Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Plague of the Zombies

One of Hammer's late night movie masterpieces, Plague of the Zombies, part of the studio's 1965 program of films, was shot back to back with The Reptile, both films designated as support features - Rasputin the Mad Monk played with The Reptile, while Dracula Prince of Darkness was paired with Plague of the Zombies, which has become the bona-fida classic of the quartet.

A village in Cornwall is stricken by a series of mysterious unexplained deaths. The local doctor seeks help from his former mentor Sir James Forbes, a distinguished scientist living in London. Answering the call, Sir James arrives at the village with his daughter Sylvia, and begins an investigation, uncovering a plot by the local squire Clive Hamilton to turn the townsfolk into zombies to work in his tin mines... The missing link between White Zombie and Zombie Flesh Eaters, John Gilling's Plague of the Zombies pleasingly returns Hammer to a strong horror footing after the slightly anaemic Rasputin the Mad Monk. As was the lot of the humble second feature, Plague of the Zombies was produced on the cheap but is something of a triumph of low budget film making, looking far more accomplished than many of Hammer's A-pictures. Much of the film's success is down to John Gilling's superb direction, the restless and often sensual camerawork giving the film a sense of grace and style. The film is often startling to look at with it's eerie ceremonial voodoo masks and decomposing zombies. The dream sequence set in the graveyard as the dead claw their way out of the earth is one of Hammer's most famous set pieces, with it's skewed camera angles and tendrils of fog, and one astonishing, surreal shot of a zombie's feet stepping into a pool of blood.


The frugal budget does cause the film to creak in places, like the sloppy day-for-night photography during a spot of nocturnal grave-watching, and the film's fiery climax is marred by some well padded zombie stuntmen shuffling about amongst the pyrotechnics (a similar fate befell the final sequence of City of the Living Dead). Thankfully these flaws melt away with the furious pace of the film and the fine performances. André Morell, taking a lead role after his previous Hammer outing, She (where he was dubbed and almost unrecognisable) is excellent as Sir James, while John Carson as the velvet smooth evil squire Hamilton makes for a worthy adversary (close your eyes and you would swear it was James Mason). Of the supporting cast, Brook Williams playing Sir James' protege Dr. Peter Thompson is embarrassingly wooden - the scene where he's told his wife is dead is a cringe-worthy moment of B-movie acting. But best of all is the ethereal Jacqueline Pearce playing the anguished doctor's wife - her performance has become a highpoint of the film and justifiably so. The scene where she transforms into a seductive living dead woman is one of the most beautifully grotesque moments in Hammer Cinema, her zombification by Hamilton lends the film a surprising undercurrent of necrophilia.


Optimum's DVD of Plague of the Zombies is generally very good. The 1.85 anamorphic transfer looks fine although the print used does seem a little tired and faded in places. It's a shame that Optimum didn't add a dark tint to the night scenes but if memory serves me right, the US Anchor Bay disc which has more punchy colors, is missing the night time tints as well. All in all, a good effort. The mono soundtrack sounds fine. The only extras are a stand-alone trailer and the double-feature trailer with Dracula Prince of Darkness. Needless to say the film comes highly recommended.

16 comments:

  1. This is my favourite of the Hammer films - what sticks in my mind is the red jackets of the Squire's men.

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  2. I thought this was a very enjoyable pre-NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD zombie film as it was a culture shock for me that these zombies did not feed on flesh. Very nice write up by the way.

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  3. Quite right Wynter...I think the Squire's men are known on the credits as the Young Bloods - obviously it would have been impossible to show it back in '66, but the scene where they rough up Sylvia suggests a gang rape would have happened if the Squire hadn't interveened...

    Many thanks Giovanni - yes absolutely, the film does look a little old fashioned nowadays...in fact it probably looked old fashioned as soon as Night of the Living Dead arrived. I wonder did Hammer see the writing on the wall when Romero's film broke through - in a way it was the beginning of the end for the studio...

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  4. This is one one my favourite Hammer movie. Great Atmosphere!

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  5. This one really does have a fantastic atmospehere Jesper, the kind of Horror film I like to watch late at night in the gloom of winter...

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  6. Your last comment is perfect Wes, "the kind of Horror film I like to watch late at night in the gloom of winter..." . Love this film so much, but yes, I imagine it looked pretty old fashioned upon it's release, nevermind after the ferocity of Romero's film. Great review, I think I'll dog this out for Halloween.

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  7. Clive Hamilton is a kick ass bad guy name too.

    http://zombiehall.blogspot.com/2011/07/plague-of-zombies.html

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  8. Nice review, Wes. I'm ashamed to say I have never seen this one - although in my defence it never seemed to be on TV. Interesting that the zombies are 'blue-collar' though in a (pre)Romero sort of way.

    PS. Having trouble leaving comments on your blog with Google account. let me know if you having similar.

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  9. Thanks for the heads-up on the blog problems. I'm really sick of blogger's instability - these problems have been dogging it for months now. Left a comment on your David Hess tribute...

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  10. Thanks, Wes. Am having problems leaving comments on my own blog! Anyway...

    Wes, did you ever read the House of Hammer magazine that came out in the 1970s? It introduced me to horror film reviewing. I still have a stack of them and went through them recently. Plague of the Zombies was one of the films they adapted into a cartoon strip. It was a great magazine, with some top notch interviews.

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  11. I have e-copies of those mags Jon, and they are a great read. I must take a look of the POTZ's issue later when I get home... Have you checked out the Little Shoppe of Horrors mag - I always hear great things about it - I must grab an issue...

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  12. Hey, Wes. Off topic, but I gave you a blog award over at The Death Rattle. If you're interested, feel free to pass it on.

    http://www.thedeathrattle.net/p/blog-awards.html

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  13. Hi Wes,
    im quite interested in the whole day for night shots they tried to include. im aware this was a common thing in hammer titles. are there specific examples in 'plague..' that highlight this?

    cheers,
    Dan

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  14. Hey Dan, thanks for the comment. Yeah, the scene where Sir James and Peter go to dig up the grave, should be set at midnite, but was filmed in the day time. However, by adding a filter or under exposing the shot, the scene can appear as if it was filmed at night time. On the Optimum disc, this scene just isn't dark enough to create the illusion of night time - I'm not sure if this was an oversight when the original film was in post-production, or a strange characteristic of the print Optimum used for the DVD...

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  15. Just stumbled across this post and am looking forward to reading through all of the Hammer ones! I've been wondering how the Optimum discs looked and - as much as I love Hammer horror - I've never really read up on the behind the scenes aspects.

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  16. I bought this on a widescreen VHS from Anchor Bay - still have it too! The movie is a little stately - but as you point out - these are pre-Romero zombies - not the flesh eating ghouls he and his pals came up with - but the slow and shambling work slaves who can be ordered to kill. So, it's certainly worth watching for that fact alone - and for all the reasons you list. In fact, now you're making me want to see it again!

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