Elderly Professor of Medicine Sir James Forbes (Morell) receives a strange rambling letter from his most respected student Dr Peter Tompson (Williams), now a GP in a remote Cornwall town. Since his daughter Sylvia’s (Clare) best friend Alice (Pierce) married CHARACTER, they both set off to pay them a visit. What they find is a town in thrall to fear, where 12 young & healthy people have died recently with no clues as to the causes.
Plague of the Zombies has long been a favourite of mine, & it delivers everything expected of a Hammer film with aplomb. You’ve got the magnificently hostile & fearful locals, eerie moorland & wood locations, attractive young ladies, an eminently likeable elderly hero, & some strong suspense sequences. Its atmospheric & compelling tale is supremely entertaining, & even manages to sneak in a subtext about the upper class exploiting the working classes. The division is never clearer than in the classic early scene where a group of foxhunters disturb a funeral, causing the body to fall out of the coffin.
First it should be noted that if you watch this film expecting flesh-eating undead, you will likely be disappointed. Coming a couple of years before Romero’s revolutionary Night of the Living Dead, Plague doesn’t play by the typical familiar zombie rules that film set out. Instead, the zombies in this film are re-animated corpses used as mindless automatons, carrying out their master’s nefarious will. Sure, a zombie would still kill you, just not for food. In fact, Plague actually has a lot more in common with Hammer’s vampire films than might at first appear – indeed it could be argued that the film is a pretty ingenious reworking of Dracula. Squire Hamilton (Carson) is in control of the town from his remote mansion, & a clear Dracula stand-in, selecting his victims from the townsfolk by their blood, putting them under his spell before drawing them in - to become members of his legion of undead. Pierce takes the Lucy role, Clare is Mina, & Morell plays a variation on Van Helsing. This may make it sound rather like any number of lame rip-offs, but the script doesn’t adhere too closely to the Dracula mould & its zombie theme adds an element of freshness missing from many Hammer outings.
Key to the film’s success is its clutch of impressive central performances. Sadly, no Cushing or Lee here, but the cast are so good you don’t really miss them. Morell is a standout as the gruff but good-hearted elderly professor, whose idea of complementing the chef is to say, “Cooking is a science, not an art. If you can get it right once, there’s no earthly reason why you can’t get it right every time.” Clare is a wonderfully perky & strong heroine, while Pierce injects her wan character with genuine pathos, & Williams is suitably wracked as the GP unable to figure out what’s going on. Then there’s Carson, boasting majestic sideburns & an almost James Mason-esque sense of pure evil as Carson. It’s hardly a subtle portrayal, but then that’s not exactly what’s required.
Whilst the film may not have the flesh-eating associated with modern zombies, Plague can lay claim to having invented one of the genre’s strongest images. In a remarkably eerie dream sequence – all twitchy camera angles, moonlight & drifting fog – the residents of a churchyard claw their way out of their earthy graves. It’s one of the finest sequences in the entire Hammer cannon & remains remarkably unsettling even today after countless rip-offs. Director John Gilling makes the most out of the setups, & delivers a number of other sequences where he builds a strong sense of tension & suspense. He’s aided by a terrific score by James Bernard, which boasts a main theme that will stick in your head for days, & some fearfully glowering brass writing & tumultuous percussion.
Overall, I can find little to fault in Plague of the Zombies – slight concerns over the portrayal of Voodoo notwithstanding. It may lack the gore & violence of modern zombie movies, but it treats the idea with a different slant you simply don’t see any more, making for a rather refreshing experience, & for once this is a concept which Hammer didn’t wear out with incessant sequels.
Initially available only as part of the “Hammer Horror Resurrected” box set, Warner Home Video UK has finally released Plague of the Zombies as a stand-alone title. The R2/PAL disc contains a strong anamorphic widescreen transfer that obviously isn’t up to the standards of new titles (a touch of softness in the darker scenes, occasional scratches on the print) but given the age & nature of the film I was pleased with how good it looked. The audio is the original English mono only, & it sounds pretty good. Again in comparison to a new film there’s a little distortion & low background hiss but given the source this is only really to be expected & it’s nothing to distract from the viewing experience. Overall, this about as good as I can imagine the film looking & sounding for the foreseeable future.
Sadly, Warner’s have completely failed to include any extras whatsoever – not even trailers or filmos. Whilst it could be said that this is perhaps inevitable for a film like this, given the goodies AB UK has served up for the similar Amicus films this frankly just smacks of a lack of effort, & from a company who really ought to have the resources to give these films the respect they deserve. At least they’ve put it out at a damned cheap price point, so even devoid of features it’s worth picking up.