With a frenzied voodoo beat we kick-off with a ritual, where a man decked out in robes and a ceremonial mask strides through a group of Haitian drummers in full regalia; his destination, a central sacrificial altar in what looks like some sort of cave. Here, the assumed Houngan -- a high priest in voodoo circles, opens a tiny coffin-shaped box, revealing a crude fetish doll secreted inside, on which he dribbles some blood from a glass vial and starts chanting. Meantime, in a nearby village, a woman fitfully sleeps in her bed, mumbling the exact same chant as the Houngan until the ceremony reaches a fevered pitch and the girl suddenly wakes up screaming!
Cut to the following morning, where Sylvia Forbes (Clare) delivers a letter to her father, a well-heeled doctor and teacher of medicine at the local university, who is scheduled for a much needed holiday. However, Sir James’ (Morell) plans are put on hold once he reads the desperate plea from a former pupil, Dr. Peter Thompson, who has recently started a practice in Cornwall. Seems this village has been overrun by an as of yet unidentified malady, where the victims first become disoriented and lethargic, and then, having seemingly lost the will to live, simply waste away until they die. Hoping his old mentor might shed some light on what he’s dealing with, Thompson eagerly awaits his written response. But Sylvia thinks they can do better than that, and at her insistence, they pack up for Cornwall where her father can study the symptoms firsthand before offering any diagnosis.
There is a bit of a bump along the way, though, when they run into a pack of obnoxious fox-hunters, led by a bloke named Denver (Davion) -- the assholiest asshole of this mounted bunch, and the sympathetic Sylvia purposefully points them in the wrong direction, giving the poor animal at least a temporary reprieve. But when they reach town, just as a funeral procession is heading out to the cemetery, Denver leads a reckless charge toward their carriage, overwhelming the casket bearers, who wind up dropping the coffin off a bridge, where it shatters on impact, revealing its ghastly contents. And after getting an earful from Denver and a threat to never cross him or his party again, both Forbeses catch a glimpse of the exposed corpse. Then, strangely enough, Martinus (Hammond), the brother of the dead man, is so afraid of Denver and his hooligans he blames these strangers for the disruption. Finding he won’t listen to reason, and growing more belligerent by the second, Forbes and his daughter withdraw for more friendlier environs.
And while the doctor is out, his wife, Alice (Pearce), an old friend of Sylvia’s, is home but she appears to be suffering from the exact same symptoms described in her husband’s letter -- with the addition of a cut on her wrist, currently seeping through the bandages, that she is reluctant to expound upon. And as this mystery deepens, we also recognize Alice was the girl who screamed in the opening preamble. Leaving the two girls to catch up, Forbes tracks down Thompson (Williams) at the pub, who is currently being berated by the ill-tempered Martinus since his brother was just the latest patient of the doctor’s to succumb to this deadly malaise, twelve in total, with no cure in sight. Thompson counters, saying he might’ve gotten to the bottom of it already if the superstitious townsfolk would’ve just let him perform one single autopsy. And just when things are about get even uglier, thanks to a timely arrival and an offer to buy a round for the house, Forbes is able to extricate Thompson without any further trouble.
Back at the cottage, after dinner, the two doctors hash over the plague symptoms: mental confusion, fatigue, loss of appetite, and a sickly pallor, which describes his wife’s current condition to a tee, explaining the urgency of that letter. When asked about the lack of an autopsy, Thompson relates to an incredulous Forbes on how skewered things are in Cornwall, saying the local Squire, Clive Hamilton, rules the land with a clenched fist. He is the law, essentially, which also makes him the official coroner -- meaning he has the last say on the disposition of the dead, and he has thwarted Thompson’s efforts at every turn. Undaunted, Forbes says they’ll just have to do an end run around this obstacle and perform an autopsy anyway. Of course, they’ll need a body first. And they know just where to get a fresh one.
Later that night, while the men are off sneaking into the graveyard, shovels in hand, Sylvia is alerted to Alice sneaking out of the house and disappearing into the shadows. Trailing her onto the moors, where Alice appears to be headed for an abandoned mine works, Sylvia is suddenly cut-off and surrounded by Denver and his collection of mounted asshats, who drag her to a palatial estate, where, after taunting and terrorizing her for a bit, the men cut cards. And it should be noted that the man who draws the high card, here, doesn’t get the girl all to himself but he’s the one who gets to go first -- at least that’s the impression I got.
Faced with what appears to be a brewing gang-rape, then, Sylvia is saved, for the moment, by the timely intervention of Squire Hamilton (Carson), who’s house they are currently in. With a wave of a hand, his underlings quickly clear out but Sylvia is not impressed nor interested in his apology or an offered ride home. All she wants to do is leave, which he allows after warning her to be careful on the moor since it is filled with sinkholes due to the old tin mine.
