Countdown to Halloween: "P" is for The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
Updated: Oct 21, 2019
Here’s one justification for not rushing to consume every movie in a particular genre, from a particular studio, or from a particular actor. As much as I love Hammer Films, there are still several I still haven’t seen. I’m not in any hurry, either, because once I see them all, there will never be anything new to watch. That means I’ll never have the unexpected joy of experiencing something like The Plague of the Zombies (1966) for the first time.
I loved this movie! The subject matter never quite appealed to me, but I now realize the “old fashioned” zombies given life by voodoo can be just as effective, if not more so, than those raised by cosmic rays or disease. Slow, lumbering zombies with no appetite for flesh can be just as terrifying, if not more so, than those that feast on human bodies or brains. In fact, I think I prefer these zombies to any other examples of the walking dead.
An even scarier image than a zombie, though, can be the man that uses magic to revive them. I’ll bet a picture of Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson) in his ceremonial mask is a more iconic representation of The Plague of the Zombies than a picture of one of the zombies. It’s such a unique mask that it makes him look like a monster himself. It looks aged and authentic, with little drops of dried blood (also on his dingy white robe) on it from unknown numbers of rituals.
Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) and his daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare) arrive at a small Cornish village at the request of Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams), who’s puzzled by the mysterious illness and deaths that have occurred since he became the town doctor. Autopsies are forbidden here, so Forbes suggests they secretly exhume the latest victim from his grave so they can study it. They’re quite surprised when they do so and find his coffin empty.
Luckily, when they’re discovered neck deep in the open grave by Sergeant Jack Swift (Michael Ripper), the equally surprised lawman gives Forbes and Tompson 48 hours to solve the mystery before they’re arrested for desecration. Forbes is a take-charge, no nonsense kind of guy, barking orders that Swift congenially accepts during the investigation.
The greatest accomplishment of The Plague of the Zombies is its sustained atmosphere of dread. This is Hammer firing on all cylinders at the peak of its success with all the “regular” crew: producer Anthony Nelson Keys, cinematographer Arthur Grant, production designer Bernard Robinson, makeup designer Roy Ashton, and composer James Bernard, to name only a few. It is truly creepy and suspenseful and, with a fairly original screenplay by Peter Bryan, unpredictable.
My one complaint in an otherwise perfect film is that when the inevitable fire consumes the tin mine in which the zombies are used as slave labor, one of the zombies is obviously a man in a mask, covering what I am sure is his flame retardant suit. The camera lingers just a smidge too long, breaking the magic spell that the movie has so far cast. It’s a minor complaint, and not one that will linger as I cherish The Plague of the Zombies, perhaps my second favorite Hammer Film after Twins of Evil.
Written by Enrique Torres, Ramsay Everleaf, Louis Penafiel
Story by Edgar Allan Poe (The Tell Tale Heart)
Directed by Bill Davies
Starring William Bates, Karin Field, Fawn Silver, Narciso Ibanez Menta, Narciso Ibanez Serrador RT 75 min.
Home Video Sinister Cinema (DVD)
Part of the Countdown to Halloween. Click here for a list of all the blogs participating. Each offers its own distinctive month long celebration of the chilling holiday we all love.