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Plague of the Zombies, The (Blu-ray)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1966
Studio: 
Studio Canal
Genre: 
Zombie
Format: 
Blu-ray
Region: 
B
Aspect Ratio: 
1.66:1
Directed by: 
John Gilling
Cast: 
André Morell
Diane Clare
John Carson
Jacqueline Pearce
Brook Williams
Movie: 
5
Extras: 
4
Bottom Line: 
4
Video: 
Click to Play

Hot on the heels of their recent magnificent restoration of “Dracula Prince of Darkness”, Studio Canal now unleashes the film that played as its support on a memorable double bill back in 1966. It’s a film which many Hammer fans still feel to be even better than the Terrence Fisher/Christopher Lee reunion with which it was paired at the time; indeed the film is widely considered one of the famous British production house’s very best efforts, and is now also revealed here, newly resplendent in a brand new restored high definition transfer for Blu-ray, available as a double-play release containing an additional DVD copy for those who have yet to make the HD leap. “The Plague of the Zombies” is one of the two films often referred to under an adopted moniker, as being one of Hammer’s ‘Cornish Classics’, the other film being “The Reptile”: both of them were released in 1966 as support features to Terrence Fisher films and were shot back-to-back on the same sets by director John Gilling, and both starred striking, young, dark-eyed RADA-trained actress Jacqueline Pearce in memorably tragic roles at the beginning of her screen career. The back-to-back shooting policy was part of a cost cutting exercise embarked upon by Hammer in the mid-sixties at about the time the company struck a joint eleven picture finance and distribution deal with Seven Arts, 20th Century Fox, ABPC and Warner Pathe: Terrence Fisher shot “Dracula Prince of Darkness” back-to-back at Bray Studios with “Rasputin the Mad Monk”, while Gilling started work on “The Reptile” (re-joined by several members of the cast of “Plague …”) one week after shooting finished on “The Plague of the Zombies”: then the products of each of their efforts were paired alongside the other’s to make less noticeable to audiences the fact that they were both making use of the same sets!

John Gilling’s efficient, no-nonsense approach to the job certainly helps imbue “The Plague of the Zombies” with an energy and a brusque pace (a quality sometimes lacking in the Hammer cannon), despite the director’s often troubled relationship with many of Hammer’s key personnel at the time-- especially producer-screenwriter Anthony Hinds (pen name John Elder). By 1966 Gilling had enjoyed a lengthy and varied career in the film industry stretching back to the 1930s when he assisted Alfred Hitchcock on “The Lady Vanishes”. He first encountered Hammer in the early ‘50s while working as a screenwriter when it was still operating under the name Exclusive Films. He then wrote and directed the historical horror drama “The Flesh and the Fiends” for producers Bob Baker and Monty Berman, worked with Bela Lugosi on his very last film (“Mother Riley Meets the Vampire”) and wrote for veteran British horror icon Todd Slaughter near the end of his film career. The success of its historical adventure film “The Pirates of Blood River” encouraged Hammer to employ Gilling once more on two other similar projects as both a writer and a director (“The Scarlet Blade” and “The Brigand of Kandahar”- both recently released by Studio Canal on DVD), but he was never a man to suffer fools gladly and had thought little of Hammer veteran Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay for “The Pirates of Blood River”, re-writing much of its dialogue to his own satisfaction. This habit carried through to his work on “The Plague of the Zombies” although his re-write of the script went un-credited. The original story treatment was written by Peter Bryan (“The Hound of the Baskervilles”, “The Brides of Dracula”) and the screenplay was the work of John Elder, whom Gilling had already fallen out with previously over his own re-write of Gilling’s script for “The Gorgon”. It’s striking that Hammer thought so highly of Gilling’s skill and efficiency as a director that they were willing to employ him again despite the bad blood which at this point must have existed between him and one of their key producers -- but that still didn’t stop Gilling completely re-writing Elder’s screenplay for “Plague …” while the latter was on a yachting holiday in the south of France! The film commenced shooting at the end of July 1965 at Bray Studios, with additional location shooting at Black Park and Oakley Court.

