AKA: THE ZOMBIES
Directed by John Gilling
Written by Peter Bryan
Starring Andre Morell, Diane Clare, & John Carson
“Look father, they are hunting that poor fox.”
“Men have always hunted.”
“For food, yes, not for bloodlust…”
This, one of the opening lines of PLAGUE OF ZOMBIES, sets the tone for the rest of the film, for the most part. Hammer Films are mostly known for their Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy films, but this little gem shows that there isn’t a monster the film studio couldn’t do right. PLAGUE OF ZOMBIES precedes Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD by two years and although it isn’t set in modern times like NOTLD, the two films are vastly different (one following the typical Hammer style, the other establishing the blueprint for all zombie films to follow). But both use zombies as only a backdrop of a study of how quickly our fragile humanity can disintegrate when faced with a common threat.
What one comes to expect from Hammer films is front and center here. English moors and mansions are the set pieces. Everyone is prim and proper. The gals’ fancy dresses are either low cut to show off the all important cleavage or are torn to be low cut as they flee the monster of the film. There’s a lot of talk. The blood is bright. And at the center of it all is a young couple, fighting the supernatural odds to be together. I mention the talk because as much as I respect Hammer films, those films at times have me reaching for the fast forward button. I understand budgets were low and space is required to fill the allotted time needed for a feature, but watching folks in fancy dress flapping jaws for huge chunks of the film gets tedious sometimes.
There’s plenty of that here in PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, but for the most part, it’s one of the better Hammer flicks in that the threat is permeable throughout it all. The very first scene filled with voodoo drumming natives lead by a creepy masked figure sets the tone that this may be a different Hammer film, but soon enough we get the dresses and the mansions and the like. A series of mysterious deaths throughout a small village has the town fraying at the ends. A professor is called in to help find out what is amiss. I like how this film takes its time before revealing the zombies as the menace. There’s a mystery front and center here with the professor played by a staunch Brook Williams who acts more like a detective than your typical professor. Another performance worthy of note is John Carson (not Johnny) who plays Squire Hamilton, a Snidely Whiplash-style character who is up to no good. His prissy demeanor caused me to chuckle as he tried to be threatening.
But the thing that makes this film a standout is the look of the zombies themselves and how they act. About twenty minutes in, a screaming zombie finally shows up. It’s a really terrifying scene as the zombie appears out of nowhere screaming and laughing and then tossing a woman at the viewer. Thanks, zombie! This is a truly frightening introduction. The scene comes out of nowhere and proves to be very spooky. The zombies themselves are heavily caked with makeup and look a bit like Vincent Price’s Dr. Phibes visage, but they are pretty terrifying. They also wear monks’ robes much like some of the Italian zombie flicks that would come to screen about ten years after. The pairing of zombies and voodoo is always a creepy duo, a trend in most zombie films you’ll find before NOTLD, but rarely after that film. The rituals themselves are well done and are more unsettling because of their juxtaposition against the prim and proper culture of the rest of the film. Still, they get to be a bit goofy, especially the drummers who never seem to get tired of drumming with their Royal Order of Water Buffalo hats flopping from side to side.
Though guilty of falling into Hammer tropes, PLAGUE OF ZOMBIES proved to be a fun flick due to some well done performances, a strong sense of unease throughout the entire film, and of course, the zombies themselves. It may be a bit dry and boring for today’s crowd, but folks who like watching a good mystery unfold won’t be disappointed by the end when all unholy hell breaks loose.