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Noted British actor Andre Morell (The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Ben-Hur, 1959) was on vacation when he got a call from his agent. "Come back and do this Hammer film for good money." Morell asked what the film was. His agent stammered out, "It's a..uh..costume drama." "What's the title?" Morell queried. The agent finally confessed, "It's called The Plague of the Zombies." Morell did not believe him, but accepted anyway, later describing making the movie as "great fun."
Many fans of horror movies agree. The Plague of the Zombies (1966) may have a garish title but an excellent script by Peter Bryan (The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Brides of Dracula, 1960) and atmospheric cinematography makes this one of Hammer Studios' finest productions.
Hammer ruled the field of horror movies in the late 1950's and early 1960's with its updates of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy and many others. With color and generous doses of sex and gore, Hammer created new stars like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and a showcase for talented director Terence Fisher. By the mid 1960's, however, these talents were beginning to leave Hammer and the vein of well-known monsters had been tapped out. By late 1965, Hammer was cranking out cheap double features and relying far too heavily on old formulas. For this reason, The Plague of the Zombies, one of their more imaginative productions, was ignored at the time.
In the early 1800's, a professor is called to a small village in the Cornish countryside by one of his former pupils, now the town doctor. There is a mysterious plague killing off the locals and, despite the terror in the community, the local squire refuses to allow autopsies. Unearthed graves reveal empty coffins and one woman claims to have seen her brother walking the hills near the squire's mine, despite the brother's death the week before.
Bryan's script lets the story play out with a growing feeling of dread and mystery making the most of its setting. Unlike many Hammer films that pit stalwart British investigators against the dank corruption of a continental European setting, The Plague of the Zombies presents a horrific view of England itself. Aristocrats have a bloodlust fueled by fox hunting and the local squire has found a unique way to exploit the working class.
With the makeup for the zombies, Hammer again pushed the boundary of classic horror. Whereas in White Zombie (1932) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943) the living dead were merely people with a shuffling gait and a wide-eyed stare, the zombies in The Plague of the Zombies are clearly decaying corpses. This more horrific and effective portrayal would inspire George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the many similar films that followed including director Danny Boyle's recent update of the British zombie movie 28 Days Later (2002).
Originally intended to be released with another Hammer horror film set in Cornwall, The Reptile (1966), The Plague of the Zombies was ultimately shown as a double feature with Dracula - Prince of Darkness (1966), making what many horror aficionados consider one of the best double bills of the 1960's. Attendees of these movies during their original release received "zombie eyes" for the men and "vampire fangs" for the ladies. The combination of a classic horror movie and giveaways made The Plague of the Zombies a great bargain as well as a wonderful source of chills.
Producer: Anthony Nelson Keys
Director: John Gilling
Screenplay: Peter Bryan
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Film Editing: Chris Barnes
Art Direction: Don Mingaye
Music: James Bernard
Cast: Andre Morell (Sir James Forbes), Diane Clare (Sylvia Forbes), Brook Williams (Dr. Peter Tompson), Jacqueline Pearce (Alice Tompson), John Carson (Squire Clive Hamilton), Alexander Davion (Denver).
C-90m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Brian Cady