Conventional wisdom would have one believe that the zombie film was born with Night of the Living Dead, but history tells a different tale. White Zombie might well be the first, and a handful of other films based on the Haitian and West African voodoo myth of a resurrected person stalking the earth followed, but before Night of the Living Dead could forever change the horror genre, Plague of the Zombies became an unintended love letter to the undead before they became flesh-eating leviathans.
During the mid-1800s, a Cornish village is beset by a mysterious plague that confounds the local doctor, Peter Thompson, who resultantly writes to his mentor, Sir James Forbes, for assistance. Forbes’ daughter Sylvia is friends with Thompson’s wife Alice, so she tags along. Upon their arrival, the Forbeses encounter a broiling subset of the village’s once peaceful denizens, most of which are bitter at the lack of a medical cause for the plague. The rest are apparently operating under the aegis of powerful local squire Clive Hamilton, who apparently has his own dastardly agenda when it comes to the bodies of the recently dead.
Fortunately, the titular walking corpses are introduced with aplomb and indeed drive much of the plot, but going one better, the necessity for establishing the rules of the undead for an uninitiated audience member is done about as well as could be expected for the time. The writing never betrays the material, delving occasionally into fever dreams and a sort of horror that is nary impactful to modern adrenaline junkies, but instead of this turning out to be a hindrance, Plague of the Zombies holds this up as a strength: for those seeking out non-standard undead fair, Plague of the Zombies might be the only true gothic zombie drama. What a concept!
In keeping with the theme of atmospheric chills, the characters appropriately react to horrors on display. At the time, the mere idea of an autopsy isn’t just sacrilegious, it’s also an affront to the ethical practices of the day, and only the prestige of Sir Forbes can convince many of the villagers that the mysteries of this illness require steps that extend beyond the germane. In spite of this seeming impediment to character development, the villagers and doctors are all richly realized; even the genre-standard disbelieving cop gives way to reason and acknowledges that he must step outside the boundaries of good taste for the good of the village.
Like all the best period dramas, there is an unparalleled sense of British chivalry on display throughout the language and gender roles such that fans of both zombie films and Downton Abbey might find a common ground on which to praise Plague of the Zombies. Similarly, the costumes keep the audience planted in the trappings of the day and the garish Technicolor cinematography is an unparalleled visual treat.
Though the climax may fall short of the tumultuous bent of the plot leading into it, it’s difficult to argue that Plague of the Zombies is not structurally taut; the folly of man in attempting to master forces that are far beyond his understanding or control is brought to bear in full force, and the antagonist has to pay for his misdeeds.
Viewing Plague of the Zombies presently may even provide some parallels to modern capitalism, wherein members of an upper class are apt to subjugate those they view to be beneath them for monetary gain, no matter what the toll on their bodies or even their souls. The view that death waits for no man and binds all of humanity is the great leveler, and Plague of the Zombies touches on this in a manner so subtle that it may not even be noticed in a first or even second viewing.
It’s difficult to argue that Plague of the Zombies stands up to its successors, especially in the modern era of undead filmmaking where so much is so good that older films must prove themselves in a different manner to jockey for pole position, but for those in need of something different when seeking out new zombie films, Plague of the Zombies is an unparalleled godsend.
One thing that may increase the allure of Plague of the Zombies is how difficult it is to obtain; DVD copies of the film range from $20 to $50 as it has been out of print for several years. Fortunately, despite being released in 1999, the last DVD release is a solid anamorphic transfer and can be found on Amazon for about $37. Any serious zombie junkie owes it to themselves to pick up this forgotten gem before the price drives up any higher.