The Plague of the Zombies was released two years before Night of the Living Dead yet fails to get the attention lavished upon Romero’s classic. However, it is just as worthy of your attention.
Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies was released two years before Night of the Living Dead, and although it uses voodoo to explain the origins of its undead characters, and only features a handful of them, it’s just as worthy of your attention as Romero’s classic.
The film was shot back to back with Hammer’s The Reptile, but was originally released as a double-bill with Dracula: Prince of Darkness. This was for the best too, as it’s shot in the same village, using many of the same sets and actors. It’s not just that either, as the plot is very similar too. Inhabitants of a Cornish village are dying under mysterious circumstances, and Peter Thompson, the local doctor – who doesn’t have a clue what’s going on – calls in his former mentor, Sir James Forbes, to help him. Forbes arrives with his daughter Sylvia, who went to college with Thompson’s wife Alice, and soon realises that someone is practicing witchcraft and that the village’s squire, Clive Hamilton, may be behind it all.
So, we’ve got strange deaths in a Cornish village that’s controlled by a rich squire, angry locals, a midnight grave robbing and damsels in distress. The only difference between it and The Reptile is instead of something scaly doing the deed, it’s some naughty zombies instead. Plague even follow’s the same plot beats as Reptile right until the very end too. Luckily, The Reptile is one of Hammer’s better films, and given that the pair were made back-to-back, we can forgive them their similarities.
Plague’s hero is Sir James Forbes, a mature, Quatermass-like doctor who is methodical, rational and exactly the type of man you want investigating supernatural goings-on. Although he’s up for a fight, he prefers to brandish the Queen’s English instead of a weapon when attempting to solve the case. He’s brilliantly portrayed by Andre Morell, while the less said about his wet fish partner, Peter Thompson, the better.
While Alice and Sylvia do require rescuing at various points, Sylvia manages to stand her ground against the evil Clive Hamilton – after an unpleasant scene that suggests gang rape – before getting herself into the type of trouble that Hammer thinks can only be dealt with by a man.
It takes a good hour before a zombie turns up, but it’s worth the wait, as the scene in the graveyard, and those that follow it, are some of Hammer’s very best. Morell’s delivery of his famous “zombie” line, and the shot which accompanies it, is absolutely brilliant, and the sequence immediately afterwards is creepily atmospheric too.
Yes, the obligatory wandering around a big house scenes are all present and correct, but they’re not as plentiful as The Reptile, and while the pace is terribly sedate early on; neither of these points spoil the film. Prior to Romero’s input, The Plague of the Zombies is an example of what a “proper” zombie film was, and it’s really good.
Obviously, don’t watch it with The Reptile, or the campy Dracula: Prince of Darkness for that matter. Give it a try with Del Tenney’s surprisingly nasty Curse of the Living Dead from 1964. Although considerably lower budget than Plague, it has that same mystery feel to it, and it was one half of a double-bill in the sixties too.
Ranked alongside Hammer’s other three films it made at this time – Prince of Darkness, The Reptile and Rasputin – The Plague of the Zombies is the best, although The Reptile comes a close second.
Directed by: John Gilling
Written by: Peter Bryan
Starring: André Morell, Diane Clare, Brook Williams, Jacqueline Pearce, John Carson, Alexander Davion
Released: 1966 / Genre: Horror / Country: UK / IMDB
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