When I started to put a list together of those films and TV series that had most helped frame and influence the zombie tradition I came to realise there was actually quite a commonly held well defined lineage. White Zombie from 1932 with its Haitian voodoo was flawed and hammy but every good thing has to start somewhere. Matheson with the I Am Legend and The Last Man on Earth brought us vampires/zombies and helped define their behaviour with the whiff of infection and apocalypse all without magic. And then we always jump to 1968 and Romero with Night of the Living Dead which is where it all really took off. Or are we missing something?
Well a couple of years before this, Hammer Horror, a little UK niche horror studio brought out The Plague of Zombies and now having seen it I'm firmly of the belief it deserves a lot more kudos and acknowledgement in this origin story than it currently gets.
It's 1860 and Sir James Forbes (André Morell) with his daughter Sylvia Forbes (Diane Clare) have responded to a letter for help from his old understudy Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams). Tompson writes that he is struggling to understand the large series of maladies and deaths that is plaguing his local Cornish parish and could Sir James offer some assistance. Arriving at the doctors house they find Alice (Jacqueline Pearce), the doctors wife acting preoccupied and listless, and a Doctor not only taking the blame for the parishioners' deaths but hand-tied in not being able to do autopsies to find the reason by the local magistrate and lord of the manor Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson). Also, I'm not Columbo and I don't think I'll be spoiling anything but early signs point to Squire Clive being the nefarious villain and cause of the problems, due mainly to the very obvious low-key menacing scooby-doo music that starts the moment he makes an appearance.
Not one to be told what to do Sir James starts throwing his title around. He investigates the burials, discovers missing bodies, hears witness accounts of the dead wandering the moors, and we soon come to share his realisation that the dead are afoot causing mischief. Ok, we're back to a time where zombie was synonymous with voodoo and magic and it's all White Zombie but even I wasn't prepared for just how zombie with a capital Z the undead would actually be.
Other than an early fleeting glimpse, it is the reanimation in all its glory of Alice herself, some forty or so minutes in and subsequent dream of Dr. Tompson, that brings zombies while not kicking and screaming, more shuffling and groaning, to the foreground of the film, and the scenes cement the films position as an important player in establishing iconic zombie lore. It's powerful and dramatic, tense and brilliantly paced. At first you're looking down at a deceased loving wife, then slowly her skin pales and ages, you hold your breath, waiting, then two piercing white eyes shoot open, dead and devoid of the soul they once housed. Imitated a thousand times this scene is now a zombie staple, a horror trope. Alice is gone and as Sir James cries out 'it's a zombie' you understand you're witnessing a genre taking creating its identity. Then out she crawls, as clear as day, the Romero zombie, but before and without Romero, climbing out of the dirt, cold and dead; then upright shuffling, with arms stretching out towards the living, and there's even a pale blue tint to her skin. It's good, nay, great stuff and unflinching, our survivor, Sir James deals with Alice the only way one should; he attacks her head, removing it with a spade.
The Plague of the Zombies is a cracking little film full of atmosphere and drama. I've always enjoyed a good Hammer Horror film though I'd never taken them that seriously but this ranks as one of its finest. The story never wanders off and remains tight and coherent. It's well acted and well directed and the action and effects are actually very solid.
You're never going to get visceral gory effects and hyper realistic make-up in a film that's half a century old but even so, the zombies are a made up a lot darker and more gruesome than I expected and dare I say even Romero's, reminding me more of Fulci's efforts which came a decade or so later. Also it's not as brave or contemporary as Night of the Living Dead, firmly entrenched in the idea of the traditional horror film narrative, echoing, not challenging prevalent class structure and misogyny, but then again it's a film set in the mid 19th Century in rural England. One aso can't ignore the elephant in the room; like White Zombie it takes the idea of the voodoo master, of magic and mind control learnt in the 'dark continents', of raising the dead to use as servants, and of ensnaring young pretty girls, and it's all far flung from Romero's apocalyptic global vision but there's room for both.
Ok, I'll say it. The Plague of the Zombies is one of the pivotal films in establishing zombie canon. It might have all been done before but never quite with such panache pulling it all together in a brilliant narrative with iconic scenes. Regardless of all this I still think its a really good zombie film and it has everything you want; suspense, drama, good characters, good acting, deaths and turning; I really enjoyed it. And finally, maybe, just maybe it could be argued that it's maybe just as important as Night of the Living Dead, maybe, 8/10.