Plague of the Zombies Review
2004 marks the 50th anniversary of Hammer horror. Their first genre movie, The Quatermass Xperiment, went into production on the 18th October 1954 and was released ten months later to enormous commercial success. It seems appropriate therefore to begin the year with a review of one of Hammer’s very finest films, John Gilling’s Plague of the Zombies. A compelling and surprisingly eerie excursion into the world of voodoo, Gilling’s film exemplifies much of what made Hammer – at its best – as important a part of British cinema history as Powell/Pressburger, Ealing or the realist films of the late 1950s/early 1960s.
Set during the late 19th century, the film takes place in a rural Cornwall still class-ridden and under thrall to the whims of the local Squire, Clive Hamilton (Carson). A series of strange deaths have rocked the community with much suspicion falling upon Dr Peter Thompson (Williams), a young physician who has come to the town with his wife Alice (Pearce). When his wife begins to show signs of the mysterious illness, Thompson writes to his mentor, distinguished surgeon Sir James Forbes (Morell), asking for advice. Forbes is persuaded by his daughter Sylvia (Clare) – a school friend of Alice – to help and the two go to Cornwall in the hope of finding out what is wrong.
The film kicks off in high gear with a sinister underground voodoo ritual and barely pauses for breath during the ninety minutes which follow. Peter Bryan’s intelligent screenplay is based on a classic good/evil dualism that serves as the basis for many Hammer films. In one corner, we have Squire Hamilton who is as dyed-in-the-wool villainous as you could wish for and a fine successor to the likes of Count Dracula, Sir Hugo Baskerville and Ravna from Kiss of the Vampire. In the other, we have the endlessly wise, uncompromisingly good Sir James, who comes on like a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Quatermass, Van Helsing and Shandor from Dracula Prince of Darkness. Of course, Hammer didn’t always go for a dualistic philosophy. In the early Frankenstein films, our sympathies frequently go towards Frankenstein rather than either his victims or his monsters. Later on, that series deliberately deconstructed the character of Frankenstein so that he stood revealed as a cold, sadistic bully but, presumably intentionally, didn’t give us anyone else to root for. In some late Hammer films, the dualism is shattered with the monsters completely bewildered and the savants either senile or impotent. Demons of the Mind and Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb are probably the most revealing examples of this trend. However, as a classic good/evil story, Plague of the Zombies is one of Hammer’s best, topped only by The Devil Rides Out.
In this regard, one could hardly hope for better casting than John Carson and Andre Morell. Carson, an actor who seemed to fade from view after the mid-seventies, has a distinct resemblance to James Mason and his caddish performance has more than a touch of Gainsborough melodrama about it. In his book “English Gothic”, Jonathan Rigby points out that the Mason character in those forties films was a direct influence upon Hammer’s villains. Carson is always more interesting when he’s being a bounder and this is my favourite of his characters, although he’s also good value as one of the unfortunate triumvirate of devil worshippers in the excellent Taste The Blood of Dracula. Eminently hissable as his Hamilton becomes, Carson adds a subtle touch of ambivalence in the scenes where he attempts sincerity in order to fool Sylvia into becoming his disciple. At least Hamilton has a bit of elegance about him, which is more than can be said for the thugs in his employ. These blackguards capture Sylvia and threaten to rape her in a scene which is considerably more restrained than it would have been ten years later. As if this wasn’t enough, they enjoy fox-hunting (Sylvia being an early advocate of banning the sport) and interrupt a funeral because it’s in their way, knocking the coffin into a stream. Worst of all, they’re rather badly acted. Luckily, Carson’s presence is strong enough to keep him in mind when he’s off-screen and by the end of the film you become rather disappointed that he was never given the chance to play Count Dracula.
Andre Morell is equally fine as Sir James Forbes. Morell had a distinguished career in the theatre and turns up in many British films but I think his short time at Hammer was particularly important because he’s the kind of rock-solid actor who does everything with complete seriousness. This is the quality which made his performance as Dr Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles the definitive portrayal of the character, and it turns Sir James from a cardboard hero into a genuinely memorable purveyor of knowledge and goodness. I love the fact that he’s so grouchy, reminding you of how much fun an elderly hero can be compared to the usual faceless young cipher that we usually have to suffer these days. Morell had a lot of fun making this film and his enthusiasm is infectious. This is my favourite of his film roles, although he’s also superb in the thriller Cash on Demand, paired with a sublimely twitchy Peter Cushing, and as Lord Wendover in Barry Lyndon.
The strength of these two actors is vital because the young secondary leads are pretty hopeless. Even given that Dr Thompson has nothing much to do except look worried, Brook Williams is wooden beyond the call of duty. He does one expression – troubled – and barely changes during the whole ninety minutes. Diane Clare is slightly better but she comes across as smug rather than charmingly impetuous. She also looks rather too old to be Sir James’s teenage daughter. Luckily, honour is restored by the performance of Jacqueline Pearce. Later famous as Servalan in the BBC series Blake’s Seven, Pearce is excellent; firstly as a nervous wreck who doesn’t understand what’s happening to her and later, all too briefly, as a sensual zombie whose sinister eroticism is evoked in little more than a look and a walk. Best of all, the great Michael Ripper, one of the stalwarts of virtually every Hammer film of the sixties, appears as a local copper. Christopher Lee once famously introduced Ripper at a convention as the backbone of Hammer’s success and there’s some justification for this. No matter what the situation, nor how bad the special effects, you can rely on Ripper to come up with a believable reaction. He deserves to be placed - along with Raymond Huntley, Miles Malleson and Thorley Walters to name just three - in the pantheon of actors who were never stars, but who propped up the British film industry for years simply by giving their best in every part they played and never letting the audience down.
