Column: The Vault of Secrets: Plague of the Zombies (1966)

By Orrin Grey

Plague of the Zombies (1966) Director: John Gilling Cast: Andre Morell, Diane Claire, Jacqueline Pearce

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where, every other week, we’ll be unearthing a classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. For tonight’s film, we’re tackling Plague of the Zombies, a somewhat-lesser-known Hammer horror from director John Gilling, starring Andre Morell, who was in a slew of other Hammer movies, including playing Dr. Watson in Hound of the Baskervilles, as well as Diane Claire and Jacqueline Pearce. The version I watched was a DVD from the Hammer Collection series.

Plague of the Zombies is interesting as an historical artifact. Coming out just two years before Night of the Living Dead changed zombie movies forever, it can be seen as a bridge between the earlier zombie tradition of movies like White Zombie or I Walked with a Zombie, and George Romero’s famous and game-changing take on the subject. Before Night of the Living Dead, zombies in cinema were pretty much always voodoo zombies, brought back to life and controlled by some master through drugs or ritual (or a combination of the two). That part holds true in Plague of the Zombies, but the zombies in this film aren’t the hollow-eyed sleepwalkers of earlier zombie flicks. They look decayed, as though they’ve already begun to rot, having more aesthetically in common with Romero’s walking dead than with the title creatures of films like I Walked with a Zombie. There’s also a very-well-staged graveyard dream sequence that prefigures the stylistic approaches of later zombie cinema.

While the treatment of the titular zombies is the most historically notable thing about Plague, the high point, as is so often the case with Hammer films, is the actors and the characters they present. This time, we’re without Hammer legends such as Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, but fortunately, Andre Morell is more-than-capable of holding up in their absence. His delightfully cantankerous Sir James Forbes is the real star of the show, for all that it may be named for the monsters. Diane Claire is similarly excellent as his daughter and, between them, they are in almost every scene. Michael Ripper, who is in, I think, every Hammer horror movie I’ve ever seen, also gets a bigger-than-average part in the proceedings.

The small town set for Plague of the Zombies (which was re-used in our next feature, The Reptile) is very good and there are exterior shots of a house at Oakley Court that features in a lot of these old horror movies, Hammer and otherwise. It’ll also make a reappearance in our next film.

Anyway, that’s it for tonight’s installment of the Vault of Secrets! Join us next time when we explore the B-side to Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile. (Or is Plague of the Zombies the B-side to The Reptile? We’ll find out!)