The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
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The Plague Of The Zombies was shot back-to-back with Hammer's other Cornish shocker, The Reptile, by director John Gilling at the legendary Bray Studios, Berkshire, England during the summer of 1965. Both pictures shared the same sets and these were redressed accordingly to their required use. But if you watch The Reptile you will recognise the same village and graveyard sets! It is worth noting that The Reptile is also rich in atmosphere despite the low budget and the limitations that back-to-back shooting would suggest. Both Plague and The Reptile were released as supporting features to two of Hammer's main features the following year. The Reptile supported Rasputin The Mad Monk (March 1966) and The Plague Of The Zombies went out with Dracula Prince Of Darkness in January 1966. Yet despite their second feature status, both of Gilling's films outshone the main feature.
When I first saw The Plague Of The Zombies some seven years ago when it was shown late one Friday night on Channel 4, I didn't think that it was going to be very good judging by the plot synopsis in my film guide. But when the end credits rolled, I was astonished by just how good it really was. During the fifties, John Gilling had directed a number of quota-quickie pictures and some of them were very mediocre, but here he takes a rather dubious storyline and gives it a lot of weight by emphasising the distinct contrast between the superstitious country folk and the more forward thinking men of science and the lengths that the latter have to go to in order to solve the mystery. For instance, they have been refused the right to perform any autopsies so it isn't until Alice dies that Forbes has to persuade Thompson to allow him to perform an autopsy to try and find out the cause of death. In addition, there is an imaginatively staged green-tinted nightmare sequence, which is still talked about by horror buffs and it has been suggested that it inspired George A Romero when he made his Night Of The Living Dead only a few years later. In this memorable sequence Thompson sees the dead rise from their graves. This turns out to be a premonition as after he awakens, Forbes and the local police sergeant (Michael Ripper) exhume all the graves to find them empty.
The Plague Of The Zombies also features fine performances from Andre Morell as Sir James Forbes portraying him as a charming, intelligent and resourceful man of science who is prepared to do anything for the benefit of good even though the superstitious locals don't always understand his methods and can't understand that what he's doing can only ultimately save them. Morell's performance is strong enough to rank among the best of Hammer's screen heroes such as Peter Cushing's Sherlock Holmes and Christopher Lee's Duc De' Richeleau. Brook Williams offers good support as Peter Thompson whilst Jacqueline Pierce is standout as his wife whom has to be decapitated by a shovel in order to save her from being enslaved to the cult of the undead forever. John Carson is suitably suave as the evil Squire Hamilton and ever present is the reliable Michael Ripper who played virtually everything for Hammer over the years including pirates, old soaks and pub landlords and here he is equally versatile in the role of the sympathetic Sgt Swift.
In summary, many people agree (including myself) that The Plague Of The Zombies is John Gilling's finest hour as a director as this assignment gave him more opportunities than the quota-quickies to exploit the setting and place emphasis on the class structure of the time thus giving more weight to the plot. In addition, Bernard Robinson's sets are excellent and Arthur Grant's cinematography is suitably atmospheric.
This is probably Hammer's most shamelessly entertaining film. This doesn't have the cutting edge politics and satire of Romero's original zombie trilogy, or the over-the-top cheap gore of Raimi's Evil Dead films, but has the distinction of being a typically British film, only with zombies! It's predictable and silly but it's bloody good fun. It's also made with Hammer's high production standards, beautiful sets and a surprisingly sinister edge. These aren't zombies that will eat your brains, and to be honest they only properly turn up in the last twenty minutes or so, but the film moves fast and has a great lead performance in stiff-upper-lipped Andre Morell. Not bad for a film that was the supporting feature in a Hammer double bill.
In Hammer's effective little shocker, André Morell is Sir James Forbes, a professor of medicine who travels to Cornwall (in the company of his daughter, Sylvia, played by Diane Clare) after receiving a strange missive from ex-student Peter Tompson. Now working as a GP in a remote part of the West country, Peter is completely baffled as to why his patients have suddenly started dropping like flies.
After investigating matters in the Cornish town, Sir James discovers that the victims are being killed and returned to life (through the power of voodoo) by nasty landed gent Squire Hamilton (John Carson), who is using the rotting automatons to work his supposedly abandoned tin mine.