John Gilling, a director who made two or three very good films along with an awful lot of tat, works miracles with this film. Given a budget even lower than was usual for Hammer and a production which was considered second-string (the film was intended as a second feature), he creates a horror classic through the simple virtues of clever pacing and visual imagination. Although the zombies are given away in the none too subtle (nor accurate) title, Gilling delays the first view of a monster for half an hour and then limits the zombies from appearing very often until the last third of the film. The first zombie we see is a marvellously ingenious creation, his monstrousness limited to a pallid skin, hideously bulging eyes and a tattered costume. He screeches and then vanishes but his appearance is enough to unnerve us sufficiently to enable Gilling to keep us on tenterhooks until the zombies begin to appear en masse. Relying on strong images and dialogue scenes which are just long enough to work as exposition but never run on too long, Gilling works up a fine head of steam. Keeping this kind of film taut and exciting is more difficult than it might seem. For an example of how not to do it, I direct you to this film’s double-bill partner, Dracula Prince of Darkness, which contains endless stodgy dialogue scenes in the first half before a coherent plot begins to emerge. For all Terence Fisher’s skill with imagery, that film seems to be dying on the screen when he has to advance the story through dialogue. Gilling’s film is, in comparison, a model of economy and invention. His masterstroke is the dream sequence, when Thompson imagines the zombies crawling out of their graves. This is an endlessly influential scene but the atmosphere of inescapable nightmare has rarely been captured quite so well.
The low-budget of the film is sometimes rather more visible than one might wish. The day-for-night filming is horrendous, although that’s not a major criticism, and the inferno at the end has more to do with finding a relatively cheap way of concluding the story than anything to do with the plot. The town is a little under populated as well, but this is a common fault of Hammer films. On a more positive note, the set design here is a lot more convincing than the somewhat kitsch mittel-Europe of other Hammer Gothics. Indeed, the limited location filming has a nice sense of space, the kind of expansiveness which is lacking from some other Hammer movies where the same woods near Bray are traversed time and time again by the same actors. You’d be hard pressed to describe Arthur Grant as an inspired cinematographer – professional competence would be the best I could come up with – but he does a lot with one or two scenes here and his work on the nightmare scene is very good indeed.
Plague of the Zombies is one of Hammer’s best works – imaginative, resourceful and eerie. If you really wanted to, you could enjoy the political subtext about capitalist and colonial repression, but the metaphor of Hamilton’s use of the zombies as workers and the oppressed working classes is so obvious that there’s no real need to state it. Naturally, both Hamilton and Sir James represent upper class patriarchy but the film suggests that Forbes is its acceptable face while Hamilton has corrupted the natural order of things. The role of women is limited to that of servant or victim, bar the one scene where Jacqueline Pearce’s necrophilia eroticism breaks through and upsets Sir James so much that he chops off her head. What she might have done to him if he hadn’t found that spade hardly bears thinking about.
On a similar tack. it’s worth explaining why I think Hammer was such an important force in British cinema. When The Quatermass Xperiment came along, British cinema was largely in decline. The Powell and Pressburger films were becoming increasingly less interesting, Ealing had lost much of its spark, Hitchcock had buggered off to America and the likes of Carol Reed seemed to have lost their touch. Much like John Osborne in the theatre, Hammer’s brash, in-your-face lack of tact and taste exploded into a rarefied culture and forced it to re-examine itself. Without Hammer’s confrontational approach – and their legitimising of the X Certificate as something which wasn’t necessarily connected with trashy exploitation - I don’t think Jack Clayton would have been able to make Room At The Top. Hammer films in themselves may not have been ‘adult’ in the same sense as the kitchen-sink films, but they broke down barriers of ‘good taste’ which were never re-erected. On an international scale, the moment when Christopher Lee’s Monster has half of his face bloodily shot off in The Curse of Frankenstein was surely a key stage in the process which eventually led to Bonnie And Clyde and The Wild Bunch. That’s incredibly important and a very good reason for staking Hammer a permanent place in film history.
Anyway, back to the point. On the level of an exciting romp, Plague of the Zombies works beautifully and is made with skill and invention. John Gilling’s next film, The Reptile, was made back-to-back with Plague and is also good but the director never reached this standard again. It’s a pity because, with Plague of the Zombies, he earns himself a place in the Hammer Hall of Fame.
This UK disc is only available as part of the Hammer Horror Resurrected boxset. It’s worth bearing in mind that you can get hold of the film on a rather better Anchor Bay R0 disc.
The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. It’s not a particularly distinguished transfer. Grain is abundant and sometimes distracting and there is artifacting visible throughout. More annoying is the frequent evidence of print damage and occasional distortion. Admittedly, the colours are fairly strong and there is a reasonable amount of detail to the image but overall this is very mediocre. A proper restoration of the film would be very nice but I doubt we’re going to get one.
The soundtrack is the original Mono recording. This is generally fine although some of the dialogue seems to be a little soft and is occasionally hard to hear. The thumping music score by James Bernard comes across quite well.
There are no extras at all on the disc and, indefensibly, no subtitles. I hope Warners realise that they will lose sales through this lack of subtitling and it serves them right.
Plague of the Zombies is a lovely film and one which I return to with growing pleasure for its central performances and the eerie atmospherics which still work like a charm. This disc is disappointing and a missed opportunity, especially since the film is one of the best to be found in the boxset.