What’s it about?
Hammer only made one zombie film and it’s rather unique. Released two years before George A. Romero changed the subgenre for ever, John Gilling’s Cornwall-set chiller uses Haitain voodoo mythology as a device to explore the British class system. The living dead are exploited as slaves in a tin mine and do not exist to ‘mindlessly’ feast on warm flesh. Gilling, however, does present them as eerie creatures with rotting features and they do – in one magnificent sequence – rise from their graves. It is without a doubt this Hammer horror picture would prove an influence on Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters later down the line.
The Plague of the Zombies, as historian Jonathan Rigby notes, is rather like Dracula in its construct but replaces vampires with the living dead. We have a Van Helsing doctor, a woman in the grip of evil, an ineffectual hero, a damsel in distress who succumbs to the powers of an evil figure. The baddie visits a ‘plague’ upon unsuspecting characters and turns once ordinary corpses laid tor rest into monsters. One must say it is a very clever piece of analysis given Hammer spent years making Dracula pictures, often discarding Bram Stoker’s novel as little more than a title on which to make their movies. Interestingly, Plague was released with Dracula: Prince of Darkness as a double-bill.
Gilling’s film is famous for a deeply insidious nightmare sequence in which a character witnesses the dead climbing out from their graves. It could well be the most frightening moment in all Hammer horror history and also strangely moving as their return is engineered to provide bodies for a tin mine. The zombies, too, are well imagined even if they’ve aged in terms of make-up effect. The walking dead wear monk-style habits and are rather powerful creatures. The scene in which a cackling fiend throws a buxom young woman off a platform is freakish and unexpected.
The Plague of the Zombies is atmospheric and insidious. It might have been produced as a quick B picture to support Christopher Lee’s iconic Dracula, but Gilling created a minor classic, which is actually a much better film than Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Of course it has dated and some of the acting a bit ropey, but Plague is truly unique in the British horror canon with its potent mix of Arthur Conan Doyle mystery and Caribbean voodoo.
How’s the picture and sound?
Hammer and StudioCanal have teamed up with the promise to restore classic British horror pictures made from the studio. We’ve already had Dracula: Prince of Darkness along with The Reptile. The Plague of the Zombies is a tip-top HD restoration and transfer which certainly does justice to Arthur Grant’s cinematography. The audio remix also makes James Bernard’s score absolutely terrifying – so turn the sound way up.
The bonus material is slim, however, there is a brilliant retrospective documentary that explores what makes The Plague of the Zombies such a damn good horror film. ‘Raising The Dead’, the title of the doc, is packed with information and insight. A restoration comparison also demonstrates what a beautiful and dedicated job archivists and restorers have done here. It is explained Plague was in absolutely diabolical condition when work began. There’s also a trailer and an episode of World of Hammer to round things off.
John Gilling, it can be said, made one of the very best Hammer films. The Plague of the Zombies is an excellent addition to the zombie genre and does things differently. Historically, it might be seen as the bridge between the Haitian based zombie and the ghoul re-imagined by George A. Romero. The story itself is a bit a odd. Why is the landowner, Clive Hamilton (John Carson), going to such mad lengths to get his tin mine working again? Best not dwell on such plot points too long.
Extra Features Rating:
When’s it out?
The Plague of the Zombies is released 18th June along with The Reptile