Although it was originally released as a support feature for 'Dracula, Prince Of Darkness', Plague Of The Zombies is easily one of Hammer's finest efforts and essential viewing for fans of the living dead. The talented cast give some excellent performances (Morell, in particular, is great as the open-minded man of science who is quite prepared to embrace the notion of witchcraft), whilst director John Gilling ensures that the film rattles along at a fair pace, managing some pretty chilling set-pieces in the process: a creepy dream-sequence that sets the standards for corpses crawling from their graves; a shocking scene in which we meet our first walking dead; and a truly memorable moment that features the decapitation of a zombie by spade (come to think of it, maybe Mr. Raimi also owes a little of his success to this film).
Reciving a letter from his former top pupil, (whose also married his daughter's best friend) about a mysterious illness that is leading to people dying in a very strange way,Sir James Forbes and his daughter Sylvia decided to go and pay Dr. Peter Tompson a visit,in the hope of helping him to stop the continuous spreading of the illness.Arriving to the village in Cornwall,James and Sylivia are horrified to discover that the town is controlled by upper-class gangs,who rule the area with an iron fist.Attempting to make the gangs see reason,the Forbes and Tompson tell them that an autopsy has to be performed on one of the victims,so that the cause of death can officially be confirmed.Angered by their demands,the controllers of the village tell the Forbes and Tompson that it is simply "marsh fever" and is something which does not need any investigating at all.
Seeing signs of this being a cover up,James and Peter begin to relies,that they only have one,illegal option left,to find out what disease is really killing the poor people of the town:dig up a body.Prepairing to carefully open the coffin,James and Peter are interrupted,when two police officers spot them,and get set to arrest them both on "grave robbery".Relising that this could possible be their only chance to see-what after effects the illness has had on the decease body,Forbes and Tompson quickly open the coffin,only to discover,that despite a person being buried in it,the coffin is now completely empty .
View on the film:
Feeling unsure about what I was about to witness,in my first ever,"classic era" Hammer Horror,I was relived to find Studio Canal giving the film a tremendous red carpet treatment,with the bonus making of on the DVD showing the painstaking work that the company had put in,to bring this terrific movie,truly back from the dead.Opaing with a lively,proto-Jaws like score from the great James Bernard,director John Gilling shows the events at the start of the movie to be "just another,typical day in Cornwall" as a West Indies Voodoo/Zombie ritual takes place deep within a tin mine.Despite being restrained by the studio to only use sets that would be used for the filming of another movie, (The Reptile) Gilling shows tremendous skills in not allowing the "boxed-in" restrictions from stopping him creating a wonderful,mysterious atmosphere.
Although the film does feature a number of good,surprisingly dream-logic style Zombie scenes,Gilling unexpectedly makes the most chilling moments in the film,ones which involve psychological fear rather than gore,with one of the most terrifying scenes in the film,being a character fearing that they may be about to get gang Raped.Showing a strong influence of Arthur Conan Doyle,screenwriter Peter Bryan, (who,in 1959 wrote the screenplay for Hammer's version of Doyle's The Hound of the Baskerville) combines Tompson and the Forbes increasingly dangerous, amateur sleuthing with a wonderful,cleverly handled underlying subtext,which shows,that even after becoming dead & buried,the working class,is here literally used as slaves by the upper-class of the village,to do all of the "dirty work for them,even after death!
Despite great performances from the whole cast,with the charming Diane Clare, (whose other credits include Ice Cold In Alex,Whistle Down the Wind and 1963's The Haunting) as Sylvia Forbes,and the wickedly good,James Mason-sound-alike John Carson as the boo-hiss Squire Clive Hamilton being two of the main highlights,Bryan sadly struggles to give the film the knock-out punch that it feels to be building towards in the first hour,as the ending leaves behind any sense of atmospheric, mystery horror behind,to instead end on a poorly done, Disaster movie-like note .
Hammer Horror tackles the zombie sub-genre with no little amount of success. Directed by John Gilling, The Plague Of The Zombies was filmed back to back with the equally entertaining The Reptile. Filmed out of fortress Hammer that was Bray Studios, the same sets that were used for The Reptile were also used here. With Bernard Robinson's Cornish Village again a treat for sore eyes. 1966 was the last year that Hammer used Bray Studios and it's fitting that it was a year that saw efficient and varying creepers filling out the Hammer Horror cannon. Peter Bryan's story, aided by some interesting imagery, delves into the dark world of witchcraft and voodoo, thus giving this particular "zombie" piece an extra dimension. This is not merely about zombies roaming the countryside and killing indiscriminately. Evil they are of course, but they have a purpose and being that comes to light as the story unfolds. There's also nods to tyranny and exploitation, wryly observed by the makers here, cheekily cloaked in a cloud of rotting flesh.
