Sunday, June 26, 2022

THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966) Blu-ray Review

The Plague of the Zombies (1966) d. John Gilling (UK) (91 min)

In a remote 19th-century Cornish village, a mysterious plague relentlessly consumes lives at an unstoppable rate. Unable to find the cause, Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) enlists the help of his mentor, Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell). Desperate to find an antidote, they instead find inexplicable horror: empty coffins with the diseased corpses missing. Following a series of strange and frightening clues, they discover a deserted tin mine where they discover a world of black magic and a doomed legion of soulless, murderous slaves... the walking dead.

Shot on the same sets as The Reptile with much of the same crew, the other half of the “Cornwall horrors” likewise represented Hammer’s attempt to show that it could do more than simply recycle Jack Pierce’s monsters from the Universal library. At this point, there had been precious few cinematic zombies, with 1932’s White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi and Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) providing the high water marks and Poverty Row enterprises such as Revolt of the Zombies (also 1943) the nadir.

As such, it seemed fertile ground to tread for former camera operator Peter Bryan (who wrote the original story) and Hammer exec Anthony Hinds, who cranked out a completed screenplay to pitch to Universal, which was subsequently rejected, and then later accepted by Seven-Arts as part of a four-picture deal that also included Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Rasputin the Mad Monk. Bryan, who had successfully adapted Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles for the studio in 1959, reworked Hinds’ script to include a twisted social commentary wherein a certain Squire Clive Hamilton (the velvet-voiced John Carson) is so reluctant to pay his mine workers a living wage that he would rather murder them and resurrect their corpses to do his bidding for free!

Unlike the current wave of onscreen undead, these zombies have no desire to munch on people’s flesh or gray matter, having more in common with the Haitian mythology of somnambulistic slaves than with George Romero’s fevered imagination. In some ways, this allows them to be more genuinely horror-inducing (as opposed to simply a threat to one’s life and limb), with villagers witnessing their friends, family, and even spouses transformed into mindless vehicles for the Squire’s devilish plans. (In addition to shoring up an uncomplaining workforce, Hamilton zombifies a couple of attractive females, presumably to do his bidding in a wholly different dark and secluded environment.)

Along with its English location (as opposed to the vaguely Teutonic Hammerland of the Dracula and Frankenstein films) and the novelty of the monster in question, what helps set Plague apart is the absence of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, with Carson and Morell ably filling the villain/hero avatars. Morell in particular brings a marvelous combination of authority, morality, intelligence, wit, and warmth to Sir James, qualities which viewers had come to expect from Cushing’s incarnation of Van Helsing.

Scholar Jonathan Rigby even goes so far as to say that this film represents the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel that Hammer ever produced, and there are many interesting parallels on display to justify that claim. We have a fiendish nobleman preying upon the populace and turning them into the undead to do his bidding, a level-headed scientific expert set up as his foil, as well as two major female characters (Jacqueline Pearce, Diane Clare) who become the object of the villain’s attentions (one of whom does not survive and must be sacrificed by the Van Helsing character).

Gilling, who had already made a minor splash in the SF/horror genres with efforts such as The Gamma People and The Flesh and the Fiends, first worked for Hammer writing and directing The Shadow of the Cat (1961) and The Pirates of Blood River (1962), as well as providing the script for 1964’s The Gorgon (ultimately directed by Terence Fisher). Tapped to helm Plague and Reptile back-to-back, Gilling delivers a sharp and atmospheric chiller, aided by stalwarts Bernard Robinson (art direction) and composer James Bernard, whose musical score incorporates vibrant tribal drumming alongside his trademark blaring horns and stinging strings.

Responsible for the memorable imagery (notably Peter’s haunting, and oft-imitated, dream of his former fellow Cornwallians clawing their way out from underneath the graveyard soil) is cinematographer Arthur Grant. He joined the Hammer crew in 1959 with Stranglers of Bombay, and over the next five years served on such prestige projects as The Curse of the Werewolf, The Phantom of the Opera, The Damned, and The Old Dark House before performing double duty on Reptile/Plague. Grant’s relationship with the studio continued with The Witches, Quatermass and the Pit, The Devil Rides Out, and a pair each of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Mummy features. He died in 1972, with Demons of the Mind and Fear in the Night serving as his twin swan songs.

