by John Gilling
First of the film's shortcomings is the plot. Because this is Hammer, and the only thing that the English knew about horror films is that they have to move slower than an Italian's reaction time, they couldn't conceive of an original plot for a zombie movie in 1966. Anyone who’s ever seen Dracula will recognize the plot, as it's basically the same without the voodoo. Something kills a woman, and then brings her back to life, and she's killed, and then the same starts to happen to her close friend so the first victim's husband calls an old doctor to figure out and it turns out something supernatural is happening and the rich count across town is responsible and is going to kill and bring her back to life forever. Couldn't...uh...do any better than that? Lets go back a few years to 1941. A young hack by the name of Jean Yarbrough set out to make a quick buck off of the voodoo trend and gave us the awful racist White Zombie knock-off King of the Zombies. These guys are basically the same person, interchangeable products of two different systems. John Gilling, director of Plague of the Zombies is basically the British Jean Yarbrough and Plague of the Zombies a retread of the many voodoo films from 1936-1958. Yarbrough directed King of the Zombies in 1941, one of seven films he made that year. He is credited with directing 107 films on IMDB, one of which is the famously awful The Devil Bat staring Bela Lugosi. Yarbrough made films cause he would have been homeless otherwise. Gilling was a go-to for Hammer with a little more vision than most though his films, while occasionally pretty to look at, showed nothing of the flair they should have for his constantly being employed in the horror genre; his successes are far outweighed by his missteps.
Gilling made a few dozen forgettable British genre films like Pirates of Blood River, The Mummy's Shroud and The Reptile for Hammer Studios. On the whole his films were rehashes of much more fun films. The only thing original about the film was the zombies of the title. The zombies are genuinely creepy at times; the first encounter with one of them is the scariest in the film, brief and well done. The transformation sequence is really uncalled for, as voodoo doesn't call for decomposition or even traditionally death. This was a landmark because it was the first time that zombies had ever been shown in color, and the first to feature lots of blood. Because however they decided to steal another Universal pictures monster motif and have all the shambling dead strangle their victims to death instead of eating them, there was no real gore, and most of the blood is unexplainable, but their face make-up was original and actually frightening (thanks to decent decay effects; the first to take that approach if memory serves), which is more than can be said for many of the hammer films (I'm looking at you Captain Clegg! Frightened to death, my ass!) This was also the last zombie movie made before Night of the Living Dead was made and Plague had its stiff ass handed to it by a novice in plaid button-downs from Pittsburgh. Oh, how sweet the sound of British horror being forced into nudity and gore by originality, cohesive stories and believable characters.
The second puzzler is the ignorance of voodoo culture. Dolls and labor zombies and blood and mines being run on zombie blood via dolls is forgivably ignorant, but what the hell is all this other nonsense? What does any of it have to do with the crew of brutish foxhunters? What was Dr. Forbes going to do with corpses? Why do they pronounce Haiti "High-Ay-Tea"? Does anyone here have a degree in anything? Where is everyone else in town? What is really baffling is that the British got away with making racist films well after Freedom Summer. The racism in this film has to do with a lot vaguely ethnic men in buffalo hats who beat drums. And of course there is the films sole black person, a butler with 8 seconds of onscreen time who's credited as "Coloured Servant". Truly progressive. I can let one stereotype slide because this was England, not Inglewood, but Buffalo Hats? There aren't any buffalo in Haiti. Whose brilliant idea was this?
The evil count who kind of looks like a Closing Time era Tom Waits is killing women by collecting their blood in a vile and pouring it onto a small clay figure with large breasts. All the while, the men in the stupid buffalo hats play the drums; this is the voodoo from "High-ay-tea" in case you couldn't tell from the staggering weirdness and ignorance Gilling displays here. So then a hunting party in all red chases a fox through downtown Cornwall and stomps through a funeral procession, knocking the body out of the coffin and into a ditch. This is witnessed by the driest of the cast of characters Dr. James Forbes. Meanwhile townsfolk are upset that the town's doctor, Peter Thompson, is killing more people than he's curing. Forbes shows up and proclaims his faith in the young man's ability. Yeah, cause yokels like being told by dusty scientists exactly what the problem with them is. So then Forbes offhandedly decides that the best way to rekindle his friendship with Thompson is to dig up a corpse and experiment on it. I...have nothing to say. Anyway, the first girl, Alice, has been acting strange and goes for a midnight walk so her friend and Forbes' Daughter Sylvia follows her. (I think she's his daughter, they have the same last name, but they don't really interact at all. This would make Forbes both Seward and Van Helsing, but, this ain't Dracula, so on we go). So, Sylvia meets a hobo and then gets kidnapped by some of those obnoxious foxhunters and meets the count (how many sinister sideburns on my face. One, Two. Two chops, Heh heh heh.) who is strangely nonchalant about the fact that his guys just through the poor girl over their shoulder and tormented her viciously a second ago, but he seems nice enough so she agrees not to tell anyone. Tom Traubert sends her on her way and says she needs to stay on the path. She doesn't cause why should she and we have the first encounter with a zombie; fortuitously he's holding Alice's body. Across town Forbes and Thompson actually did start digging up corpses and the body from earlier is missing and actually convince the police officers that catch them that it was a good idea. That digging this corpse up was going to benefit science and that they now have to keep this a secret so they can find the body's location.