Technically it holds up rather well too. The effects are strong enough to carry the story, with the zombies eerie personified as they shuffle around all green flesh and grumbling away as we know they should. All captured in deluxe colour that comes out nice in High Definition. The cast are fine, with Morell standing out as he gives his usual classy and professional performance, while James Bernard's score is suitably at one with each and every change of pace. This is not just a fine and under appreciated part of the Hammer Horror output, it's also a worthy and most notable entry in the "zombie" genre. See it if you can. 7/10
But perhaps what makes the film excellent the most is the very original story... Zombies rise from their grave and have only one mission : hunt the living !!...normally... In this Hammer production (of course Hammer... you gotta love 'em) the zombies are brought back by men, for whole other causes... The highly respected Dr. Forbes receives a letter from one of his former students. This man, Dr Peter Thomson, now is the doctor in a small village in Cornwall. A lot of young men died in this village and he's calling Dr. Forbes for help. Dr. Forbes and his daughter Sylvia go there to help him out, and they too soon discover that there's something very strange going on. they want to perform an autopsy on one of the bodies to find out more about the disease but this ain't possible because all of corpses disappeared. When Peter's wife becomes a victim of this disease too, both the doctor's do everything to discover what in God's name is going on. One man in town is a great mystery...Mr. Hamilton. He recently came to town and now own the old mine. This mine was very profitable in the past but it had to be closed because many worker lost their lives. Nobody knows much about Mr. Hamilton, except that spend many years in Haïti...the country of voodoo. Telling more about this film would be a real shame cause the it's definitely worth checking out. If you're in the mood to see a good zombie film, but a little more scarier than usual...this is your film
PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES isn't the front rank of Hammer movies. I saw THE MUMMY right after and it's plain that Hammer weren't spending much money on ZOMBIES, compared with the earlier film, but though it was obviously made by the Hammer B-team on a b- movie budget, ZOMBIES does everything that it was intended to do.
Great to see a very young Jacqueline Pearce as the doomed friend of the heroine. I met Jacqueline a few times during the 1980s when she was in BBC's BLAKE'S 7, and she was a very funny, sometimes outrageous person. But you'd never know it from this fairly thankless role.
Anyway, not Hammer's best, but fun nonetheless. Worth a look if you ever get the chance to see it.
If you've been brought up on the post Danny Boyle super fast zombie era then don't build your hopes up . In fact if you're ages with me and remember catching all these George A Romero movies on home video in the 1980s where a zombie sinks its teeth in to someone and bite a chunk out of someone , again don't expect any gore . In fact don't expect any zombies because its not that type of movie . In many ways it plays out like a period mystery set in the late 19th Century and uses most of the sets used from the other Hammer movie from 1966 THE REPTILE one of the best most atmospheric films the studio produced . If you're expecting something along the lines of THE REPTILE again you're going to be disappointed The problem lies in the way the story is told . We're shown a scene where black extras thump on some bongo drums ( Films in those days did play up to stereotypes a bit too much and Hammer were worse than most at it ) where a Shaman gives an incantation . If you've no knowledge as to what might be happening here the title of the film gives a very big clue . What this means is that the audience are one step ahead of Sir John Forbes as he tries to solve the mystery , a mystery that is rendered redundant to the audience . The Shaman's plan for the undead when it is revealed is faintly ridiculous when given any thought , but I guess those nasty mine owners don't believe in a ( Pun alert ) paying their employees a living wage
Not to be totally negative there is a plus point in the film's favour and that is the casting of Andre Morell as Forbes . Morell is best known for his portrayal as the eponymous Professor in the original BBC production of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT . Every time I give a loan of my DVD of that show to anyone vaguely interested in television science fiction they always comment that one of the best things about the show is Morell's performance . He effectively plays the same character in exactly the same way which is in no way a criticism . Forbes is an intellectual studious man with a hint of both arrogance and open mindedness and he's very easy to buy in to as being a real person who is on a mission to solve something which makes the film slightly better than it possibly deserved to be
We start with a creepy underground voodoo ritual, unintelligible chanting and blood dropping on a doll, and a woman waking up and reciting the same chant. We learn later that the woman is an old friend of the protagonist, played with expression by Diane Clare. Her father and her go to a small British village, to visit the woman and her husband, a doctor (and former student of the old man) who is struggling with the skepticism of the village people on letting him perform an autopsy on any of the many recently deceased. The last noteworthy character is the Squire Clive Hamilton, a rich and mysterious man.
