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Plague Of The Zombies, The
In 1966 Hammer films still had a great deal of appeal, even if we kids looked at the photos in Famous Monsters magazine more than we saw the films, which came and went quickly from local screens. Savant was an ardent Hammer fan as a child. I had actually seen The Mummy new at the age of seven and it was one of the earliest memories of excited kids going nuts in a movie theater. I was also one of a mob of happy kids cheering
Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein when they were reissued in 1964. But I missed most of the '60s Hammer releases because they seemed to play almost exclusively at drive-in theaters. I learned only later that some of the Mummy and Frankenstein sequels had not been all that special. Although it has its fans, my friends gave Rasputin, the Mad Monk a firm 'thumbs down.' So I saved my movie dollars for science fiction shows, which at the time seemed a safer bet.
One Hammer chiller that didn't let the fans down was an anomaly with a title only a confirmed horror fan would like: Plague of the Zombies. One of two features shot back-to-back by veteran director John Gilling, it continues the Bray line of quality with something that hadn't been seen in several years, a cracking good script. It must be remembered that in 1966 the zombie subgenre was completely moribund. Two years later it would be revived by George Romero.
The best thing about Plague of the Zombies is the screenplay by Peter Bryan, an ex-cameraman also responsible for the script for the classic The Hound of the Baskervilles and parts of The Brides of Dracula. Respected doctor Sir James Forbes (André Morell) comes to remote Cornwall with his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare); he's been summoned to help local practitioner Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) deal with an outbreak of sudden fatal illnesses. The superstitious locals have forbidden autopies and blocked a proper investigation. The local constable Swift (Michael Ripper) soon catches the two doctors opening the grave of a recent victim. When the grave is found empty, Swift agrees to help get to the bottom of the mystery. Meanwhile, 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 pagan secrets back from abroad, and is performing exotic rituals that require fresh corpses and warm blood...
Plague of the Zombies is that happy accident, a novel thriller made at at time when Hammer Films was sliding into a rut. Outside of a few lavish titles like She and One Million Years B.C., Hammer's color productions were being overcome by a generic sameness. Overuse of the same redressed sets had taken its toll, especially the two manor houses that served as Hammer headquarters. After a few interesting failures, Hammer scripts became increasingly formulaic and repetitive. After wasting much of their running time to cover familiar expository ground, the stories finally get into full motion only in a hurried final reel.
Plague, and to a lesser degree its sister production The Reptile, stand out from the pack. At first glance this should be one of the dull Hammers -- it does indeed take the cast about an hour to figure out what we already know. But the superior script keeps the story revelations fresh and active. Well-sketched, sympathetic characters are introduced -- we actually care what happens to several of them. 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's economic motivation for reanimating corpses may be a sly comment on labor politics.
The economical script covers two ongoing investigations. The doctors formally exhume bodies and break with formalities to challenge the Squire, keeping young Sylvia out of the picture. Their teaming up with Michael Ripper's conscientious constable is a fresh break from the petty obstructions of locals in other films; Plague does without the studio's usual comic-relief drunken gravediggers and deliverymen. Working on her own, the daring Sylvia is both victim and and investigator. Behind the men's backs she runs a parallel course that keeps us off balance. Instead of a predictable passive dunce, Sylvia deducts key connections, such as the bandaged fingers, on her own. With so much 'discovery' going on, few events need to be explained verbally.
Hammer films are in general conventionally linear in story construction. Some shows had made effective use of flashbacks, but Plague interrupts the expected scene progression with a surprising dream sequence given some subtle image stylization. Tinted images of zombies bursting from the ground have a jolting, irrational kick, like a bad drug experience. Good use is also made of the upperclass riding-to-hounds convention, for scenes with the Squire's pack young hellions. Instead of chasing a fox, they terrorize the countryside in their red blazers, like 19th-century Hell's Angels. The corresponding villains in the previous The Hound of the Baskervilles were part of a flashback to the middle 1800's; their presence here also points to the Teddy Boys in These are the Damned.
Lastly, the script invests in the tension between impoverished villagers and the scandalous goings-on in 'the big house' with its corrupt Squire. André Morell's Sir James is not above utilizing class snobbery to his advantage, when it becomes necessary to intimidate a houseful of opponents. Sir James barges into the Squire's parlor almost like Maggie Smith's Aunt Violet in Downton Abbey, using his intimidating title and prestige to put his foe off balance. At a time when many English films criticized the upper class, Sir James's ploy reminds us of the way that Peter Cushing cruelly race-baited the Egyptian zealot in The Mummy... to get to the truth. Even when Anglocentric or carrying overtures of racism, the best Hammer scripts show a fine appreciation of the use of Class as a weapon. The subversive-yet-conservative The Stranglers of Bombay takes for its 'monster' political crimes traded between Colonial Brits and a devious Indian resistance.
