One of Hammer's late night movie masterpieces, Plague of the Zombies, part of the studio's 1965 program of films, was shot back to back with The Reptile, both films designated as support features - Rasputin the Mad Monk played with The Reptile, while Dracula Prince of Darkness was paired with Plague of the Zombies, which has become the bona-fida classic of the quartet.
A village in Cornwall is stricken by a series of mysterious unexplained deaths. The local doctor seeks help from his former mentor Sir James Forbes, a distinguished scientist living in London. Answering the call, Sir James arrives at the village with his daughter Sylvia, and begins an investigation, uncovering a plot by the local squire Clive Hamilton to turn the townsfolk into zombies to work in his tin mines... The missing link between White Zombie and Zombie Flesh Eaters, John Gilling's Plague of the Zombies pleasingly returns Hammer to a strong horror footing after the slightly anaemic Rasputin the Mad Monk. As was the lot of the humble second feature, Plague of the Zombies was produced on the cheap but is something of a triumph of low budget film making, looking far more accomplished than many of Hammer's A-pictures. Much of the film's success is down to John Gilling's superb direction, the restless and often sensual camerawork giving the film a sense of grace and style. The film is often startling to look at with it's eerie ceremonial voodoo masks and decomposing zombies. The dream sequence set in the graveyard as the dead claw their way out of the earth is one of Hammer's most famous set pieces, with it's skewed camera angles and tendrils of fog, and one astonishing, surreal shot of a zombie's feet stepping into a pool of blood.
The frugal budget does cause the film to creak in places, like the sloppy day-for-night photography during a spot of nocturnal grave-watching, and the film's fiery climax is marred by some well padded zombie stuntmen shuffling about amongst the pyrotechnics (a similar fate befell the final sequence of City of the Living Dead). Thankfully these flaws melt away with the furious pace of the film and the fine performances. André Morell, taking a lead role after his previous Hammer outing, She (where he was dubbed and almost unrecognisable) is excellent as Sir James, while John Carson as the velvet smooth evil squire Hamilton makes for a worthy adversary (close your eyes and you would swear it was James Mason). Of the supporting cast, Brook Williams playing Sir James' protege Dr. Peter Thompson is embarrassingly wooden - the scene where he's told his wife is dead is a cringe-worthy moment of B-movie acting. But best of all is the ethereal Jacqueline Pearce playing the anguished doctor's wife - her performance has become a highpoint of the film and justifiably so. The scene where she transforms into a seductive living dead woman is one of the most beautifully grotesque moments in Hammer Cinema, her zombification by Hamilton lends the film a surprising undercurrent of necrophilia.
Optimum's DVD of Plague of the Zombies is generally very good. The 1.85 anamorphic transfer looks fine although the print used does seem a little tired and faded in places. It's a shame that Optimum didn't add a dark tint to the night scenes but if memory serves me right, the US Anchor Bay disc which has more punchy colors, is missing the night time tints as well. All in all, a good effort. The mono soundtrack sounds fine. The only extras are a stand-alone trailer and the double-feature trailer with Dracula Prince of Darkness. Needless to say the film comes highly recommended.