The Plague of the Zombies (1966) ***
One of the last pre-gut muncher zombie movies is also one of the best. Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies doesn’t get much attention these days (its comparatively recent release on home video— finally— might go some way toward changing that), but it has a lot to offer if you’re in the mood for voodoo. For one thing, this is one of the few zombie movies from pre-Romero days in which the zombies actually do look dead, and though their creator, as usual, is the real threat here, the undead themselves get a lot more to do than is generally the case in old-school zombie flicks.
It’s got a damn fine opening, too. While a group of costumed Haitians pound frenetically on the obligatory voodoo drums, a robed and masked white man strides up to the altar in their midst with a wooden box shaped like a tiny coffin. The man opens the lid to reveal what we may assume is a voodoo doll (though the doll differs in several intriguing ways from the voodoo dolls I’m used to seeing), onto which he pours out the contents of a vial of red fluid— blood, I’m guessing. Just then, a pretty young woman (Jacqueline Pearce, from The Reptile and “Blake’s 7”) wakes up screaming.
Elsewhere, another attractive girl— Sylvia Forbes (Diana Clare, of The Vulture and Witchcraft) is her name— brings her father a letter. Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell, from The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Mummy’s Shroud) turns out to be a respected old doctor and medical professor, who is just now enjoying some much-needed time off from the rigors of his practice and teaching schedule. The letter is from a friend and former student of his, Dr. Peter Thompson (The Medusa Touch’s Brook Williams), who has recently hung up his shingle in a tiny village in Cornwall. According to Thompson’s letter, this village has lately been beset by a strange plague, the victims of which seem to lose their will to live, and waste away for no physically detectable reason. There have been twelve deaths attributable to the disease within the last year, and Thompson is at his wits’ end trying to puzzle out the nature and cause of the mysterious affliction. His hope is that Forbes might have heard of something similar, and could perhaps forward him any information on the subject he might possess. At Sylvia’s insistence, Forbes goes his friend’s request one better, and packs up with his daughter for a trip south to Cornwall.
The Forbeses don’t exactly get off to a good start in Thompson’s village. When their carriage crosses paths with a team of mounted fox-hunters led by a man called Denver (Alex Davion, from Valley of the Dolls and Incense for the Damned), Sylvia (who does not approve of killing animals for fun) impishly misdirects them as to the direction their quarry went. Later, when their coach arrives in the village, Denver and his men come galloping over to surround it, disrupting a funeral procession in the process (it’s hard to think of a bigger disruption than knocking the casket over the guardrail of a bridge!); Denver menacingly tells Sylvia that she’d better hope she never encounters him again. And as if that weren’t enough, the brother of the dead man (Marcus Hammond), somehow blaming the Forbeses for Denver’s behavior, makes it clear that they can expect trouble from him the next time they meet, too. Indeed, it isn’t until they arrive at the Thompson place that Sir James and his daughter run across anyone who will so much as behave civilly towards them.
Even there, though, we in the audience may perceive a hint of misfortune waiting in the wings. Thompson is married to an old friend of Sylvia’s, and when Alice Thompson opens the door to the house, we recognize her as the screaming girl from the first scene. And sure enough, Alice acts as though there were something amiss with her from the moment she first opens her mouth. All the symptoms Thompson described to Forbes in his letter are in evidence as Alice conducts her guests around the house, and it’s hard not to suspect that the bandaged cut on the woman’s wrist— about which she seems suspiciously secretive— is somehow more significant than the average flesh wound.
Leaving his daughter to catch up with her old friend, Sir James heads into town to see if he can track down Thompson. When he finds him, in a pub not far from the house, the doctor is surrounded by abusive townspeople, the ringleader of whom is none other than the brother of the dead man we saw earlier. It turns out Martinus (for that is the short-tempered villager’s name) also has a grudge against the doctor; because Thompson has no idea what the strange disease plaguing the town might be, Martinus holds him responsible for his brother’s demise. Forbes, despite not exactly having gotten off on the right foot with Martinus, is able to defuse the situation by informing the men that Thompson was one of his finest pupils and then buying a round of drinks for the whole house. Having thus rescued the younger doctor, Sir James takes the opportunity to get a more detailed explanation of the village’s troubles. Thompson isn’t much help, though— he’s already described all the symptoms, and he has been unable to perform even a single autopsy because the locals don’t approve of such things. And even if they did, the petty nobleman who essentially runs the town, Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson, from Taste the Blood of Dracula and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter), has the final say on the subject, and he’s made it perfectly clear that Thompson will get no autopsy warrants out of him. Confronted with such an impasse, Sir James can think of only one solution: he and Thompson are just going to have to exhume the dead Martinus brother on their own authority and perform a post-mortem without the squire’s okay.
