammer’s more experimental films and moves away from the stuffy, drawing room set pieces of its earlier Gothic horrors (sort of, anyway), in favor of terrifying moments like a colorful dream sequence where zombies rise from the ground. One of my favorite scenes intercuts a dreaming young woman — the night after she has cut her hand — with the voodoo rituals that allows Hamilton to possess her. Funerals also serve as key set pieces and framing devices, giving ritual more literal and symbolic importance than it usually serves in Hammer films.
The Plague of the Zombies comes highly recommended and would likely be considered a classic if it involved one of Hammer’s stars, like Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. The prolific André Morell (The Bridge on the River Kwai) shines in the typical Hammer protagonist role of good-hearted though perhaps overly rational scientist, though it’s a shame Hammer didn’t get a more solid, charismatic cast in place overall. Pick it up on Blu-ray and prepare to have your mind blown that Hammer made an atmospheric zombie film before Night of the Living Dead.