If you haven’t watched the 1966 Hammer film, The Plague of the Zombies (John Gilling), you should. Much of it is fairly standard Hammer fare—set in the nineteenth century, stagey dialogue, filmed on artificial sets—but it has moments of real power, and it’s an important entry in the zombie tradition.
The Plague of the Zombies is a crucial link between the zombie revolution that was about to hit the screens two years later—in George A. Romero’s 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead—and the zombie films of the 1930s and 1940s, which drew up Haitian lore and in which zombies were mindless bodies under the control of an evil (white) man.
The story of Plague begins as notable physician Sir James Forbes (André Morrell) and his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) are called down to Cornwall to help old friends, Dr. Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) and his wife Alice (Jacqueline Pearce). Peter and Alice have recently moved to a small former tin-mining village whose inhabitants seem to be dying at an alarming pace. The strange deaths soon hit close to home as Alice dies after wandering off onto the moors. As Forbes and Thompson investigate, they discover that the coffins of the recently deceased are empty, and they start hearing reports that people who should be dead are wandering around the old tin mine. Suspicions converge on Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson), who had lived for several years abroad in the Caribbean, Haiti specifically, and who, it turns out, has brought his new voodoo skills to bear on revitalizing the defunct local economy of tin-mining, turning the locals into zombie corpses to labor in his mines. (The film begs the question of why he didn’t just hire the locals to work for him, although maybe it’s as simple as the fact that the dead will work for lower wages than the living.)
The trailer says it all. Watch it here:
The scenes of the zombies toiling in Hamilton’s tin mines evoke the classic pre-Code 1932 film, White Zombie (Victor and Edward Halperin), in which the evil Murder Legendre (masterfully played by Bela Lugosi) creates zombies for his sugarcane mill. Together, both films deliver a rather obvious commentary on the exploitative processes of industrial capitalism from the nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century.
The Plague of the Zombies is also prescient in its evocation of immigration. The “crisis” over immigrants to the UK was about to hit the headlines, two years after the film’s release, with Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 “rivers of blood” speech. In fact, one of the most vilified lines of the speech, in which Powell is quoting one of his constituents, is foreshadowed by the imagery of The Plague of Zombies: “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time,” Powell intoned, “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” (You can find Powell’s full speech here.)
In The Plague of the Zombies we see scenes of the zombies being whipped in the tin mines, and they are interestingly ambiguous scenes. The zombies are all (white) locals, but they turn darker, grayer, in the process of becoming zombies and so they serve as multivalent images: they are on the one hand white men being forced to labor and being whipped—a sign of the perceived new subservience of native-born English men besieged by waves of immigrants (they’re subject to Powell’s “whip hand”). But the zombies are, at the same time, dark, “other,” and thus could also symbolize the new laboring classes of darker-skinned immigrants coming to the UK in the 1960s from Commonwealth countries.[i] Either way (or both ways), the scenes in the tin mines powerfully encapsulate issues of race, nation, and labor that were about to explode in 1960s Britain.
The Plague of the Zombies doesn’t just, though, look back to the older zombie tradition rooted in a Haitian conception of the zombie and used explicitly to critique the abuse of workers. In a stunning scene—my favorite of the film—Plague anticipates Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. You can watch the scene here:
The scene is, it turns out, a dream, but it uncannily foreshadows Romero’s autonomous, cannibalistic zombies. Unlike in the “real world” of Plague’s diegesis, where the zombies are firmly under the control of Squire Hamilton, in Peter Thompson’s dream they are free of external manipulation, wandering mindlessly on their own, clamoring after human victims. It’s a genuinely creepy scene and in it we see the political turn effected in Night of the Living Dead. In that film, the zombies are not being controlled by a (powerful) person, they are not linked to a single cause. They embody instead the new complex economic processes of what would become, throughout the twentieth century, an increasingly complex capitalist system—one that did not seem to be under anyone’s control but which caused mass devastation anyway. All of this, I think, is present in Plague’s brilliant and terrifying dream sequence.
[i] The economy of the UK was strong throughout the 1950s and 1960s, before taking a nosedive in the 70s. Indeed, severe labor shortages in 1960s industries such as manufacturing and transport “leading to the mass immigration from Commonwealth countries.” http://econ.economicshelp.org/2010/02/economy-in-1960s-and-1970s.html