A Plague of Zombies!
Young people are dying from some mysterious illness in a village in 19th Century Cornwall. The local doctor is flummoxed so he calls upon his old teacher at the university, Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) to come and help him. Forbes brings along his daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare) because she is close with the doctor and former school chums with the doctor’s wife. Once they arrive, they find a very rich family at the center of the doings in town, running and controlling the local mining industry, as well as its politics. This family is not very nice and, in fact, quite cruelly breaks up a public funeral during one of their fox hunts. Forbes begins to investigate what is going on, helped by his young protégée, and in the meantime, the head of the rich family has put his eye upon Sylvia. It seems that this group of rich men is behind whatever evil is going on in the town, and this malicious patriarch desires to claim Sylvia as his own and get rid of her father. The secrets are buried down in the mines, and if you pay any attention at all to the title of the movie, you know that it ultimately involves…zombies! Forbes must discover the truth and put an end to this evil before he and his daughter are killed.
A long time ago I watched this Hammer Film and found it to be utterly boring and drab. My younger self wanted flesh-eating zombies and what I got was a voodoo-variation of them, along with a lot of period drama. I wasn’t into it then, but upon re-watching, I saw just how wrong I was. The Plague of the Zombies is a wonderful Hammer Film and highly underrated. The featured talent here, both in front of and behind the cameras, isn’t part of the usual stars of Hammer Studios, but man this one really delivers. It works at first on the level of a mystery to be solved: what is happening to these young workers? Why are they dropping dead? What do these men in strange masks and performing gruesome rituals have to do with it? And then it works on a purely horrific level, as we learn the truth about what is going on. Morrell is fantastic as Forbes; he is at once grumpy, sarcastic, whip-smart, and full of courage. He’s the Van Helsing of this bunch, for sure, and his steady hand saves the day. There is a terrifically surreal and frightening scene in the middle of the movie, where the dead come back to life and claw their way out of their graves and truly, it is terrifying. Add to that the bizarre voodoo/occult rites of the bad guys, and this one is quite a stew of weirdness. Oh, and the underlying theme of the rich using the poor for cheap labor (even cheaper now that they’re dead and reanimated!) is riveting and treated with a sort of sublime grace. They never beat you over the head with it, but it’s hard to miss.
This one turns out to be a Hammer classic. If you’re into the old Hammer Films like I am, don’t miss this one. It’s easy to forget about; like I said, no Cushing, no Lee, no Francis or Fisher behind the camera, but it’s in the Top Ten films the studio ever did. Creepy, surreal, atmospheric, with dollops of bright-red blood and the fiendish preying of the rich upon the poor, this one kind of has it all.