Let me put THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES into context.
Today, when there’s an endless glut of zombie movies/TV shows/books/comics/computer games, it’s hard to believe that there was a time where zombies weren’t really a big thing in popular culture. Indeed, a character in THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES has to explain what zombies actually are, just to bring the audience up to speed. If I take a gander at Wikipedia, this would seem to be the only zombie film of 1966, with none at all in 1967.
Two years later, THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD would come out and everything would change, but for now, zombies are a left-field idea for a horror movie.
The zombies in THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES come much more from a Haitian, voodoo tradition than the quasi science George Romero would employ. And yet it’s quite easy to think of the filmmakers in Pittsburgh watching this and seeing the imagery of the zombies in the graveyard and thinking they’ll have a bit of that.
Of course, there are many differences. The stagy Hammer sets were dropped for a more contemporary setting, and Romero’s zombies don’t find themselves being forced to work in quite low stakes commercial concerns (a plot development that seems almost comical now). Yet the influence is undeniably there. Hammer left its fingerprints all over the Roger Corman/Edgar Allen Poe films, but they also lent a hand to the whole – much longer lasting – zombie explosion.
After an exposition-crammed opening, a seasoned doctor and his blonde, pretty daughter head down to Cornwall to meet the doctor’s protégé and his young wife. On the way they encounter an aggressive fox hunt and a disrupted funeral, while when they get to the town they discover the protégé beset by troubles and his wife behaving oddly. Clearly there’s trouble afoot.
It’s not perfect. Some of the performances are decidedly ropey (I’m looking at you Brook Williams as the protégé) and the ending it all builds up to is messy and poorly explained. But there’s a surfeit of good ideas here. Not only was THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD influenced, but the small-town dread is distinctly echoed in THE WICKER MAN. Those are both better films, but despite its flaws, THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES is really quite brilliant.
I’ll be honest, this is a Hammer film which I’d never seen before and whose name has rarely crossed my radar. I guess like most people born after the bloody age of Hammer, I tend to focus on the Dracula/Frankenstein movies, or the Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee movies. That means I have a certain tunnel vision, but on the flip-side, it allows me the joy of discussing absolute gems like this.
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