Thirty years of horror: The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

Chris: Someone had to run the best stagecoach line before railroads. Someone made the best gas lamps before Edison. A similar sad fate belongs to Plague Of The Zombies, a decent enough picture from Hammer that’s more interesting for what came after than perhaps the actual film itself. There’s an important piece of zombie evolution present in this film. You could almost call it the zombie movie missing link, and for that alone it’s worth a look. Old school zombies to this point in time were of the deep trance, voodoo-created archetype. Plague’s zombies are voodo-created as well, but here you can see the kernel of some of the ideas Romero would establish with his zombie movies about zombies as mindless hungry shambling hordes.

Tom: I found the zombie element is the least interesting part of this movie. You’re right that Peter’s dream could easily be seen as an evolutionary link between traditional voodoo zombie movies and Romero’s zombie movies. But these zombies are just one piece of a larger puzzle, similar to the hounds in Hound of the Baskervilles. They’re a mystery to be solved. That’s why, for me, Plague of the Zombies works as an English mystery movie that happens to have zombies instead of a horror movie.

After the jump, elementary

Chris: The problem I had with Plague Of The Zombies — old school creatures notwithstanding — is how much exposition and explaining it wants to do. The film spends most of its time telling us what the zombies are, how they’re created, why they’re created, and who’s doing it. In a key scene that could have been quite frightening if scripted differently, a zombie appears holding the body of our heroine’s best friend. Our girl screams and runs…while the zombie drops the body and wanders off. To paraphrase noted horror critic Bartholomew Simpson, what might have been more scary behavior by the zombie would be…pretty much anything besides that.

You can almost picture a guy like George Romero watching this and thinking to himself. “Undead zombies rising from the grave. That’s interesting…” It’s also easy to imagine him thinking about how much more frightening this kind of antagonist would be if the script dispensed with all the exposition and just presented — without explanation — the living dead as nihilistic, shambling killing machines that relentlessly chased their human victims.

Tom: Exactly. Which is why Night of the Living Dead is a horror movie and The Plague of the Zombies is more of a detective movie.

Chris: I would agree with that. Still, we get a bit of pre-ratings code zombie gore here with an outstanding zombie shovel kill. The creepiness of the movie does get undermined by a few bits of clumsy direction, most notably a day for night scene at midnight in a graveyard that loses some effectiveness when we accidentally see blue skies and fluffy clouds in the background. I guess British character actor Andre Morell does a fine turn as the old doctor, but I’m not quite sure that’s enough for me here.

Tom: Andre Morell actually made the movie for me. I really liked Plague of the Zombies, largely because of him. As Sir James, he is the embodiment of England clinging to her Victorian glory. He is reasonable, calm, proper, sly, and imperious when necessary. He is not one to leave behind his hat, cane, and gloves, even when there’s skulking about to be done. Sir James will not brook fools, superstition, inexperience, or hysterical women. He will allow you a moment to indulge your grief, but only a moment, because there’s an autopsy to be conducted on your wife’s corpse, so shake it off, man. Sir James is willing to spend the afternoon reading some vicar’s library books to scientifically prove voodoo. He knows how to win over the constable because, after all, authority demands respect. King, country, etc. He will kick the ass of a man half his age, stabbing and burning him if it comes to that. He’s here to get the job done, even if it slightly musses his meticulously tonicked silver hair. But never the mustache. That mustache is the stuff of legend. English legend. Queens and kings and empires may come and go, but a mustache as impeccable as Sir James’ is timeless, framing that stiff upper lip. It’s fitting that he’s arguably the world’s first zombie slayer in the shovel scene Chris mentioned. Never mind the only reason Sir James survives this movie is because a bewildered Negro servant wanders into a burning building.

I am disappointed there isn’t a series of movies about Sir James travelling the world and investigating mysteries, with the adorable and equally proper (i.e. hot) Diane Clare in tow as his daughter, constantly getting imperiled and in need of rescuing. Morell is a fascinating actor whose stage experience crackles in every frame. He has the presence of Peter Cushing, but the regal bearing of a leading man who happens to be 60. Plague of Zombies knows this, which is why I don’t mind how the horror element very nearly fades into the background. This is a mystery in the English countryside, where the detective doesn’t win because he has Sherlock Holmes’ intellect, but because he has England’s conviction. It’s the perfect inversion of The Wicker Man, where English authority and religion is subverted by a devious pagan mob.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)