Release Date(s)1966 (January 15, 2019)
Studio(s)Hammer Films/Seven Arts/20th Century Fox (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B+
In 1966, 20th Century Fox and Hammer Films came together to produce a series of horror films that included Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Rasputin the Mad Monk, The Reptile, and today’s subject, The Plague of the Zombies. Although it took several years to reach the screen due to the original script being rejected by the British Board of Film Censors, it ultimately wound up in the hands of John Gilling, a tougher-than-most director who had also helmed The Shadow of the Cat and The Pirates of Blood River for Hammer.
Taking place in the mid 1800s, the story concerns Sir James Forbes (André Morell) and his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) who make their way to a small Cornish village in order to aid Forbes' former pupil Dr. Peter Williams (Brook Williams) and his wife Alice (Jacqueline Pearce). Mysterious deaths are occurring there without explanation and they soon find themselves in the middle of a conspiracy involving Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson), the leader of a voodoo cult who is turning the deceased into zombies for unknown purposes. With the help of a local police official (Michael Ripper), they attempt to uncover the truth about Hamilton's true intentions before more dead villagers become his undead minions.
Shot back to back with The Reptile, The Plague of the Zombies is one of the only times in the history of Hammer Films that they ever ventured into zombie territory. Thankfully, the one time they did was a fairly positive one. Truly a Dracula story in disguise when it comes to its structure, it offers plenty of bang for the buck, despite some of its more conventional trappings. There’s even a moment of intended gang rape of one of the female leads, which never actually takes place, but the fact that it’s implied at all is something that certainly feels transgressive for its time.
The film is also chock full of iconic imagery, and one does have to wonder if it was an influence on George A. Romero, who would go on to perfect the zombie formula in Night of the Living Dead (though they were only referred to as “ghouls” initially). In The Plague of the Zombies, the moment that a zombie carrying a dead victim cackles as it throws the lifeless body into a heap is still an effective scare. There‘s also the dream sequence featuring Dr. Williams in a graveyard as several zombies rise up from the earth and surround him. It’s solid nightmare fuel, and with James Bernard’s unorthodox and creepy score, it still works well.
While one could watch The Reptile and Dracula: Prince of Darkness before and after and pick apart the films for using some of the same sets – sometimes without even changing them – the minor faults of the film can be overlooked. This includes a couple of the performances from the film’s leads that leave a little to be desired, if you want to get thoroughly nitpicky about it. It doesn’t really matter in the long run. The Plague of the Zombies is a slow-burn, atmospheric shocker that, while not perfect, offers enough entertainment value to make the effort more than worth it.
Scream Factory brings The Plague of the Zombies to Blu-ray in the U.S. for the first time via Hammer Films’ restored transfer from 2012. While a new scan alongside the older restoration would have made for an ideal package, it’s still a solid presentation nonetheless. Grain is not always thoroughly even or prominent, but the overall appearance of the transfer is natural and organic with a rich color palette that offers plenty of bold hues and natural skin tones. The zombie make-up holds up remarkably well, as do many of the textures in both foreground and background elements. Blacks are deep with good shadow detail and everything appears bright and well-defined. It’s mostly clean aside from some minor speckling, particularly during the opening titles.
The audio is presented in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH. It’s a narrow but well-represented track with clear dialogue, decent sound effects, and plenty of breathing room for the score. No dropouts occur and nothing ever sounds unnatural or out of place. There’s a tad bit of hiss left behind, but no crackle or distortion occurs.
Extras include two audio commentaries: one with film historian Steve Haberman, writer/producer Ted Newsom, and filmmaker Constantine Nasr, and the other with author Troy Howarth – both of which are lighthearted and offer plenty of interesting information about the film and the making of it; the 25-minute Mummies, Werewolves, & The Living Dead episode of The World of Hammer, narrated by Oliver Reed; Raising the Dead: The Making of The Plague of the Zombies, a laid-back but entertaining 36-minute documentary about the film, featuring interviews with actors John Carson, Jacqueline Pearce, actor and writer Mark Gatiss, historian Marcus Hearn, authors Jonathan Rigby, Wayne Kinsey, music author Dave Huckvale, art director Don Migaye, and technical restoration manager Jon Mann; a 4-minute Restoration Comparison; 2 theatrical trailers; a double feature trailer paired with Dracula: Prince of Darkness; and an animated still gallery featuring 94 images of behind-the-scenes photos, promotional stills, posters, ad campaign materials, and lobby cards. All that’s missing is brief 5-minute making-of that was included on a Japanese DVD release of the film, which is hardly worth fretting over.
The Plague of the Zombies is imminently watchable in a way that, at least for my taste, is a bit more interesting than many other Hammer efforts. Scream Factory finally brings this underappreciated classic state-side with a nice transfer and good extras, especially the audio commentaries. It’s a very recommended package overall.
– Tim Salmons