A Victorian period piece in its classic style, “The Plague of the Zombies” provides a key summation of Hammer’s traditional Gothic themes and their use in a context that relates to class exploitation and transgressive sexuality … and hinges on a strange intersection between the two. Despite remaining the company’s only straight foray into the zombie sub-genre the film’s story structure, dominant images, its motifs and set-pieces, are evocative variations on some commonly reoccurring Hammer Films tropes. The general conception of the zombie seen here is restricted to that of one which simply apes the shambling puppet sleepwalker model seen in  Victor Halperin’s “White Zombie”, but Peter Bryan’s influence perhaps still pokes through in that the film starts in a very similar vein to his version of Hammer’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, setting up distinguished actor André Morell -- well known by this point for his TV role as Professor Bernard  Quatermass -- as an authoritative, patrician medical detective (he also played Doctor Watson opposite Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes in the latter film) who interrupts a planned fishing trip to travel to  a remote village in Cornwall with his pretty young daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) after a letter from a former star student-turned-village doctor tells of a series of mysterious, inexplicable deaths now ravaging his place of work. 

Sir James Forbes (Morell) and Sylvia almost immediately encounter a striking example of the village’s corrupt class nexus when a hunting party of boorish ‘young bloods’ from the nearby manor of squire Hamilton (John Carson) -- immaculately suited and booted in traditional scarlet riding jackets and white breeches -- invade a village funeral procession in vain pursuit of a fox and, shockingly, overturn the coffin in the middle of the town square. This image of violent, misogynistic aristocrats lauding it over an impoverished populace, recalls the opening of Bryant’s version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” but suggestions of sexual sadism and class exploitation come to be distilled even more forcefully this time, mainly in the form of John Carson’s suave antagonist, Squire Hamilton, who is revealed as the villain of the piece early on when Gilling focuses our attention on an gaudy large ring worn on his little finger: a ring which we’ve already seen on the finger of a masked officiator at a voodoo ceremony during the film’s delirious opening sequence when a waxen juju doll is used in a  Haitian ritual to exert a malign hypnotic influence on the wife of village Doctor, Peter Thompson (Brook Williams).

Clive Hamilton is Hammer’s decadent aristocratic villain par excellence, cast from a Gothic mould that harks back to Charlotte Brontë’s antihero Mr Rochester from her novel Jane Eyre (a story which had already once before been given the zombie make-over treatment courtesy of Val Lewton’s “I Walked with a Zombie”) in its model of the English aristocracy returning from the Caribbean and harbouring dark post-colonial native secrets. Hamilton comes back from Haiti to take up residence at his recently deceased father’s mansion (a function ably fulfilled by Oakley Court’s recognisable exterior) and to make ready use of his inherited position as squire of the village: curiously, he lives here in an exclusively masculine household with a retinue of young males, black house staff and a concealed troupe of Caribbean natives much given to tribal drumming duties in the tin mine where Hamilton and his robed acolytes conduct their secret voodoo ceremonies.

The tin mine is at the centre of Hamilton’s evil plot, having previously been closed over issues of safety: but now the squire is abusing his subjects in the most aberrant and intimate way in his search for a life that must be lived only to his own standards rather than one which conforms to society’s expectations: he’s resurrecting the village’s recently dead through use of imported voodoo ritual, stealing them from their graves to work them as an unpaid labour-force -- a shambling army of sackclothed revenants to be exploited even after death in the unsafe mines. The most potent image marking Hamilton’s subversion of his subjects’ entire way of life comes when Sir James and Thompson join forces with the Parish priest and the local Police to oversee the opening of all the graves in the small, picturesque village graveyard -- and find every single one of them empty!

