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While the early years of zombie cinema had been largely American produced and set in such remote and ‘alien’ locations as Haiti, the 1960s saw Britain developing an interest in the undead. Alongside Sidney J. Furie’s 1961 effort Doctor Blood’s Coffin and 1965’s The Earth Dies Screaming, the most significant of these features was The Plague of the Zombies, which would mark Hammer Films’ one and only foray into the zombie sub-genre. Produced during their most lucrative years, the movie may not rank among the studio’s most profitable or respected offerings but still stands as a perfect example of pre-Night of the Living Dead gothic horror and would mark a significant moment in the transition evolution of zombie cinema.
The project had first been conceived by Peter Bryan in 1962, who had penned the scripts for two previous Hammer features The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Brides of Dracula. For his inspiration he turned towards the early days of zombie storytelling and one element in particular – voodoo. Taking its cue from The Magic Island, a groundbreaking text by occultist and traveller William Seabrook on his voodoo explorations through the Caribbean (often credited with introducing the concept of the zombie to western culture), the treatment was set in nineteenth-century Haiti where an Englishman’s attempts to cheat his way through a seedy card game results in him having to run for his life, eventually finding his way deep into the jungle where he comes across a tribe who practice zombification.
Having previously earned their success with colour remakes of various 1930s Universal classics, such as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy, Hammer had begun to explore other areas of gothic horror and soon expressed interest in Bryan’s latest concept The Zombies. Anthony Hinds, a Hammer regular who had proved himself to be both a capable writer and producer on such projects as The Quatermass Xperiment, was brought onboard to help flesh out the treatment and the first draft was finally completed in September 1963. But the gruesome nature of his story had left the executives feeling nervous and the idea was shelved, only to be resurrected the following year and included among Anthony Nelson Keys’ four-picture deal with Seven Arts Productions, Twentieth Century-Fox and ABPC.
‘The folk of a small Cornish town are falling victim to a fatal malady with previously unidentified symptoms. Distraught GP Peter Tompson calls on his former tutor Sir James Forbes for help. Sir James arrives with his daughter Sylvia and the two are greeted by Peter’s sick wife Alice, an old school friend of Sylvia’s,’ described authors Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes in their retrospective The Hammer Story: The Authorised History of Hammer Films. ‘It soon transpires that Squire Hamilton is using the power of voodoo to raise the dead ‘plague’ victims. In the graveyard a horrified Peter looks on while Sir James is forced to decapitate the zombie Alice. Reality blurs and the surrounding graves spew forth an advancing army of rotting corpses.’
Keys, who had first begun as a production manager before rising to the status of producer, had become a frequent associate of Hinds and sensed the potential in his and Bryan’s work. Realising that the film could be produced cheaply, the decision was made to film the script – now re-titled The Plague of the Zombies – back-to-back with The Reptile, the Hinds-scripted monster movie to be directed by John Gilling. Certain changes were made to the script that would help make the feature more cost-effective and then pre-production commenced, with Gilling once again in the director’s chair. Another change to the script had seen the racial elements of Bryan’s draft replaced by an English setting.
‘While it would have been exciting to see what Hammer might have made of The Zombie‘s Haiti setting, Gilling’s film is refreshingly original,’ claimed writer Jamie Russell in Book of the Dead: The Compete History of Zombie Cinema. ‘Abandoning the traditional racial elements of American zombie films and relocating the action to the mannered social hierarchies of nineteenth-century England, the director built on Britain’s gothic heritage: the film borrows liberally from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, in particular The Hound of the Baskervilles. In keeping with so many of Hammer’s films, it’s class rather than race that dominates The Plague of the Zombies.’
On 7 July 1965 the filmmakers were given strict guidelines by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) on what elements of the film would cause issues with the censors. The suggested cuts included the decapitation of one of the principal female leads, which had originally been scripted as three blows to the neck with a spade, now reduced to one. The BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) also gave their specifications, specifically expressing concerns over the script’s ending. Once the suggested changes had been made, Hammer was ready to move ahead with the project and immediately began casting, with regular André Morell (a veteran of Quatermass and the Pit and She) landing the central role of Sir James Forbes, while The Haunting’s Diane Clare would be cast as his daughter.
