A zombie is a magically reanimated corpse. Everybody knows that. What they usually don’t know, is that they are deeply embedded in class. Haitian slaves who acted as informers, or continued to work for their original master, after they’d been freed where known by a name similar to “zombie,” and, as you might guess, it was not a compliment. Later the magic (usually voodoo) aspect was attached to the term, and once Hollywood got ahold of the concept, starting with 1932’s The White Zombie, the horse was out of the barn, and folklore was holding the door looking dazed.
Some zombie movies followed the slavery tradition, though. The zombies were mindless drudges, performing slave labor for their evil sorcerer/master. The White Zombie, in all its Pre-Code glory featured a graphic shot of a zombie falling into the sugar mill while his fellow slaves keep turning it, without missing a beat. I Walked with a Zombie (1943) takes a critical look at class and racism in the Caribbean, but is more interested in retelling Jane Eyre. And both of those movies had some serious plot problems, although they were by no means bad.
Probably the best zombie film to stay reasonably close to tradition comes from across the Atlantic at Hammer Studios… 1966’s The Plague of Zombies. Given that Night of the Living Dead, which features “ghouls” that are now the popular zombie, it is probably the last of its kind.
The movie opens with Sir James Forbes, a doctor, receiving a letter from an old student, Thompson, who is at his wit’s end with a strange epidemic killing the locals in the village where he practices. He and his daughter, Sylvia, go to visit the Thompsons, and find the village to be a very hostile, panic-stricken place. Forbes and Thompson break into the cemetery late at night to perform secret autopsies on the victims, only to find all the coffins empty. With the local constable now on their side, the men try to puzzle it all out, while Thompson’s wife, Anna, begins to get sick, and Sylvia is courted by Squire Hamilton.
A madman in jail talks of seeing the dead walk in the woods by Hamilton’s escape. Anna dies, and Thompson has a truly frightening nightmare of meeting her and all his patients as zombies. Forbes learns from the constable, that the squire had lived in Haiti for several years before returning to unsuccessfully reopen the unsafe tin mine his family owned. Sylvia begins to sleepwalk– in the direction of the Hamilton estate. Then the terror really kicks into high gear… and not only from the zombies.
The result is a clever, atmospheric, truly chilling piece that also, surprisingly, passes the Bechdel Test. Admittedly, there is very little gore, but the violence is always effective. Hammer Studios knew how handle action, and seeing the zombies that cannot be harmed by traditional weapons (a trick used to good effect in 1932) retains its power, despite the buckets of blood associated with George Romero and his ghouls. If zombies had to change, or at least retire in favor of a new type of monster, at least they had an excellent movie to go out with. Any fan of either horror, or zombies, should make a point to check out this classic.