Hamilton is a ruthless capitalist exploiter who holds total sway over village life; he is, as Dr Thompson relates upon Sir James’s arrival at his cottage practice, both ‘coroner and magistrate; judge and jury.’ When the local deaths become numerous and an explanation for the epidemic remains elusive because the Doctor isn’t allowed to perform autopsies on the victims, the locals turn instead against the newly arrived medic and his young wife, Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) – blaming these ‘outsiders’ for their problems rather than confronting the malign power which actually dominates and exploits their lives. ‘This isn’t London,’ Thompson reminds Sir James; ‘this is a Cornish village inhabited by simple country people, riddled by superstition and all dominated by a squire!’ Hamilton may take the human material for his zombie horde mainly from the deceased sons of ignorant and dependent villagers, but he also targets the relations of anyone who might potentially challenge his authority, such as the upstanding Sergeant Swift (Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper in one of his more substantial roles) whose son was one of the first to be struck down by the malady.

Hamilton’s voodoo isn’t just confined to providing undead hands to do the backbreaking work of slaves, either: there’s an air of sexual menace permeating his recurring method of targeting the female relations of his two greatest adversaries, Dr Thompson and Sir James. The worst fate is reserved for poor Alice Thompson, who is already ailing from his influence when Sir James and Sylvia first arrive in the village and find her dishevelled and disoriented, the Thompsons' ivy-coated Victorian cottage dirty and unkempt. Presumably the squire doesn’t really need to murder Alice and resurrect her as a zombie in order just to send her down the mines; instead his targeting of both women seems to be a means of challenging the patrician complacency and masculinity of his two greatest adversaries – taking control of the women they love in both body and mind for purposes that might also have unsavoury necrophiliac connotations. The sexual aggression displayed towards Sylvia by Hamilton’s whip-wielding, fox hunting house guests builds to a threat of gang rape when they hunt her through familiar Black Park locations and surround her on the hearth rug in the drawing room of the Hamilton manor house; the whip raised by Alex Davion becoming a symbol of sexual sadism but simultaneously also that of capitalist exploitation -- as the young bloods who attack Sylvia also whip their zombie slaves into submission down in the mines, just as they plan to tame and dominate Sylvia with the same instrument; and once Sir James threatens to become clearly his most formidable foe yet, the squire once again targets his adversary’s beloved daughter, hypnotising her down into the mines where he makes her the subject of a sexually charged voodoo sacrificial ceremony involving a rather large phallic-shaped ceremonial knife!

André Morell makes for a compelling lead as Sir James Forbes -- one if Hammer’s typical Victorian patriarchs who offers the comfort of authority and tradition in the face of a subversive sexual sadism and rather indeterminate sexuality (Hamilton living in a house made up of men only, inevitably gets analytical tongues wagging). He’s a stiff-lipped, upstanding member of the Victorian middleclass and a bulwark of rationality who stands in firm opposition to both the superstitious ignorance of the working class village peasants and the decadence of the upper-class aristos who rule them. He’s able to effortless bluff his way out of being caught red-handed by Sergeant Swift when apparently in the act of grave robbing, as well as to face up to the hard fact that in order to solve the mystery, he and Thompson will have to perform an autopsy on the only body available to them: that of Thompson’s pretty young wife Alice.  In one of Hammer’s most celebrated and violent sequences he later takes up a shovel and decapitates the zombie Alice when she arises from her resting place during their vigil, her former beauty now contorted into an eerie grey-faced grimace. Jacqueline Pearce is an outstanding, sultry presence in her role as the Doctor’s unfortunate wife; the actress reputedly thrived on the family atmosphere which was a hallmark of the Bray experience, enjoying the house cook’s treacle puddings but having a hard time coping with claustrophobia induced by having to be enclosed in a coffin with the lid closed for one of her most famous scenes, and being forced to suffer through the making of a plaster head cast for her decapitation. Hamilton’s faux chivalry in the presence of his women victims and his tart impatience with everyone else is convincingly relayed by John Carson, but Brook Williams and Diane Clare are perhaps not so good as Doctor Thompson and Forbes’ daughter Sylvia: Williams struggles to make a weak character interesting while Clare is adequate enough, but her vocal performance had to be post-dubbed by a different actress.