Shooting commenced on 28 July at Bray Studios and Oakley Court, Windsor, using the same locations and sets as The Reptile in order to keep the budget minimal. The zombies, far removed from the earlier, inferior models of the 1940s, were designed by Australian make-up artist Roy Ashton, another Hammer veteran, having providing equally impressive work on Dracula and The Mummy. Filming through the country’s hottest months proved unpleasant for the actors, who would struggle to breathe underneath the heavy make-up, although producers were often on-hand with cold drinks and ice lollies to help keep their performers comfortable. The hard work would eventually pay off, however, as one common praise that the movie would receive upon its initial release would be Ashton’s special effects.
‘Roy Ashton’s zombie effects are excellent. The main zombie is a menacing threat with sunken eyes and cheekbones, sharply angled eyebrows and rotten, pointy teeth that accent his imposing build,’ stated Glenn Kay in his exploration of the genre Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide.’ ‘The effects are a welcome improvement over most previous titles, which were content simply to give their zombie actors a pale complexion.’ It could be argued that the relatively gruesome and disturbing visage of the eponymous monsters in Gilling’s picture would have a profound impact on the movies that followed, from the splatter films of Romero to the extreme horror of Italian cinema in the early 1980s.
Principal photography finally came to an end on 8 September, exactly six weeks after cameras had first begun rolling. Just one week later, Gilling was back on set to shoot his follow-up feature, The Reptile. Hammer attempted to rush The Plague of the Zombies through post-production but processing complications with Technicolor resulted in various delays. Hinds, meanwhile, decided that Diane Clare, in the role of Sylvia Forbes, required alterations and ordered for her dialogue to be re-dubbed. The finished feature was eventually delivered to their distributors: Warner-Pathé for the UK release and Twentieth Century-Fox for North America.
The movie was released as part of a double feature along with Hammer’s more eagerly awaited sequel Dracula Prince of Darkness, making its debut on 9 January 1966, backed with a huge publicity campaign. The film was released in America three days later, again as a double bill, with a trailer that would boast many of the key shots from the feature. In a move typical of William Castle or Roger Corman, patrons in many cinemas were offered a pair of zombie eyes to wear during the show. The Plague of the Zombies would become another success for the studio, although despite its popularity they chose not to produce a sequel or any other zombie projects in the years that followed.
‘Where Dracula Prince of Darkness was a tad lumbering and uninvolving, The Plague of the Zombie is brisk, no-nonsense and chock-full of memorable moments. Indeed it contains two of Hammer’s best and most fondly remembered scares,’ recalled the BFI in an article marking the fiftieth anniversary of both Hammer’s Dracula sequel and their underrated zombie thriller. ‘The double bill proved a hit with the public, no doubt tempted to cinemas by the promise of Lee’s return to the role that had made him famous and a vigorous publicity campaign from Hammer. It took £10,190 on its opening day, double the norm for ABC.’
The critical reception that the movie received was above average, although perhaps not as successful as any of their previous efforts. A critic for Variety, reviewing the movie on 1 January, commented that ‘Plague of the Zombies is a well-made horror programmer about strange happenings a century ago in a small town on the moors… The formula scripting involves about fifty-five minutes of seeding with various unexplained incidents, followed by an explanation of the diabolical forces involved. Then in the last thirty-five minutes, the demons are foiled.’
The common opinion among critics was that, while the script was generic and followed the templates of other Hammer stories a little too closely, The Plague of the Zombies was an effective and atmospheric chiller that attempted to take the concept of voodoo – a trope that had been a staple of the genre since the days of The Magic Island and White Zombie – into more menacing territories. And while many aspects of the movie may now seem tame in the modern age of eviscerated and partially-devoured corpses, The Plague of the Zombies would play a small role in the new direction that the genre would soon take following the release of Night of the Living Dead two years later and is an important milestone in the history of zombie cinema.