Thursday, October 24, 2013

Hammer Halloween Blogathon: The Plague of the Zombies

The villain appears in a pre-title
sequence--but he's masked.
Dr. Peter Tompson's medical practice in a small Cornish village has not gone well--that will happen when 13 patients die suddenly within a year of one's arrival. The baffled physician writes a letter to his former medical professor, Sir James Forbes, stating: "Our village has been beset by a number of mysterious and fatal maladies...the victims have no will to live." Sir James' daughter Sylvia, a friend of Peter's wife, suggests an impromptu visit.

A frightened Alice.
Following their arrival, Sir James learns that things are worse than described. A group of aristocratic young men, affiliated with the local squire, run roughshod over the town. The frightened villagers distrust the new visitors. And, worst of all, Peter's wife Alice looks pale, displays a loss of appetite, and acts very defensive about the unusual cut on her hand. She also seems to have an obsessive interest in the handsome and wealthy Squire Hamilton.

Released in 1966, The Plague of the Zombies exhibits all the traits that made Hammer Films synonymous with horror cinema: a strong cast; an atmospheric setting; an interesting plot; and production values that disguise the modest budget.

Andre Morell as Sir James.
The cast in Plague is anchored by Andre Morell, a classically trained actor who worked on the British stage with the likes of John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, and Robert Donat. Morell made his Hammer debut in 1959 as one of the screen's finest Dr. Watsons opposite Peter Cushing's Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Morell brings his authoritative presence to the role of Sir James--a perfect counterpart to the charming villain played by John Carson. The best supporting performance belongs to Jacqueline Pearce as the vulnerable Alice.

Director John Gilling filmed The Plague of the Zombies back-to-back with The Reptile. The films also share the same crew, the same setting, and some of the same performers (the most prominent of which is Pearce, who plays a more significant role in The Reptile). A journeyman director, Gilling brings surprising visual flair to The Plague of the Zombies. He employs an effective blue color scheme--from the deep-blue night sky to the blue-tinted zombies. The first zombie appearance is played for chills as the creature--almost silhouetted again the sky--tosses a woman's corpse toward Sylvia. Another effective scene has hands rising up out of the earth.

The only thing that keeps Plague from ranking with Hammer's best is the derivative nature of the plot. Although Hammer attempts to mask it with a different setting and better acting, a key element of the plot--why the squire wants to turn people into zombies--appears to have been lifted from the 1932 Bela Lugosi film White Zombie.

Hammer released The Plague of the Zombies on a double-bill with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, a fair entry in its usually entertaining Dracula series with Christopher Lee. The poster promised vampire fangs for the young male movie theatre patrons--so they could "bite back." The girls in the audience got "zombie glasses" to defend themselves. I'm still pondering the zombie's pretty easy to recognize a zombie (especially if they're tinted blue and move in a lumbering fashion). So, I'm not sure if those glasses really provide much in the way of zombie protection.

This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Café. Click here view the complete blogathon schedule.


  1. Rick, I love your point about the zombie glasses -- blue tint and shambling gait do indeed seem enough to identify them -- LOL! Having Andre Morell as an anchor cast member is definitely appealing, and I totally agree with you: " of the screen's finest Dr. Watsons opposite Peter Cushing's Sherlock Holmes..." I really thought they made one of the best Holmes/Watson duos. I liked Plague of the Zombies very much and love to see it any time I can. Just the bluish look is eerie enough to rank it scary in my book, not to mention hands coming out of the earth. Good one, Rick!

  2. Great review! I just reviewed this overlooked gem from Hammer myself and I am starting to see more and more appreciation for it. Loved Morell in this. He was the perfect pick for this role and the material. It is now one of favorite Hammer films among The Gorgon and Brides of Dracula. Good job!

  3. I don't know. I've discovered many a Zombie with MY Zombie glasses and they've dared not approach me.

    Great read. I'm afraid that of all types of "monsters" Zombies give me the highest level of the creeps so I haven't seen this, but maybe I should.


  4. Great review Rick! I have not seen this one -- now I must! I hate the modern zombie craze but Hammer did it better so I know I'll like! Thanks for your inspired choice of film and organizing the Blogathon!

  5. Hammer Films was indeed masterful at creating atmosphere on budgets that could only be dreamed about today, even if adjusting for inflation. Add Andre Morell and instantly the movie has a wonderful sense of class. Great post, Rick!

  6. Love the details about Hammer's "ballyhoo" promotion for this film! Great choice, Rick, another title that might not feature "top tier" famous monsters like Frankenstein or Dracula, but one whose reputation has risen greatly over time. Andre Morrell is a strong anchor here, and Michael Ripper gets one of his better Hammer roles. A fine, atmospheric chiller, though I feel its "Cornish cousin," THE REPTILE, is just about as good, though less well-known or loved.

  7. Alas, I was only four years old when this came out but if I had been older, that double feature would have had me drooling in anticipation for weeks. "Plague of the Zombies" is one of the studio's best chillers, a fine example of their Gothic flair with adult authority figures as the protagonists. The younger the Hammer protagonists got, the more their films suffered. But not here.