Hammer’s family of technicians were at the top of their game here: notably composer James Bernard who delivers pounding tribal drums for the strident opening theme and a swirling eddy of scratchy strings and vibes  during the film’s creepy zombie resurrection dream sequence. Arthur Grant provides understated by limpid cinematography; production designer Bernard Robertson’s standing sets are classic exemplars of his art; and the make-up of Roy Ashton and the costuming of Rosemary Burrows combine to make some extremely unsettling zombie creations, particularly in  the case of stuntman Ben Aris’s appearance, who remains perhaps one of cinemas most memorable zombies and who makes his shock entrance standing outside the mine shaft clutching the gored body of Alice, which he then throws at the feet of her childhood friend, Sylvia with a grisly shriek. Ashton concocted that famous zombie look with the aid of tissue paper coloured with Fuller’s Earth, then covered in liquid latex and topped off with white contact lenses, while Burrows’ grey sackcloth costuming brought a creepy monkish somnambulance to the zombie performances. The film features a host of justifiably celebrated sequences such as that aforementioned first appearance of Aris’s zombie, the eerie graveside resurrection of Alice and the ensuing dream sequence during which the disorientated Peter Thompson is assailed by flaking, leering zombies crawling and quivering their way from the black earth of the village graveyard – a sequence which has been copied innumerable times since by many, many filmmakers such as Lucio Fulci in “Zombie Flesh Eaters”, for instance. In the end, the budget begins to show towards the climax of the movie, even with Gilling’s robust planning: the finale in the mine, as fire consumes the mansion above, is rather feebly executed with none-too-convincing flaming stunt man zombie extras shown puttering about wearing obvious flame retardant masking; and the collapse of the mine shaft is fudged -- Gilling having to make do with representing it with the help of just one large flaming beam placed close to the camera lens. But these are all problems created by the rushed schedule and budget. “The Plague of the Zombies” remains one of the most enjoyable and resonant entries in the whole of the Hammer cannon and it looks absolutely stunning in this newly restored high definition transfer, which features excellent levels of detail, little in the way of digital noise reduction, pleasing contrast and gorgeous colour. It should also be noted that this version now restores the original opening credit sequence taken from the BBC’s own copy of the film and unavailable on all previous DVD versions.  

The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer, a restoration comparison, and the episode Mummies, Werewolves and the Living Dead from the World of Hammer clips series, narrated by Oliver Reed. The stand-out extra though is undoubtedly Marcus Hearn’s thoughtfully put together making of documentary “Raising the Dead”, which packs into 36 minutes an enormous amount of anecdote from cast members John Carlson and Jacqueline Pearce as well as in-depth analysis, appreciation and general information by the likes of  Hammer historian Hearn, writer and fan Mark Gatiss, author and critic Jonathan Rigby, Hammer studios biographer Wayne Kinsey, musician David Huckvale and Hammer art director Don MIngaye. Rigby is particularly insightful on the film’s Doylian qualities and he’s right to acknowledge the screenplay’s debt to Stoker’s “Dracula”, citing it as he does as being, however unintentionally, Hammer’s most faithful adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel! Huckvale provides unusually detailed analysis of James Bernard’s magnificent score and Kinsey and Mingaye between them provide an excellent picture of what making films at Bray Studios must have been like in the 1960s, Kinsey noting in passing exactly whereabouts on the Bray site each of the key scenes would have been shot. Pearce recalls seeing herself on the screen for the first time when she attended an early screening of the film and remembers  André Morell having a frosty relationship on the set with his co-star Diane Clare, because he didn’t feel she was a very good actress! It can’t be emphasised enough just how good a job the restoration team have done on this release and the accompanying documentary is also excellent. This is an essential purchase for any self-respecting Hammer Horror fan.

Read more from Black Gloves at Nothing But The Night!

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