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The Plague Of The Zombies (1966,UK)

19/02/2012

Director: John Gilling                    Starring: Andre Morell, Diane Clare, Brook Williams, John Carson

The name Hammer Studios carries certain connotations, conjuring up images of Sir Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in gothic horror retellings of the Dracula and Frankenstein legends that revitalised the horror genre during the sixties. There are however plenty of films in the Hammer canon that sit outside of these more recognisable classics and it’s these films that (in my opinion) represent some of their best work. A full three years before Romero shocked the world with his undead nightmare cum social satire Night Of The Living Dead they produced The Plague Of The Zombies (originally a B-feature to accompany the release of Dracula Prince Of Darkness) that effectively beat him to the punch. There are a few spoilers coming up so let me say at this stage that this is my favourite Hammer film and therefore should be immediately sought out and viewed before you continue reading. If you’ve already seen it or aren’t bothered about the game being given away, then please do read on.

When Doctor Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) writes to his old teacher Professor James Forbes (Morell) seeking help with identifying a mysterious illness that is afflicting the population of the small Cornish village at which he is the GP he is ill prepared for what their investigation will uncover. When the graves of the recent dead are found to be empty and people start to swear they’ve seen their deceased relatives roaming the moors by night it quickly becomes apparent that there is something more than mere disease at work and it is up to Forbes and Thompson to get to the bottom of the dark arts that appear to be raising the dead from their rest.

It’s an interesting film for several reasons. Firstly, the zombies are “proper” zombies, that is to say the result of Haitian voodoo, cursed individuals who become ill and then die as a result of black magic before being subsequently raised from the dead by the same curse that sent them there. Cinematically speaking it was at the time a subject that still remained largely obscure and so for many people would have been an introduction to the exotic witchcraft of voodoo, complete with the necessary dolls not to mention the concept of enslaved, reanimated corpses. It’s important to note that these are not the brain devouring predators of Romero or the virus enraged psychos of Danny Boyle. These are genuine voodoo zombie slaves, brought back from the dead by the local squire to work in his tin mine.

This brings me nicely on to the social aspect of the film. Not content with exploiting the villagers for his own ends in life, the charismatic but clearly sinister Squire Hamilton (Carson) wants to exploit them in death as well. His wealth and social status have given him a cavalier attitude to the working class inhabitants of the village whom he views as his to use as he sees fit. The Squire’s entourage terrorise the villagers without compunction and can do so without retribution thanks to the power and influence of their patron. Whether it’s deliberate or accidental, theres a condemnation of the aristocracy here amongst the shuffling zombies and voodoo rituals.

As far as the fear factor goes, it manages to maintain a certain amount of atmosphere, even after almost fifty years of hardening audience sensibilities. Sure, the zombie makeup is looking a bit dated and some of the acting from the supporting cast is a bit shaky but there are still moments of genuine horror at work. There is a fantastic moment where Thompson is accosted by the living dead who claw their way out of their graves before surrounding and ultimately overwhelming him. It’s a pretty tense scene, despite the technical limitations of the zombie design, deftly handled and something of a prototype for the zombie swarming Romero would popularise a few years later. The film’s most disturbing moment though comes not at the hands of the zombies but is when Forbes’ daughter Sylvia (Clare), abducted by the Squire’s men narrowly avoids being raped based on the cutting of a deck of cards to see which of the men gets to go first. It’s a level of darkness that the film never really revisits but is a fantastically chilling moment in a film that is otherwise happy to deliver lesser shocks with a tongue firmly in its cheek.

The main performances are pretty solid, Carson’s Squire is suitably smarmy and villainous, Diane Clare portrays Sylvia as a woman with plenty of guts and intellect, even if she is lined up for victim duty later on and Brook Williams is a passable sidekick to the Professor. The standout though is Andre Morell and his at times hilarious turn as the intelligent and decisive Forbes. Straightforward and incredibly forthright in his opinions, quick witted and bold he is the real star of the piece with an outstanding performance of a great character. He’s so good it sort of makes me wish they’d made a series of films revolving around Sir James Forbes to follow this up.

I was lucky enough to see this on the big screen, in a proper cinema at the premiere of the newly remastered version of the film and it really is looking in excellent shape. I was particularly pleased by the “day for night” scenes which have really benefited from the remastering work and have always been a bit of a bone of contention for me with Hammer’s films. The overall clarity of image is excellent throughout and the colours are beautifully vivid, all of which bode well for the imminent blu ray release. It’s always a pleasure to see an overlooked classic like this lovingly restored and hopefully its debut on blu ray will bring it to new fans who will appreciate it as much as I do.

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