Tonight, I watched the 1966 Hammer horror film The Plague of the Zombies. I’d heard it characterized as the last great zombie film of the pre-Romero period, and was delighted to find that this is so. It is the only zombie film ever to be made by Hammer.
The plot is (awesomely!) right out of Conan Doyle. A nineteenth-century professor of medicine at London University (ably played by Andre Morell) is called to a small village in Cornwall by one of his former pupils who is baffled by a mysterious spate of plague-like deaths. Once in the village, teacher and pupil attempt to use deduction and their medical training to discover the meaning behind the strange goings-on. In addition to mysterious zombies, they also face ignorant peasants, arrogant fox-hunting bluebloods, and general British weirdness.
With the popularity of films like The Zombie Diaries and 28 Days Later, modern audiences have grown accustomed to seeing zombies haunting the bleak English countryside. However, this may be the very first film to portray such a haunting–and it is done quite effectively. The small village and surrounding sites are quite believably rendered into the home of the walking dead.
As someone who went to college in the 1990’s (and, worse, was an English major), I can’t help but notice the Postcolonial elements in this film. I mean, it opens with shirtless men of African ancestry drumming furiously in a cave whilst being lorded-over by a white Voodoo priest. Then you’ve got:
- Secret cults
- Sacred altars
- Sacrifice rituals.
- British people colonizing everything
Seriously, I feel like several PoCo master’s theses could be written about The Plague of the Zombies. (If you’re the type of person who enjoys deconstructing films, you’ll have your hands full here.)
But thank goodness, there is much more to appreciate in The Plague of the Zombies than political incorrectness. It’s well-shot, well-acted, and very scary. Its scene of zombies rising from their graves is one of the best I’ve ever watched. The zombies themselves look great; Unnerving–and with better makeup than you see in many contemporary films. (The zombie-killing, on the other hand, is rather weak. There are a couple of brief zombie fighting sequences–and one cool decapitation of a zombie with a shovel–but nothing to give Dead Alive a run for its money.) The percussion-heavy musical score is also well executed and very affecting, in a 1960’s, Hammer sort of way.
The film’s conclusion–which clearly seeks to drive home the old zombie movie chestnut: “He who lives by the zombie, shall die by the zombie”–doesn’t break any new ground, but is nonetheless deeply haunting and full of awesome flaming zombies.
Final Thought: Two years after Plague of the Zombies was released, George Romero changed everything. 1968’s Night of the Living Dead signaled a sea-change for zombies. They went from enslaved automatons controlled by drugs and magic, to animated corpses seeking to consume human flesh. (Yes, a few films have continued to portray “classic”, pre-Romero zombies [my favorite is The Serpent and The Rainbow], yet these are very few and far between.)
But if these classical Voodoo zombies wanted a final, celebratory hurrah before shuffling offstage, they certainly got it with The Plague of the Zombies. All-in-all, a great film!