Transmissions to Earth Presents:
THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966)
Review by L.L. Soares
A while back, I did a series of reviews for Transmissions to Earth about lesser-known horror films from Hammer Studios (i.e., the ones without Dracula or Frankenstein in their titles). These include such offbeat fair as THE GORGON (1964), THE REPTILE (1966), THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968), and STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING (1972). Several of these titles are out of print (as in, no current DVD is out), and hard to find, although you can track some down on streaming services like Netflix (or Shudder) and they occasionally pop up on channels like Turner Classic Movies (aka TCM, especially during October, the Halloween month).
One movie that I’ve wanted to see and review, but which was especially hard to find, was THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, which recently aired on TCM, and I was able to finally check it out. Of course, since this came out in 1966, the zombies are of the voodoo variety, rather than the cannibalistic monsters that wouldn’t appear until George A. Romero’s classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, two years later.
All-in-all, PLAGUE is a minor Hammer entry, with no big-name stars to boast of (the most familiar face is probably character actor Michael Ripper as policeman Sergeant Swift), and a middling storyline, but I’m glad I finally got a chance to see it for myself.
Doctor and (presumably) professor Sir James Forbes (Andre’ Morell), one of those authoratative and pompous upper-class heroes of these sorts of films, receives a letter from his old star pupil, Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams), who has recently taken his practice to a small town. The thing is, there have been a rash of unexplained deaths in the town, and none of the families involved will allow Dr. Tompson to perform an autopsy, to find out what they died of. Since the deaths began recently, some townies even imply that Dr. Tompson might have something to do with it. Detecting the distress in Peter’s letter, Sir James decides to surprise his former student and shows up in town, along with his daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare), who happens to be friends with Peter’s wife, Alice (Jacqueline Pearce).
The surprise visit takes a downturn right away, however, when a group of fox hunters (led by Denver, played by Alexander Davion) startles their carriage horse, and then a funeral is going on in the town square when they arrive. The fox hunters converge on the town at the same time, leading to the coffin toppling over and revealing a rather startling corpse. Never a good omen.
When they reach Dr. Tompson’s house, Sir James and Sylvia find that the doctor has gone to do his rounds, but his wife, Alice, seems rather distant and weak. Something is clearly wrong with her, and she’s not all that excited to see her friend, Sylvia, much to the latter’s disappointment. When Peter returns, he’s glad to see his old mentor, but frustrated over his dilemma concerning the dying townspeople. Sir James suggests that if the families won’t let him examine the corpses, then they will have to take matters into their own hands.
Late that night, they dig up the grave of the most recent casualty, when two things happen. First, they are caught by Sergeant Jack Swift (Michael Ripper), who at first admonishes them, but then, secondly, the coffin they’ve unearthed turns out to be empty, turning the situation into a mysterious one. Sir James, being the voice of aristocractic authority, immediately takes charge of the situation, and the police sergeant falls in line, agreeing to help them figure out what’s going on.
Meanwhile, Alice tells Sylvia about the town’s local aristocrat, Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson), who just happens to be rich and single, and Sylvia is in the market for a husband. It sounds like Alice is besotten by the squire herself, however, as, that night, Alice sneaks out into the woods alone.
Following her, Sylvia suddenly finds herself surrounded by those fox hunters from earlier, made up of Denver and his goons. They circle Sylvia and take her captive back to the mansion home of Hamilton, who, it turns out, is their boss and leader. As the men surround and torment Sylvia in the drawing room, in a scene that seems to be heading for rape (reminiscent of similar scenes of roving, predatory men in films like STRAW DOGS, 1971, and THE SHUTTERED ROOM, 1967), Hamilton shows up at the last minute to shout at the men and disperse them, becoming Sylvia’s hero in the process. Sylvia, however, isn’t so easily won over, since the fact that Hamilton has men like this in his house in the first place doesn’t exactly make him seem all that noble. Hamilton offers to have his private carriage escort Sylvia back to the Tompsons’ house, but she refuses, preferring to walk.
Along the way, Sylvia finds her friend Alice, except that she is dead, being carried by a spooky green-faced zombie! This is the scene that is most often shown in still photos of the movie in books about horror films, and there’s a reason for that. This first zombie that we see is rather well-done (makeup wise) and scary. Unfortunately, future zombies aren’t half as fearsome, as if the makeup department only had time to do one good one.
Peter and Sir James do an autopsy on Alice, but can’t figure out how she died. So they bury her, and wait to see if she leaves her coffin as well. When she rises, the two doctors finally have proof that something awful and supernatural is going on.
Meanwhile, Hamilton is in his basement, wearing a strange mask, as black actors in native garb pound on voodoo drums. He holds a wax doll up and chants strange phrases, thus using voodoo to grasp those he seeks to control. Hamilton is a world-traveler who picked up some magic know-how in Haiti (or, as Sir James pronounces it, “hi-eighty”), and is using this knowledge to create an army of slave laborers to work in his family’s tin mine, which was declared unsafe for human/living workers. Hamilton also uses his powers to ensnare women he fancies, including poor Alice. His eyes are now set on Sylvia! All he needs to make the magic work is a bit of his victim’s blood. Of course, Hamilton visits Sylvia when she is alone, and just so happens to drop a wine glass on the floor, which cuts Sylvia and she inadvertently provides him with some of her blood!
Will Sylvia fall under Squire Hamilton’s spell? Will Sir James and Peter stop Hamilton from turning the whole town into free (and dead) labor? For those answers, you’ll have to see the movie for yourself.
The acting by all involved is fine, and, as mentioned, the first zombie we see is well done. The rest are green-faced shamblers, who for some reason need to be whipped by Hamilton’s henchman to be motivated to work in the mine (if they’re dead, would they even feel the whips?).
THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES was directed John Gilling, who also made BLOOD BEAST FROM OUTER SPACE (1965, aka THE NIGHT CALLER), THE REPTILE (1966), and THE MUMMY’S SHROUD (1967), and was written by Peter Bryan. It’s rather standard Hammer fare for the time, and not one of the studios better films, but it is interesting to see Hammer’s take on the zombie film. Too bad PLAGUE wasn’t a bit more ambitious.
© Copyright 2017 by L.L. Soares
This has been a “Transmission to Earth.”