A strange plague strikes a Cornish village. Local doctor Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) enlists the aid of Sir James Forbes (André Morell), his former professor, who arrives in town with his daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare). When the two doctors open victims’ graves to perform autopsies, they find the coffins empty. Walking corpses are seen near the estate of Clive Hamilton (John Carson), the local squire who learned voodoo in Haiti and is now bumping villagers off and reanimating them as zombies to toil his mines. In need of a ritual sacrifice, Hamilton sets his sights on Sylvia.
One of Hammer’s creepiest movies, this bridges the gap between the voodoo-derived living dead glimpsed in poetic horrors like White Zombie (1931) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and the shambling, pseudo-scientific flesh-eaters of George A. Romero, Dan O’Bannon, et al. In fact, with the exception of likeable blaxploitation-zombie oddity, Sugar Hill (1972), we haven’t had an old-fashioned zombie movie in years. Maybe it’s time to revive the voodoo genre, especially since the virus-infected breed are headlining duds like the Resident Evil series and House of the Dead.
Tightly scripted by Peter Bryan, this features some of the most potent scares in the Hammer canon: the first zombie seen skulking along the hills, Jacqueline Pearce cackling in her coffin, and even the sight of Squire Hamilton in his unsettling, voodoo mask. These are sights to make the skin crawl, making this possibly the Hammer movie for horror fans who normally shun their brand of period costume terror. As part of a production deal with Seven-Arts, Hammer acquired some of their biggest budgets which they utilized for Don Sharp’s Rasputin the Mad Monk and Terence Fisher’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness. The rest of the money went into two smaller-budgeted pictures intended to play the lower half of double-bills. Shot back-to-back and on the same sets: Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile were both directed by John Gilling. The jury is still out on Gilling, who proclaimed distaste for horror, but didn’t distinguish himself in his adventure movies either. Hammer fans don’t seem to rate him as highly as say, Fisher or Roy Ward Baker, but there is no denying he does an expert job here, conjuring a moody atmosphere and keeping things moving at a heady clip. I’ll give Gilling his due, movies like The Reptile and Night Caller from Outer Space (1965) are among the strangest in British horror, and Shadow of the Cat (1961) is much underrated.
In a rare lead role, André Morell is very fine as a character not dissimilar from his Dr. Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959): a straight-talking, rational hero with commanding presence. As a result, it is a rare instance where Peter Cushing is not missed and the supporting cast rise to the task as well. Possibly not a good idea to watch this back to back with The Reptile. You may find yourself playing “spot the shared location.” And you’ll never look at Cornwall the same way again.