The Plague of the Zombies certainly isn't the best horror film made by Hammer Film Productions: the climax features some really dodgy effects work, the sound mix needed another pass, there's a hellaciously bad day-for-"night" sequence, and frankly only a very young person would have a terribly hard time getting out in front of the plot. It also isn't my favorite Hammer horror picture, though I certainly do love it far in excess of all those things I just said about it. What it is, maybe, is the Hammer-est Hammer film, the one that I think I'd call upon as a demonstration if I had to showcase what the studio's characteristic output looked like when it was firing on all cylinders, when it was doing that thing that Hammer Films did more than anybody else before or since (of course, a truly all-encompassing quintessential Hammer picture would probably need to have either Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, if not both, and Plague of the Zombies has neither. But it does have Michael Ripper and, in the lead role, André Morell).

The innuendo means in part, of course, that The Plague of the Zombies is the most English of all Hammer films. Plotwise, it's not anything even slightly new: just the basic scenario of 1932's Ur-zombie picture, White Zombie, dusted off for one last trip around the block. Except that it turns out that something unbelievably magical happens when you pick that scenario up out of the Caribbean islands, and desposit it in an old tin-mining town in Cornwall. And even better, when you replace the dashing, chisel-chinned leading man of a '30s B-movie with Morell's rather cranky prim old man routine. There's something so... je ne sais quoi. But that's why we're here for the review.

You'll note that I said "one last trip". For The Plague of the Zombies has a release date of 1966, which we might also call 2 BR, Before Romero. 1968's Night of the Living Dead changed everything in the zombie subgenre, even what kind of creature the word "zombie" refers to. Prior to that movie, "zombies" were simply the reanimated corpses out of Haitian Vodou, mindless organic automata, rather less than slaves. That's how they were represented in White Zombie, in 1943's I Walked with a Zombie, in our present subject. Night of the Living Dead never once uses the word "zombie", probably because George A. Romero wouldn't have had any reason to think in those terms: his cannibal revenants are somewhere between the pre-Romantic idea of vampires, and the ghoul of ancient Arabic folklore. But for a half of a century now, say "zombie", and it's Romero's ravenous hordes you're probably thinking of. Farewell to thee, voodoo masters, and your labor camps of uncomplaining corpses!

The Plague of the Zombies is certainly a great farewell to that incarnation of the genre. I shan't belabor the plot: suffice it to say that Dr. Sir James Forbes (Morell) has been contacted by an old student, Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams), the community doctor in a small Cornish town, about an inexplicable rash of deaths. Unable to help without seeing the matter firsthand, and knowing that his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare), would love to see Peter's wife Alice (Jacqueline Pearce), her old school chum, Sir James treks off to the country. Of course, we've already seen, in the very first scene of the film, an imported Haitian ritual led by a white man in very distinctive garb, and so we pretty much know that the deaths are part of a zombification process; we also have a pretty good sense that Alice is the next target of the zombie master's magic. And we can figure out with little effort that the zombie master is Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson), the fabulously wealthy man whose whim is law in these parts, particularly once the film uses both an insert shot and a musical sting to make sure we recognise his ring from the opening ceremony.

So no, not a film that's trying to play things very coy. There are Cornish zombies afoot, and it's all about watching Sir James gather enough evidence to push him that direction, hopefully before Sylvia becomes Hamilton's next victim - and oh, that shall happen, given his immediate leering interest in her when he prevents her from being brutally assaulted by the rowdy young libertines he keeps around as his (living) muscle. Sylvia, to her credit, immediately senses that Hamilton is up to all kinds of shady shit, and so we basically have three branches of story: Hamilton's wicked deeds, Sylvia's freaky trips around the foggy moors, and Sir James and Peter's attempt to find out what the hell is going on.

But that's still not the charm of the film. No, the charm, beyond the raw novelty value of zombies in Cornwall, is... but that is quite a lot of novelty value. And what really makes it work is, like every Voodoo-style zombie movie, the zombies are more of a proxy for the actual conflict, given that they basically don't do anything but look creepy and grey. And these are some especially creepy zombies, I might add, at least prior to the unfortunate climax. But anyway, the real battle here is between the licentious, rapacious landowner, interested in nothing but exploiting the town, the land, and whatever women catches his fancy, and between the firmly decent, properly educated British decency embodied by Sir James.

That's what does it. It's Sir James. Not just Sir James. The Plague of the Zombies rises above the Hammer norm by having not just one, but two well-rendered female characters in Alice and Sylvia (though the latter suffers from some very badly-mixed post-dubbing), giving more weight to the plot as they both become entangled in it. It doesn't solve the studio's traditional leading man problem - Williams is pretty damp and floppy - but Morell and Carson make up for it. And the film boasts one of the all-time great Hammer sets, in the town square (which was reused almost immediately in The Reptile, shot almost directly back-to-back by most of the same crew), a vaguely plausible multi-tiered space with a heightened sense of menace, particularly in the downright vicious-looking fish decorating its central fountain.

But I do, on balance, think that Sir James, and all he brings to bear, is what makes The Plague of the Zombies such a great treat. The not-very-secret of Hammer is that, for all of its savagery and bloodletting (of which there is some good stuff here), and its pubescent fascination with women who have large bustlines, was a fusty old company, always making sure that proper morality won out, or at least that we were suitably outraged if it didn't. And God love all the many faces of Peter Cushing, but I think Sir James might just be the perfect embodiment of that stodginess. He is High Victorianism made flesh, a rather grumpy, barking old sort, but well-read, morally decent and kind, quick to apply science (in one of screenwriter Peter Bryan's very best "I dare you not to believe this" gambits, Sir James flatly declares that he's been convinced of the rigorous scientific basis of the zombies with not one more word of explanation, and so well has the film established his character and so well is Morell playing him as an unimaginative old square that I completely buy it). Like Cushing's Van Helsing, Morell's Sir James is something of an idealised figure of reason come to banish the spooks, but whereas Cushing, even at his most stern, was still appealing in his "used to be a rake, before middle age came along" way, Morell is just so stolid. One imagines he was born with his neat suit and well-combed mustache both fully intact.

This isn't to say that Morell lacks charm or humor; he has plenty of both in this, his best performance for Hammer. But he also doesn't try to make Sir James anything but a slightly bored, substantially irritated city dweller obliged to deal with some dismal matters in the country with all due efficiency and curtness. That's an unexpected nucleus for a horror film to revolve around, but it works, giving tart pragmatism to the film that sets off the standard Gothic excess, gory make-up, and violent sexuality. It's not just setting zombies in Cornwall that makes The Plague of the Zombies so fresh; it's setting them against this very self-conscious avatar of English traditionalism at its most conservative and brusque, creating a clash of stubbornness as much as morality. The film that this generate is one of Hammer's most successful, I dare say; evin if director John Gilling has nowhere close to Terence Fisher's skill for weaving murky despair into his images, he knows how to exploit the loneliness of the film's great sets. There's a striking weirdness to the film, which combined with the above-average character writing and acting is enough to set this well above the studio's average output. That plus the fact that it manages to breathe so much life into the traditional zombie movie right before that form was buried once and for all is enough for me to happily put this in my own private top tier of Hammer films, even if I am compelled by honesty to admit that it doesn't make it that high by any more objective standards.