Well, it has to be said- this film has a plot so genuinely odd it’s just, well, completely bizarre. Another discovery via the Horror channel, I had heard of this film but never seen it until now. The story of a Doctor’s Cornish holiday, its also some kind of social commentary on the exploitation of the working class, in the cunning guise of a horror film in which Cornish zombies are used as slave labour in a tin mine. Yep, its that kind of odd. They don’t make ’em like this any more.
Its the late 19th century, and Sir James Forbes, enjoying a summer vacation with his daughter Sylvia, visits a former student of his, Dr Peter Thompson, who is now the doctor of a small Cornish village. The visit is precipitated by a curious letter from Dr Thompson describing a plague in the village that has thwarted all of his attempts to cure. Well, no doubt it sounds like a lovely place for a holiday. Sir James arrives at the village with Sylvia and decides to investigate further, but is confounded by the local Squire who has refused to allow any of the plague victim’s bodies to be examined post-mortem. Deciding a bit of grave-robbing will spice up his vacation, Sir James enlists Dr Thompson’s aid in exhuming the most recent burial to find the coffin empty. Shocked and appalled, Sir James convinces the local police sergeant to assist him further, and they discover that all of the coffins of the village graveyard are empty. Now this is a vacation!
Suspicion quickly turns toward the cad of a squire whose merry band of lackeys are proving themselves a darned nuisance fox hunting and generally berating the poor locals. The squire himself, the mysterious young Clive Hamilton, had recently returned from exotic climes following the death of the old squire. Clive is rather a bad sort, as he brought back with him a secret penchant for practising black magic and a three-piece voodoo drum band he keeps in caves under his great mansion. The caves are part of the local tin mine, which the squire purchased on his return but left abandoned. Of course its not really abandoned at all. Secretly the mine is in full operation, but the devilish squire has employed his own dark brand of slave labour- namely the zombies of the villagers who have died by his voodoo plague. Cue all manner of readings regards industrial relations and exploitation of the working class beyond death, as his merry band of upper-class toffs whip said workforce into all manner of deprivations in the mine in their zeal for profit. Its something like Temple of Doom down there, only with the walking dead instead of the Temple‘s children.
Its sounds like a rather dark film, but its really quite fun as most Hammer films are now- back at the time it was made it must have seemed rather grisly and possibly even disturbing but time has left it rather quaint and charming. Its hardly vintage Hammer but its well worth a visit. The acting is pretty dire -although Andre Morell’s Sir James Forbes is really quite excellent and reminds me of a time when the antagonist of a film could be over sixty and still cut the mustard, despite looking and acting his age. There is also a dream sequence of zombies clawing their way from out of their graves that tellingly predates similar shots in Michael Jackson’s Thriller video by decades. Indeed its a zombie film that was made before Romero took the undead theme to be a genre of his own, and with its depiction of the social classes etc, Plague of the Zombies provides a social commentary using the walking dead that Romero would become much more famous for a decade later. Well, we Brits got there first George!