While everything from George Romero’s …of the Dead series through to 28 Days Later and Resident Evil has worked the zombie film right down to the stump, returning to the genre forebears still proves a dementedly rewarding, refreshing experience. John Gilling’s Hammer riff The Plague of the Zombies observes this type of story through a more aged, yet less cynical – and less serious – lens, while its cutting-edge social commentary remains criminally undervalued.
Sticking true to the schematic of the Hammer horrors we know and love, The Plague of the Zombies is pure camp. The opening scene features a hooded cult figure brandishing a clay voodoo doll, before dabbing it with blood – laughable prop blood, likely ketchup or at a stretch, paint. From the outset it is a reminder that while Hammer’s recent revival comes with a classed-up new image (releasing stylish horrors such as Let Me In and The Woman in Black), this will always be Hammer to many.
As a plague starts to envelop a small Cornish town during the mid-1800s, it is up to Professor James Forbes (André Morell) and the village’s local doctor, Peter Thompson (Brook Williams), to get to the bottom of it. The superstitious villagers will not allow Peter to perform an autopsy on plague victims, at the behest of Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson), an aristocrat who serves as the town’s de facto ruler.
Like the better-remembered zombie films of old – even if ironically, this one remains relatively obscure – the seemingly straight-forward survival story is suffused with a smart political subtext, as would surely inspire Romero’s own Night of the Living Dead just two years later. The provincial little town serves as a potent Marxist metaphor, with the insular, downtrodden locals being transformed into mindless ghouls at the will of Hamilton, a plutocratic leader exploiting the proletariat for financial means. Some might also be keen to comment on how he asserts hegemony amid a ceremonial, arguably quasi-religious agenda.
Like Romero, though, this commentary is subdued and absolutely secondary to the picture’s function as entertainment, and while hardly bubbling with suspense, it clips from beat to beat with enthusiasm and efficiency. Helping it chug along is Morell’s steely screen presence as the moustache-clad protagonist, a fastidious and determined goodie but one also prone to indulging occasional morbidity, as he declares to his daughter in good humour that he “should’ve drowned [her] at birth”. Carson is also a delicious villain and quite oddly less of a caricature than his moustache-twirling foil, while Williams provides that necessary spoonful of classic Hammer overacting.
Granted, some later plotting – namely the ridiculous method with which Hamilton amasses his workforce – is unapologetically on the nose, but then expecting meticulous plotting from something like this is as fruitless as believing England will win the Euro. Effects, meanwhile, are sure to provide plenty of giggles, with tomato juice doubling for blood and zombie make-up consisting of far too much blue-face. Also amusing is the wonderfully bombastic score. All things considered, you’ll either roll with it – appropriately daft ending and all – or not.
As a precursor to better zombie films, it remains an important, passably entertaining genre milestone.
The Plague of the Zombies was re-released today only as part of the Made in Britain retrospective series.