Shot back to back with The Reptile and released alongside Dracula: Prince of Darkness as a double feature, Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (1966) delivers a gripping mystery and some genuinely creepy moments. Sir James Forbes (André Morell, who also appeared in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Ben Hur and Quatermass and the Pit) travels with his daughter Syliva (Diane Clare) to a Cornish village in order to visit an old friend: Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) and her husband Peter (Brook Williams). Unfortunately they seem to be having a spot of bother in the West Country as a series of suspicious deaths is causing the superstitious locals to point the finger at Peter, who also happens to be the village doctor, and blame him for the deaths he cannot explain. The village squire and coroner Clive Hamilton (Dennis Chinnery) will not permit autopsies, a sure sign that he’s up to something screwy, and thus Forbes must use his powers of deduction, shovel-wielding and grave-digging to work out what the devil is going on.
Given the title of this piece, I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I tell you that the walking dead have a lot to do with the unexplained corpses. Although zombie movies have arguably been done-to-death (no pun intended) director John Gilling brings a sincerely menacing undead presence to the screen just two years before George A. Romero would redefine the genre with his revered picture Night of the Living Dead (1968). The zombies in Gilling’s film are green, demonic creatures. Strong and hulking; fierce and bloodthirsty with the power of voodoo on their side. The mind-control element of this narrative gives these beings a purpose and control you don’t see in the shuffling, braindead creations of later films making them all the more sinister.
Admittedly the acting is, at times, a bit on the hammy side (epecially when Brook Williams is on screen, he really likes to chew his knuckles off when he gets bad news) but like many other Hammer titles this flick plays gleefully with the darker nooks of the story and doesn’t shy away from sterling scares. The scene in which Alice rises from her grave in the cemetary is particularly eerie and comes complete with a climactic decapitation. And who doesn’t love a good decapitation?
In summary, this film is something of a must-watch for horror fans or for devotees of British film but, also, casual viewers will not be disappointed by this entertaining and well-paced addition to the Hammer collection. On the run up to the Olympic Games, Studio Canal have arranged a special season of screenings of British classics that includes The Plague of the Zombies, attendance is heartily recommended.