Hamilton's men kidnap Ms. Forbes (Clare), and take her to his home, where they begin to torture her mentally, but the charming Squire comes to the rescue, and from there on, attempts to spark a relationship with her.
Of course not everything's what it seems, and soon enough Mrs. Forbes' friend dies, murdered by a decomposing man. While her father and the doctor investigate, she learns that Mr. Hamilton might be the cause of her friend's death, and that she might be next.
While quite original for its time, for me it didn't work as well, because, well, I've watched a lot of movies that pull the same tricks before seeing this. The look of the zombies is easily surpassed by that of Night Of The Living Dead, which was made only a year later, and the acting is average at best, the standoff being Clare and André Morell, who plays her father. The mystery is easy to figure out 30minutes in the movie, but it's still a very original movie for it's time, and you can see that it was made with a lot of love for the genre.
Everything about Hammer movies screams "penny-pinching film-making": Zero style. Cheap sets, which look all the same in every Hammer movie. Cheap costumes. Mostly unknown actors who aren't very good at acting. Very little action or violence but lotsa stilted expositionary dialogue. Underdeveloped scripts with many dumb characters, like Dr. Thompson. The only good scene was when Sylvia was hounded by the men on horseback. But the fact that this scene was the best moment in a movie with zombies shows how boring and not scary the rest was.
Even though this movie has zombie in its titles, the zombies in the movie aren't very important to the main story. The zombies are just "slaves" used by an aristocrat for his underground mine. The silly film even shows the zombies being whipped into servitude even though zombies are supposed to be dead and therefore can't feel pain, which makes the use of a whip pretty funny.
Not scary, cheap looking, badly acted and very slow, with very little understanding of the whole concept of zombies (see my point about the whip), PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES is not worth your time at all.
To start with those people who complain the zombies in this film don't eat people. Well, I'm afraid you're confusing ZOMBIES with GHOULS. Don't worry, you are in good company. George A Romero is apparently equally as stupid, because he doesn't know the difference either. GHOULS eat the flesh of human beings. ZOMBIES do not.
ZOMBIES are people who have been put into a death-like state in order to fulfil the role of slave to those who have mastery over them. Here is the second mistake of the ill-informed the George A Romero films and their ilk aren't really about ZOMBIES at all, but about GHOULS. OK, he doesn't know the difference and neither did you, but maybe you do now.
I could go on (does anyone really think that `Night of the Living Dead' is superior to `Plague of the Zombies'? If so, they must be the kinds of people who find Ewok movies emotionally satisfying). However, I will just finish by advising anyone who has been stimulated to anything like a moment of would-be intellectualism to take a look into the religion of Voodoo. They will find a fascinating mixture of Catholic and ancient African religions. They may also realise that zombie-ism is merely a metaphor. A zombie has been buried in the ground, and dug up again and their soul now belongs to their new master.
Zombie-ism is a metaphor for the slavery that turned Voodoo into a religion in the first place. The slaves who practised it had been buried (in the holds of ships) and when they emerged they were under the control of new masters and their soul was not their own. Voodoo emerges as a way the slaves explained (to themselves) what had happened to them and coped with their new state.
People comparing this film with Romero's rubbish are not comparing like with like. There are few real `zombie' films. `I Walked with a Zombie', `White Zombie', and `The Plague of the Zombies' are three rare films that do explore the meanings and background of zombie-ism. "Plague" is thoughtful, intelligent and well acted and does not make an elementary confusion between GHOUL and ZOMBIE. Hooray, at least, for that.
It emanates the creepiness that modern zombie flicks lack, thus, this is the definitive zombie film in my book. The acting is top-shelf and you warm up to (connect with) the characters quick-like as a result.
Then, the makeup... as one of the earlier zombie films done in color, you really get to see the terrific detail lacking in earlier B&W movies, and I dare say better than later, more mainstream titles that I won't mention by name ;) Again, atmosphere.
Bottom line, not much in the way of gore, as is so common in modern zombie movies (they seem to rely on it), but what you get is emotion. I can watch often and love to experience the creepy feel of the film, the ruthlessness of the villains, the triumphs and tragedies of our protagonist and his crew, then...the films climax. Greatness from start to finish. Love it!