Gilling's zombie movie is one of Hammer's productions filmed on a budget: most of the settings are very familiar. Some of the set redressings are extremely clever. We still look off to the left and think, 'Isn't that little walkway with the handrail, the one that used to go to Dracula's crypt?' Hammer makeup regular Roy Ashton did the effective Zombie makeups, which were startling in 1966, especially in the photos chosen for posters and layouts in Famous Monsters. Between Plague and his gripping work on the title character of The Reptile, this was one of Ashton's best years.
Director John Gilling and Don Sharp were the better directors hired by Hammer in this period. Gilling had established his career in the 1950s. Setting aside oddball efforts like Mother Riley Meets the Vampire and The Gamma People,, Gilling led the pack of Hammer imitators with his excellent The Flesh and the Fiends starring Peter Cushing. His adventure pictures for Hammer vary in quality -- I'm told that there's a good reason why The Brigand of Kandahar hasn't received a real release on disc. But Plague of the Zombies and its concurrently-filmed sister production The Reptile allow Gilling to concentrate on style and atmosphere. Neither picture is part of an established series or even has a familiar 'monster,' so Gilling had room to experiment.
The finished picture actually generates a couple of disturbing, scary moments - something that Hammer films were no longer achieving with regularity. Thanks to its vivid characters Plague pleases even non-fans of horror, which is a compliment for any spook show effort. There's menace and immediacy to the zombie threat, and even the slightly familiar ending can't harm the feeling of substance about the picture.
Did Hammer's all-male executives and production supervisors see horror as anything but a cash cow, and a fad that might pass? They kept trying to branch out into other genres, but their American distribution partners clearly wanted more blood and monsters. It doesn't seem as if Hammer's huge initial profits were ploughed back into the studio. Several of their more expensive efforts around this time were quite successful, but most of their pictures were made on the cheap to fulfill those foreign contracts. Hammer should have been a creative powerhouse for Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Terence Fisher, but the studio seems to have considered Fisher old-fashioned, and treated Lee as if he was just another actor.
Plague may lack marquee-name talent, but Hammer's second-stringers do excellent work. The versatile André Morell really ought to be considered a star, as he offers strong support to a number of Hammer classics and improves everything he's in. He carries the lead in this picture with ease. The interesting Jacqueline Pearce (The Reptile) and Diane Clare (Witchcraft) are pleasing alternatives to the usual passive Hammer women that watch from the sidelines until it's time to be threatened. The choice of villain could be a bit stronger. John Carson doesn't have the stature of Chris Lee or the depraved aspect of Charles Gray, but instead plays a convincing gentleman whose sincere apologies might convince a young lady to give him 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 shines as the intelligent Constable Swift. If you're not familiar with Ripper, you'll know him when you see him - he could be the thug brother of Mickey Rooney, or Richard Attenborough.
Scream Factory's Blu-ray of Plague of the Zombies is a pleasing Region A upgrade of this 'top 20' Hammer picture for collectors. CineSavant's 2015 roundup of Available Hammer restorations listed Studio Canal's 2012 Region B Blu-ray as being more than satisfactory. I can't compare, but Scream Factory's encoding is a dazzler. Although not in the old Technicolor style, Arthur Grant's photography still suggests the lushness of the early years, that suffused Hammer color that the later films lost. Scream's pub handout says that the film's soundtrack has been restored and remastered as well.
Scream's extras again double up on commentaries, with familiar personnel. Listening to both means hearing a lot of repeated information, although Plague at least gives us some interesting new personalities to hear about. An additional new extra is a restoration comparison feature. From the vault comes a 2012 making-of featurette. The expected Hammer experts appear on camera, but accompanied by the interesting actress Jacqueline Pearce, who sadly passed away just last September. An older World of Hammer installment features the grumpy narration of Oliver Reed. Even with their celebrity voices those featurettes ought to be retired -- they're just too superficial.
Plague of the Zombies DVDtalk
Movie: Very Good +
Supplements: 2 new audio commentaries, with Constantine Nasr, Ted Newsom and Steve Haberman; and with Troy Howarth. Vintage World Of Hammer featurette Mummies, Werewolves & The Living Dead; featurette Raising The Dead: The Making Of The Plague Of The Zombies; Restoration comparison, trailers, still gallery
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 5, 2019
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson