Continuing our Hammer Horror retrospective with a look at their impressive reinvention of a moribund genre.
The second* of Hammer’s Cornish horrors is, like The Reptile, one of the company’s great sleeper films, holding up considerably better than many of their better-known movies of the 1960s. It’s also an interesting bridging point between the voodoo-inspired zombie films of the past and the flesh-eating shockers that would arise a couple of years later with Night of the Living Dead. I don’t know if this is absolutely the last zombie film to appear before George Romero‘s film came along and changed everything (even though Romero didn’t actually call his monsters ‘zombies’ in that film, instead referring to them as ‘ghouls’, but that’s by the by), but it’s certainly the last one of any significance. And yes, there would be voodoo-related zombie movies carrying on into the 1970s because real life is never as simple and linear as history would like us to think, but by and large, I think we can all agree that Night of the Living Dead reinvented the zombie and – for better or worse – we’ve never really looked back.
There’s a good reason for that. Zombies have been a staple of horror cinema since the Universal movies essentially commercialised it into a recognisable genre – the glorious White Zombie with Bela Lugosi was made in 1932, just a year after he starred in Dracula. But even more so than the Mummy, who at least had a mind of his own, the zombie was always a bit of an ineffectual, second division monster and the films were almost exclusively poverty row productions. Often, zombies were just mindless slaves, controlled by the real villain of the piece who would be some mad black magician or voodoo master or such, who has resurrected the dead to do his bidding as cheap labour. Sometimes, they weren’t even dead. While these zombies would occasionally get to walk, slowly and stiff-armed (some things haven’t changed) and carry off some screaming woman or even kill a side character, they were essentially no more of a threat than the person controlling them – and while some zombie characters looked suitably unnerving, they were not especially scary.
While Hammer’s zombies remain more mindless slaves than an autonomous dangerous threat, The Plague of the Zombies does at least allow them to take on a certain level of horror not previously seen. A few films like The Dead One had played with the idea of the zombie as a more threatening character and Dr Blood’s Coffin – which coincidentally also takes place in Cornwall – featured a more decayed and monstrous-looking zombie than we had seen before, even if it was the result more of bad science and so is closer to Frankenstein than traditional living dead narratives. The Plague of the Zombies not only makes its creatures seem more genuinely cadaverous and creepy than anything that had gone before, it also shows them – to a certain degree – to be a genuine threat operating outside the control of others. Okay, it’s just one sequence – and a dream sequence at that – but it sets the scene for what was to come (Romero was famously dismissive of Hammer, but I wonder if he protested a bit too much, given the short time between this movie and his own debut). This film doesn’t seem so much like the end of the traditional zombie era as it does a crossover movie, pointing the way forward for the genre while still being influenced by the traditional. If people want to claim this film as the birth of the modern zombie film, I might raise my eyebrows – but I’ll certainly agree that it was involved in the conception.
Like The Reptile, The Plague of the Zombies sees exotic and sinister foreign cults transplanted in a small and insular Cornish location. In this case, local Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson) is killing off and then resurrecting villagers to work as slave labour in his dangerous tin mine, using the knowledge he picked up living in Haiti (if we’ve learned one thing from horror movies, it’s that Haitian witchdoctors are pretty free and easy with sharing occult information with foreigners). Local doctor Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) is helpless in the face of the mysterious deaths and the backward attitudes of the unfriendly villagers who not only refuse permission for post-mortems but also seem to hold him responsible for the mysterious spate of deaths plaguing the village (Hammer probably didn’t win any awards from the Cornish tourist board for these two films). Even worse, his wife Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) has become sick and is about to become Hamilton’s next victim. It’s down to Peter’s old medical school teacher, the solid Sir James Forbes (Andre Morrell) and his feisty daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) – who have travelled to the village on a social visit after receiving a worrying letter from Peter – to get to the bottom of the mystery.
I don’t want to repeat what I said about The Reptile too much here, but much of what makes that film so impressive is also the case with this production – a solid cast, an impressively insular location and a narrative that wastes no time in faffing around. Never slacking for a moment, this is one of Hammer’s most impressive movies – atmospheric, sometimes gruesome and action-packed – even James Bernard, not the most subtle of composers at the best of times, seems to be pulling out all the stops here with a soundtrack that is almost combustible in its franticness. Carson and Morrell dominate the cast as two sides of Hammer’s upper classes – the dependable hero and the decadent, unsavoury villain. The politics of Hammer’s horrors are often fascinating and frequently contradictory, and never has it been more so than here, where the rich really are exploiting the working classes and where ostentatious wealth is intimately connected to a more general decadence. It’s not just Hamilton, a smug but charming character who oozes the sort of confidence that comes from being told since birth that you are better than everyone else – his friends, the biggest bunch of obnoxious privileged yahoos seen in a Hammer film since The Hound of the Baskervilles, are genuinely, breathtakingly unpleasant characters from the off – we first see them charging through a funeral procession and knocking over a coffin on a fox-hunting rampage. It’s the sort of none-too-subtle class war moment that you’d expect to find in a film by a radical filmmaker of the era, not a production from a company that was, by this time, already very much a part of the establishment. Notably, writer Peter Bryan had also written that Sherlock Holmes movie for Hammer, which might suggest an angry young man at work – but his other movies – including The Brides of Dracula for Hammer, The Blood Beast Terror, The Projected Man and the notorious Trog – have little to suggest that he was anything more than a jobbing hack.
The ever-dependable John Gilling does a bang-up job here – this is, without doubt, his best film and he creates several moments of impressive horror. The afore-mentioned nightmare sequence is rightly remembered as one of the finest moments in any Hammer film and the scene where Anna is attacked by a zombie has become one of the company’s most iconic images. Gilling’s sure hand means that you rarely stop to think about the weak juvenile leads (Diane Clare has little to do apart from being a victim once the story starts and is just as one-dimensional as Jennifer Daniel was in The Reptile), the rather-too-obvious day-for-night shots and some ropey zombie masks glimpsed in the final sequences. None of that matters because The Plague of the Zombies is a first-rate horror adventure.
The wholesale reinvention of the zombie in the 1970s – and maybe Hammer’s reputation for traditional gothic horror – has perhaps meant that this film has been unfairly overlooked by fans of the genre. Given that the zombie has become the most overused horror character in the last few decades – and the choice of every wannabe horror film-maker with a camcorder and a few mates who are willing to be daubed in blood and wander around the woods moaning “braaaaaiiiinnnsss” – it’s perhaps understandable that some people might overlook anything with the Z word in the title. But the rote predictability and low quality of so many zombie films, all of which simply riff on the zombie flesh-eaters of Romero films, actually makes this feel much fresher and more interesting when seen now. Perhaps would-be zombie movie makers should take a look at this and use it for inspiration instead of simply copying the same films as everyone else. It’s time to bring the voodoo narrative back, I say.
* I don’t actually know the order in which these two films were made, but as this is the second of the films that we’ve reviewed, we’ll call it the second film. Feel free to furiously complain in the comments if we are wrong.
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