Hammer’s output from 1958 can roughly be categorised into three separate entities. The first two are relatively obvious with Frankenstein and general vampire action but the third seems to cover a multitude of different themes and monsters. Plague of the Zombies (1966) is one of these films that veered away from the usual Hammer tropes in an aim to create something slightly different and is one of the most successful films from the studio.
Plague of the Zombies has a Roger Corman like the feel present all throughout its running time. Though its setting in the British countryside (Cornwall to be precise here) couldn’t more Hammer, the presence of director John Gilling adds a fresh new feel to the film, also found in his other quality Hammer contribution The Reptile.
If the Universal classic White Zombie with Bela Lugosi is familiar then an apt sense of déjà vu will hit almost instantly when watching Plague of the Zombies. The narratives are extremely similar, though Plague has the distinct advantage of a more fitting setting with Cornwall being renowned for its witchcraft and spooky nature. Andre Morell plays the usual, dashing Sir James Forbes being the atypical Hammer hero/chap though perhaps slightly more flawed than the usual fare. It’s thanks to his relatively straight performance that makes the whole film gel well, especially when it comes to some of the dream sequences in which is reactions are key to their effectiveness.
The dead are being brought back to life by voodoo to work the mines and all sorts of magical mayhem are occurring in the local village. This is one of the darker Hammer’s that takes its horror very seriously. The zombies themselves are pre-Romero but this doesn’t stop them from being terrifying. A stunning make-up job from Roy Ashton gives them a spine chilling look, especially the possessed dead eyes which are, in some ways, more effective than Night of the Living Dead’s zombies.
The aforementioned dream sequences are the highlight of the film and are some of the most unnerving in Hammer’s canon. Decapitation, the shrieking laugh of a zombie, and the rough throw of a dead woman all accompany a startling dream sequence that instantly raises the films ambition to something more unusual for Hammer.
Plague of the Zombies would be just one of the out-of-the-norm horrors Hammer would produce in 1966. Though the year is of course topped off with the marvellous Dracula: Prince of Darkness, 1966 would turn out to be one of Hammer’s most inventive and creatively successful years. This is in no small thanks to John Gilling and Plague of the Zombies is by far the strongest of Hammer’s more experimental films.