But to get back to the village, Sylvia must pass by that decrepit mine entrance again. There, she suddenly finds herself confronted by a horrific sight: a monstrous man, his mouth stretched open in a screeching rictus, his eyes white, his flesh a lifeless gray, dressed in tatters, who tosses Alice’s lifeless body onto a broken slab of concrete. With this, Sylvia faints dead away. And when she comes to later, Alice’s body is still there but the monster is long gone. However, from the brief glimpse we got of him in the moonlight, one could almost swear that was Martinus’s brother -- who is supposed to be dead...
It’s been said The Plague of the Zombies (1966) would’ve made an excellent double-feature with The Reptile (1966) and I really don’t have an argument against this as both are favorites of mine and consider them both some of the best things Hammer Studios ever put out -- definitely the spookiest, but this wasn’t meant to be as they wound up with different marquee partners. See, back in 1965, the always cash-strapped Hammer had four films in simultaneous production -- those two already mentioned plus Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Rasputin the Mad Monk, utilizing the same sets, casts, and crews in an effort to save money. Like The Reptile, The Plague of the Zombies had been kicking around the studio for several years; first showing up as The Zombie in 1962, scripted by Peter Bryan, and later expanded upon by Tony Hinds as Horror of the Zombies, which was a late scratch off the production slate in 1964.
Apparently, director John Gilling had a somewhat contentious relationship with the studio, butting heads with writers, producers, crews and even the actors on several occasions during the making The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and The Scarlet Blade (1964), which he both wrote and directed. After, Gilling wrote the script for The Gorgon (1964) and was a little miffed when he wasn’t offered a chance to direct it -- and on top of that, he would find out later Anthony Hinds basically trashed his story and rewrote the whole thing, which is why he demanded full script control when he was offered the back to back productions of The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile.
And while Zombies is still credited to Peter Bryan, Gilling would do a massive uncredited overhaul on it, bringing a less than subtle but still extremely effective anti-capitalist bent as the film rails against the corrupting influence of privilege, aristocratic oppression, and exploiting the lower classes for profit as Forbes and Thompson begin to unravel several mysteries at once, starting with one very large clue when the grave they’re digging up is found to be empty.
And then, when Sylvia brings them word about Alice, she tries to take them to the body only it has been moved and left near a plastered Martinus, who quickly becomes the prime suspect in her murder. This he swears he did not do, and also swears he saw his brother wandering the moor (-- whose grave was empty, remember), with Alice cradled in his arms; but the chief constable, Sgt. Swift (Ripper), pins that on the booze even though it kinda confirms what Sylvia saw. Swift also caught Forbes and Thompson in the act of grave-robbing earlier but when it proved empty, he agrees to give them 48hrs to get to the bottom of it before he must make his report to Squire Hamilton.
And while they struck out at the graveyard, they do now have a body to examine -- though a distraught Thompson leaves it to Forbes for obvious reasons. Again, the examination provides more questions than answers as Alice’s body fails to show signs of rigor and the blood around her mouth proves not to be human at all, meaning the crime scene was staged.
Also, with no concrete answers as to how she died, Forbes decides to interview the witnesses again; first Martinus, who sticks to his story, and then Sylvia, who takes him to the mine entrance where she first saw Alice’s body and the creature, confirming it very well could’ve been Martinus’ brother. And as they poke around, Swift reveals the tin mine is owned by the Hamilton family and it wasn’t tapped out but was closed down due to safety concerns after a series of horrific accidents left several miners dead. He also says the young Squire recently inherited all of this and a ton of family debt when his father died and he returned from abroad; but now Hamilton and his goon squad “spend money like it’s water."
With that, Forbes is beginning to get the picture and consults with the local vicar (Royston), asking if he has any literature on the occult, specifically on Haitian voodoo practices. And if it wasn’t obvious enough who the Houngan is, Hamilton pays a call on Sylvia for the express purpose of “accidentally” engineering a similar cut on the girl’s arm to collect some of her blood, which he later pours on one of those little fetish dolls inside another mini-coffin. Meanwhile, proving she’s a chip off the old investigative block, while viewing the body of her friend, Sylvia deduces there’s a connection between their similar cuts and the disease, which links it to Hamilton, but before she can really do anything about this it’s already too late as Hamilton completes the ritual and now has her under a spell.
Meantime, Forbes needs one more piece of evidence before he blows the whole thing wide open, and so, he sets up a surveillance at the graveyard to see if the same thing happens to Alice that probably happened to everyone else left in the graveyard. (Did I mention they checked the coffins of the other 12 victims of the plague and they were all empty?) And despite Hamilton’s best efforts to disrupt this, Thompson and Forbes have the displeasure of watching Alice “reactivating” in a startling transformation scene. Declaring she’s a zombie, Forbes quickly dispatches the poor wretch, cleaving her head off with a shovel.