While Morell (who played Professor Quatermass in the 1958 BBC TV production of Quatermass and the Pit) and Carson provide much of the heavy dramatic lifting and are deservedly recognized for so doing, the rest of the cast acquit themselves ably enough. Clare is our bland but likable ingenue Sylvia who finds herself in all sorts of predicaments, while Pearce, as her dark-haired counterpart Alice, registers even better in her smaller role, displaying the strong and sensual screen presence that landed her the lead in Reptile.

Hammer mascot Michael Ripper (34 credited appearances) has quite a nice role as the local constable who becomes Sir James’ faithful ally, and Alexander Davion (aka the future Ted Casablanca from Valley of the Dolls) is enjoyably thuggish as Hamilton’s main enforcer. While certainly guilty of some melodramatic gestures, perhaps cribbed from his pal Richard Burton, Williams is not nearly the cast’s sore thumb as he is often made out to be. (On the audio commentary, writer Troy Howarth is positively merciless in his antagonism toward the poor chap.)

"Jeez, Troy, what did I ever do to you?"

There are three undeniably impressive horror set-pieces that deserve mention, that of the appearance of the first zombie (Ben Aris) with Alice in its clutches, Alice’s rising from her excavated coffin (shades of Lucy in Dracula), and the aforementioned graveyard nightmare sequence where Peter is beset by the undead horde. In a genre where a single memorable moment is cause for celebration, Gilling and Co. have much of which to be proud. In addition to Bernard’s moody score, Roy Ashton’s makeup is another standout for the production team, his green-skinned monstrosities seemingly peeling off layers of desiccation before our very eyes.

On the flip side, there are a few head-scratchers, such as the odd spelling of our good country doctor’s name. I’ve never seen it spelled “Tompson” anywhere besides the closing credits for this film, and since it’s actually spelled the traditional way, “Thompson,” on Alice’s coffin, I’m inclined to think that some intern fell asleep at the switch whilst putting the end titles together. Even the subtitles on the Shout! Factory Blu-ray can’t seem to make up their minds, switching back and forth between using the “h” or not. Two other goofs include Pearce, whose “corpse” quickly blinks upon rolling down the hill and when we see her already in her gray zombie makeup in a shot BEFORE the time-lapse transformation scene.

There’s also the inordinate amount of blood that Sylvia spills from a small cut on her finger, which nearly fills Hamilton’s vial, the less-than-convincing day-for-night shots, and the in-your-face asbestos mask worn by a zombie stunt man during the fiery climax. None of these are so egregious as to ruin the experience, but all are quite front and center, so I’m inclined to chalk it up to the understandably clipped production production schedule.

With its (then) unique monsters, terrific performances, biting politics, and outstanding production team/values, it’s somewhat surprising that Plague of the Zombies isn’t better known. Over a half-century since its release, it remains a hidden gem in the Hammer canon ripe for rediscovery, a fright flick with more on its mind than the usual cleavage and corpuscles.


NEW Audio Commentary with Filmmakers Constantine Nasr and Ted Newsom and Film Historian Steve Haberman
NEW Audio Commentary with Author/Film Historian Troy Howarth
NEW Restored Audio
World of Hammer TV episode: “Mummies, Werewolves & The Living Dead” (25 min)
Raising The Dead: The Making of The Plague of the Zombies (35 min), featuring interviews with actors Jacqueline Pearce and John Carson, art director Don Mingaye, Hammer historian Marcus Hearn, and film scholars Jonathan Rigby, Mark Gatiss, David Huckvale, and Wayne Kinsey.
Restoration Comparison
Theatrical Trailers
Still Gallery


Ian Simmons of Kicking the Seat and I sat down this week to talk about the film on the YouTubes as part of our year-long "Son of Hammerland" series!  Check out our conversation HERE

"Good show, old chap. Good show, indeed."

The Plague of the Zombies is available now from Shout! Factory on Blu-ray and can be ordered HERE:



  1. I got serious deja vu with this review. Did you review this movie in some other format a few years ago?
    Anyway, I love this movie, and agree about the memorable moments (especially that nightmare sequence). :)

    1. There was a Blu-ray release back in January 2019, which I announced on the blog, but I didn't have time to do an actual full-length review at that time. I'm remedying that now, with the occasion being that Ian Simmons and I will be chatting about this film and The Reptile as part of our year-long "Son of Hammerland" YouTube series on his Kicking the Seat channel later this week. Thanks for remembering!