From the latter part of the 1950s to the early years of the 1970s, the U.K.’s Hammer Film Productions absolutely dominated the world of cinematic horror. The somewhat tame, black and white movies of the 1930s and 1940s were by now long gone.
Hammer was all about entertaining its audiences with full color, over the top gore, and glamorous, buxom babes. Let’s not forget bright red blood, and lots of it, too. Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy – all starring Hammer regulars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee – were major hits with the general public.
It is truly ironic, then, that one of Hammer’s most memorable and fear-filled productions lacked both of its major, much revered stars. It was The Plague of the Zombies, made and unleashed in 1966.
Predating George A. Romero’s apocalyptic masterpiece Night of the Living Dead by two years, The Plague of the Zombies lacked any kind of end of the world-style storyline. Rather, voodoo was the dominating theme of the movie.
The Plague of the Zombies starred Andre Morrell, who had previously played Dr. Watson opposite Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
In a small, old village in the wilds of Cornwall, England, people are reportedly dropping from a mysterious disease like flies. They aren’t staying dead, however. Rather, they are returning in zombie form and doing what zombies have always done best of all: namely, attacking and killing the living.
It is all the fault of the evil and deadly Squire Clive Hamilton, portrayed in fine and menacing fashion by John Carson. A devotee of voodoo, the sinister squire spent a number of years living in Haiti, where he learned the terrible secrets of how to both raise and command the dead.
The film contains a particularly memorable, and very creepy, scene, in which one of the chief characters – Dr. Peter Thompson, brought to life by actor Brook Williams – has a nightmarish experience in the village’s cemetery.
As a typical English fog rolls in and engulfs the area, the dead start to slowly claw their way out of the old, grimy graves. As they make their staggering way towards a frozen-with-fear Dr. Thompson, eerie, hypnotic music adds to the bone-chilling atmosphere.
Fortunately for the doctor, a nightmare is all it was. But not for significant portions of the rest of the cast: The Plague of the Zombies culminates in a battle for life and death in a series of tunnels in an old tin mine deep below the Cornish countryside.
With a black-arts-based theme at its heart, The Plague of the Zombies definitively tipped its hat in the direction of the likes of Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 masterful production, I Walked with a Zombie.
The reference to the zombie outbreak having been caused by a mysterious disease, however – albeit one admittedly provoked by Haitian rituals - ensured that Hammer’s zombie-themed classic significantly helped pave the way for future productions in which matters of a viral, rather than of a voodoo, nature were all-dominating.