That night, while the two doctors are sneaking out to the churchyard with their shovels, Sylvia is awakened by a strange noise and goes to the window just in time to see Alice wandering off into the darkness. Sylvia follows, but before she can catch up to the other girl, she runs afoul of Denver and his buddies, who chase after her on horseback and eventually corner her in a grove of trees. Denver grabs Sylvia and hoists her up onto his mount, then the lot of them ride off to an immense mansion a good distance from the village proper. Just as it seems that Sylvia can’t possibly get out of this situation without first suffering at least a gang-rape, a deep, harsh voice rings out ordering Denver and his fellows to unhand her. This voice, interestingly enough, belongs to Squire Hamilton, the owner of the chateau. The squire banishes the unruly young men from his sight and then offers his apologies to Sylvia, but it doesn’t get him very far— for once, a horror movie heroine has the moral fortitude to insist upon taking offense at highly offensive behavior. Refusing Hamilton’s offer of an escort back to the Thompson house (“I’ve already been attacked tonight, and it happened in your home!”), Sylvia resumes her search for Alice. She finds her friend, alright, but not under anything like the circumstances she would have hoped for. After blundering onto the site of an abandoned tin mine, Sylvia finds herself confronted with a monstrously ugly, grayish-skinned man who happens to be carrying Alice’s lifeless body in his arms! When Sylvia recovers from the fainting spell that understandably overtakes her, the hideous man is nowhere to be found, but Alice’s body is right about where she had seen him standing however long ago it was.
Meanwhile, Forbes and Thompson are having an adventure of their own. They are caught in the act of excavating the elder Martinus brother’s grave by Police Sergeant Swift (Michael Ripper, the Dick Miller of the British Isles, who counts among his innumerable credits such films as X: The Unknown and The Deadly Bees), and placed under arrest for grave-robbing. The coffin is already exposed, though, and Forbes has just enough time before Swift and his subordinate reach him to wrest loose the lid. Swift and the other policeman may be surprised to see the empty coffin staring up at them from the open grave, but Forbes, strangely, seems to have expected precisely that. Sir James tells the policemen that he has no idea what’s going on, but he’d like their help in getting to the bottom of it; such a request from a would-be grave-robber who has been caught red-handed is highly irregular, but then again, so is that prematurely empty casket. Swift agrees to postpone any criminal proceedings against the doctors for 48 hours, time enough, or so he reckons, for the truth of the situation to come out.
So it is to Swift that Forbes turns the next morning, when Sylvia tells him that Alice has been killed. The subsequent search of the surrounding countryside turns up results nearly as mysterious as those of Sir James’s opening of the Martinus grave, however, in that Alice is found not at the tin mine, but on the edge of the forest instead. And who should the police discover passed out drunk at the foot of a nearby tree but the living Martinus boy. Swift naturally arrests him and interrogates him in connection with Alice’s murder, but Martinus tells a strange tale indeed. He claims he saw his brother carrying the dead girl through the woods— the same brother who was supposed to be in that grave the doctors dug up last night! And now that he mentions it, Sylvia agrees that the man she saw holding her friend’s body looked enough like Martinus to be his brother, dead or not. Then that evening, after an autopsy on Alice brings to light no medical reason for her death whatsoever but reveals that the blood smeared around her mouth came from an animal instead of her, Forbes starts to think he has some idea what’s going on. Sir James pays a visit to the local vicar (Roy Royston) to have a look at some of the rare occult books in his library. (What would the heroes of these movies do without churchmen with occultist hobbies?) Sure enough, a book on Haitian voodoo describes to a tee the mysterious goings-on in the village as part of the chapter on zombies.
Naturally, wherever there are zombies, a voodoo witch doctor can’t be far away. And when Clive Hamilton drops in on Sylvia to offer his condolences just before Alice’s funeral and contrives to have Sylvia cut herself on the shards of a broken sherry goblet, it seems quite likely that we’ve found him. Hamilton craftily arranges to sneak some of Sylvia’s blood out of the house in a familiar-looking vial, and in the very next scene, we see him pour some of it on a voodoo doll exactly like the one the masked witch doctor was using in the opening scene. But Forbes, Thompson, and the vicar are only a few steps behind Hamilton, and once Swift mentions that the squire’s family owns the ruined tin mine where Sylvia saw the zombie, the pieces all come together for them at last. Of course by that time, Hamilton has gotten his hands on Sylvia the same way he had gotten them on Alice before...
Generally speaking, I prefer my zombies to be of the flesh-eating variety, but I don’t mind the folkloric approach if it’s handled well. Director John Gilling and screenwriter Peter Bryan have certainly handled it well enough here, and they are helped immeasurably by the fact that the makeup department has given them the first believably dead-looking zombies since Invisible Invaders, and the only ones that would look good in color until Continental Europe got into the act in the 1970’s. True, the zombies in question remain a bit underutilized, but they play a far more active role than their counterparts in any of the older voodoo movies I’ve seen, and there’s a crawling-out-of-the-grave scene that would not be surpassed for another thirteen years. On the other hand, the pacing is a bit on the uneven side and the final act feels somewhat rushed, while the script overall recycles just a few too many plot devices from Dracula for its own good. Still, zombie movies didn’t come a whole lot better than this before George Romero arrived on the scene, and I really can’t complain all that much.