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DVD SAVANT

Plague of the Zombies


Plague of the Zombies
Anchor Bay
1966 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 90 m.
Starring André Morell, John Carson, Diane Clare, Jacqueline Pearce, Michael Ripper
Cinematography Arthur Grant
Production Designer Bernard Robinson
Film Editor Chris Barnes
Original Music James Bernard
Written by Peter Bryan
Produced by Anthony Nelson Keys
Directed by John Gilling

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Let's see here. Savant was an ardent Hammer fan as a child, being one of a mob of happy kids cheering Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein when they were reissued in 1964. I had actually seen The Mummy at the age of seven and it was one of the earliest and most exciting times I had in a movie theater. But I stopped going in around 1966 or so, when the thrill quotient dropped off radically. The current Mummy and Frankenstein sequels were pretty tired rehashes, and Rasputin, the Mad Monk was one of the first films to which my friends gave a firm 'thumbs down'. So I saved my movie dollars for science fiction shows, a safer bet at the time. A Hammer chiller that didn't let the fans down was an anomaly called Plague of the Zombies. One of two titles shot back-to-back by veteran director John Gilling, it continued the Bray line of quality with something that hadn't been seen in several years, a cracking good script.

Synopsis:

Respected doctor Sir James Forbes (André Morell) is called to remote Cornwall with his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) to help local practitioner Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) deal with an outbreak of sudden illnesses. The superstitious locals have forbidden autopies, and the two doctors are soon caught opening the grave of a recent victim by local constable Swift (Michael Ripper). When the grave is found empty, Swift agrees to help get to the bottom of the mystery, but not before Sylvia sees the body of Peter's wife Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) being carried by a horrid ghoul near an abandoned tin mine. It turns out that the local squire Hamilton (John Carson) has brought certain exotic pagan secret rituals back from abroad, that require fresh corpses and warm blood ...

Plague of the Zombies is that happy accident, a good thriller at at time when Hammer Films was sliding into a rut. Hammer's color productions looked far worse than they had a decade before, when the consummate talent of Terence Fisher repeatedly made less look like more. A generic sameness had crept in. Overuse of the same redressed sets (especially the two manor houses that served as Hammer headquarters) had taken its toll. After a few interesting failures, Hammer scripts became increasingly formulaic, often using their entire running time to cover familiar ground, and never really getting to 'fresh' material.  2

Plague stood out from the pack, which is why Savant is reviewing a DVD release over two years old. At first glance it should be one of the dull Hammers - the title does have the word Zombie in it, and it takes the cast about an hour to figure out what we already know. But the superior script is what makes all the difference. This time the locals are given good reasons to be in denial about the dark goings-on. The local constable is a stalwart ally instead of the usual comic relief. And the villainous squire actually has an economic motivation for reanimating corpses that may be a sly comment on labor politics. The economical script really covers two ongoing investigations. The doctors very formally exhume bodies and challenge the squire, keeping young Sylvia out of the picture. She, however, is both victim and and investigator behind their backs, running a parallel course that keeps us off balance. Instead of a predictable passive dunce, Sylvia makes key connections, such as the bandaged fingers, on her own. With so much 'discovery' going on, few events need to be explained verbally.

Plague can boast some unpredictable story elements, such as a very surprising dream sequence that breaks the standard Hammer format with some subtle image stylization. Good use is also made of classic Hammer imagery when a pack of delinquent young hellions in their red blazers show up, as if escaped from The Hound of the Baskervilles. Lastly, Sir James is not above utilizing class snobbery to his advantage, when it becomes necessary to intimidate a houseful of opponents. At a time when English films were very anti-upperclass, this ploy reminds us of Peter Cushing baiting the Egyptian zealot in The Mummy. The best Hammer scripts, even when Anglocentric or racist (The Stranglers of Bombay) show a fine understanding of Class as a weapon.

As a production, this zombie movie is as threadbare as any Hammer film from the same time, but the story interest makes all the difference. Some of the set redressings are extremely clever, and you forget for a moment to look off to the left and say, "Yeah, that little walkway used to go to Dracula's crypt ..." Hammer makeup regular Roy Ashton did the effective Zombie makeups, and between this and sister feature The Reptile, 1966 was one of his best years.

The happy result is a diverting mystery that actually has a couple of frightening moments - which is praise for the 'old-fashioned' Hammer studio; it's usually their style that fans gush over. Savant is pretty critical of later Hammer and has little use for some of the most popular titles, but Plague works, which is a compliment for any horror film. There's menace and immediacy to the zombie threat, and even a slightly familiar ending can't harm the feeling of substance about the picture.

It must have been a great annoyance to Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Terence Fisher that they didn't directly benefit from the millions of dollars their artistry earned at Hammer. Later articles have given the impression that Lee's reluctance to reappear as The Count was less an artistic decision and more a matter of being dunned with even lower pay offers than he had received before. It is true that Hammer's more elaborate ventures (These Are the Damned, for one) were costly failures. But it doesn't look as if their huge initial profits were ploughed back into the studio. This probably is why Plague has a no-star cast.

In this case, the second-stringers do excellent work. André Morell carries the picture with ease, with the interesting Jacqueline Pearce (The Reptile) and Diane Clare (Witchcraft. John Carson doesn't have the stature of Chris Lee or the depraved aspect of Charles Gray, but instead plays a convincing gentleman to whom a young lady might give the benefit of the doubt in a situation like this one. The big hero of the day is Michael Ripper, an underused character actor who does excellent work as the intelligent constable. If you're not familiar with Ripper, you'll like him - he looks kind of like the thug brother of Mickey Rooney or Richard Attenborough.

Anchor Bay's DVD of Plague of the Zombies  1 is their standard excellent 16:9 transfer, with vibrant color that is especially careful to give the aforementioned dream sequence a subtle weird look. Arthur Grant's photography is not in the old Technicolor style, but still has the lushness of the early years, that the later films lost. Included on the disc are a set of theatrical trailers that demonstrate the 'kiddie' marketing schemes Hammer fell prey to - clearly, when they went R - rated a few seasons later, they abandoned their only solid audience. If you can still find copies in the stores, this rates a worthy looksee.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Plague of the Zombies rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, embarassing 'World of Hammer' featurette
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 4, 2001


Footnotes:

1. It's always funny when a typo makes this title Plaque of the Zombies, a movie about dental nightmares, I suppose.
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2. The Brides of Dracula is a good movie, one of the Hammer classics, but even it suffers terribly in the structure department, arriving at its first really important confrontation just as the movie is ending. All dressed up with two sexy Vampire brides and a barnful of hay, and, whups! Curtain time.
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Other DVD Savant Hammer Films Reviews:
Quatermass 2, X the Unknown, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Hound of the Baskervilles, The Mummy, Horror of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula, The Curse of the Werewolf, The Phantom of the Opera, Night Creatures, Nightmare, Paranoiac, The Kiss of the Vampire, The Evil of Frankenstein, Die! Die! My Darling!, Quatermass and the Pit, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Countess Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Demons of the Mind, Straight on Till Morning


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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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