Now, this is where The Plague of the Zombies gets really good as this all proves too much for poor Thompson, who's watched his wife die not once, but twice, which leads to a phantasmagorical dream sequence when his brain takes a time-out, where he finds himself alone in the graveyard, where the ground erupts all around him and the living dead scrape and claw their way out of the earth and close in on him.
When Forbes finally snaps him out of it, he leaves the distraught man in his daughter’s care and heads off to confront Hamilton, who learned the ways of voodoo in his world travels and now uses it to muster an army of the undead to work the dangerous tin mine for him -- think about it: cheap labor, no safety concerns, and easily replaceable; all under the whips and watchful eyes of Denver and the galloping asshat brigade.
Alas, once everything is revealed, The Plague of the Zombies kinda stumbles over the finish line -- well, more like rushes over the finish line, as Hamilton, after brushing off Forbes’ accusations, coaxes an enthralled Sylvia to the mine to be sacrificed for … something. You know, at first, I suspected Hamilton started recruiting female zombies not to work in the mine but to serve in a, well, to put it bluntly, an undead brothel for his cronies so they’d stop attacking the local girls. I honestly wouldn’t put it past him or them but there is no way in hell Gilling would’ve ever gotten that past the British censors. As is, in order to avoid the dreaded X-certificate, several instances of excessive gore and violence had to be removed -- even implied violence, as the scene where Hamilton’s men toy with Sylvia and insisted the “intimation of rape be toned down.” But the biggest concern was over how many blows it took to sever Alice’s head.
Poor Jacqueline Pearce, between this and donning the extensive make-up in The Reptile had the pretty actress swearing off these kinds of pictures. And on top of having to set through the plaster-casting process for her prop head, the admitted claustrophobic refused to get in the coffin during her resurrection sequence until assistant director Bert Bart agreed to lie beneath her and assure her through it. Make-up F/X guru Roy Ashton designed the zombies, employing layers of crumpled tissue paper, latex and special contact lenses to startling effect.
The Plague of the Zombies also served as the last hurrah of old school ritual zombies before Romero and company provided a quantum shift in their origin, dynamics, and eating habits two years later in Night of the Living Dead (1968) -- at least until the criminally underappreciated blaxpo-zombie flick, Sugar Hill (1974). The film borrows liberally from the cultural appropriation angle of White Zombie (1932), where a white plantation owner uses voodoo to resurrect himself a cheap labor force for his sugar mill; and there’s also a few nods to Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943), when Sylvia follows the somnolent Alice on her midnight stroll through the moors; but the film probably hews closest to Hammer’s own Horror of Dracula (1959), where you can easily draw a line between Hamilton and the bloodthirsty Count, Forbes to Van Helsing, Thompson to Harker, and Alice and Sylvia to Lucy and Mina, who are all then plugged into essentially the same plot.
But this by no means ruins the film -- no, far from it. Gilling and cinematographer Arthur Grant paint an eerie and creepy picture, with some very effective crash-zooms. Several sequences readily stand-out, starting with some low-angled hand-held work when Sylvia is accosted, which let them really put one over on the censors as far as I’m concerned. And there’s the slightly blasphemous sequence where Gilling cuts between Alice’s funeral and Hamilton’s ritual where he overpowers Sylvia. Alice’s subsequent resurrection is creepy as hell, utilizing several dissolves to accomplish her transformation, which segues into Thompson’s dream sequence, where everything is a bit off kilter and the lights play off the eerie mist as the creatures slowly unearth themselves. It’s startlingly effective.
Again, the ending kinda fizzles after Forbes confronts Hamilton and he sneaks back into the manor and discovers his secret stash of voodoo dolls, getting himself trapped in the process as he fights and kills Denver, setting the manor ablaze while he’s at it. And as the fire melts the fetish dolls, Hamilton’s zombies revolt against their slave-masters, who also start to spontaneously combust, allowing Forbes and Thompson to rescue Sylvia and barely escape the mine, leaving Hamilton and his crew behind to burn; a grim but much deserved comeuppance, resulting in a highly satisfactory ending. Can’t recommend this one enough, Boils and Ghouls.
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The Plague of the Zombies (1966) Hammer Films :: Seven Arts Pictures :: 20th Century Fox / P: Anthony Nelson Keys / D: John Gilling / W: Peter Bryan / C: Arthur Grant / E: Chris Barnes / M: James Bernard / S: André Morell, Diane Clare, John Carson, Brook Williams, Jacqueline Pearce, Alexander Davion, Michael Ripper, Marcus Hammond, Roy Royston