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So since my last post i've been getting over a plague of my own, thanks to this darn flu which is currently going around these rain soaked British shores. So looking for some camp zombie fun and an excuse to make the first of what will no doubt be numerous delves into the back catalogue of the legendary British Horror studio "Hammer Horror" who were not only the studio of choice for Horror legends Christopher Lee and Peter Crushing, but also dominated British Horror from the mid 50's through to the late 70's before going into hibernation until their recent revival with the releases of "Wake Wood" and "The Resident" aswell as the Daniel Radcliff fronted "Woman In Black".
Released back in 1966 when the studio was looking for new horrors to unleash on their audience, especially with the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein having grown stale as the result of numerous sequels. Shot back to back with "The Reptile" which would use the same sets aswell as pretty much the same cast and crew. "Plague of the Zombies" also marked another noticeable departure from the norm for Hammer,seeing how both Peter Crushing and Christopher Lee are noticeably absent having decided to take a break from the horror genre, though it is widely believed that it was more to do with looking for a larger pay check from Hammer while these films also marked the end of the more traditional horror films they had previously been making as they instead focused on making cave girl movies and selling the world on the idea that cave girls actually strutted around in fur bikini's as so memorable seen in "One Million Years B.C."
Set in an unnamed Cornish village during the 1800's were the local residents seem to be dying from a mysterious plague, which has the local doctor Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) stumped and leads him to calling in assistance from his friend Sir James Forbes (André Morell) who soon arrives at the village with his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) in tow. As part of their investigation the doctors dig up the corpses of the recent victims of the plague, only to find their coffins empty! It is also after encountering zombies at a deserted tin mine, that their investigation soon leads them to Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson) who has raised his own army of Zombies to work in his mine and carry out his bidding.
Opening with a truly wacky voodoo scene complete with howling tribal drummers dressed in stereotypical animal furs and bones, while the masked master carries out his zombie ritual, it is certainly a world away from more recent zombie movies and might prove alittle alienating for zombie lovers more familiar with the gut chomping zombie classics of Fulci and George Romero, this film might come as a bit of a disappointment, as these zombies are far from the flesh eating hordes which they favored in their films, with these zombies instead baring more similarity to the first zombie movies such as "White Zombie" were zombies were used as slave labor to carry out their masters bidding and frequently used as a metaphor for slavery and outside of the end massacre which come as almost an after thought, these zombies are very much the same as their earlier counter parts, as they shuffle around the mine wearing monks robes, while actually proving pretty capable when it comes to works the mine, while also seemingly having maintained some of their human characteristics as seen by one of the zombie's manically laughing when first seen by Sylvia. Still a feverish dream sequence which seemingly hints at a zombie uprising, with the dead clawing their way out of their graves and shuffling slowly towards a panicked Peter now almost seems like premonition of the films which would follow in particular Night of The Living Dead's zombie approach and proving once again just how influential Hammer Films were, especially with this being their sole entry into the zombie genre.
Despite not having any of the big name Hammer actors, the cast are still mainly still Hammer mainstays and manage to pull out some great performances with Morell proving the highlight here as Sir James, who always maintains a cool demeanor in seemingly all situations, even as the events around him become more nightmarish.
The plot is fun enough as the two Doctors hunt down clues to uncover the mystery behind the plague and the missing bodies, though for a Zombie film the titular creatures seem like an afterthought here, to the point were you have to wonder if the film could have chosen something else, while meanwhile we have to contend with the bullying ways for the Squire and his young bloods, who seemingly hold the local community in the grip of fear, as to what repercussions await them should they revel what the squire is up to. Still having lived in Cornwall for 21 years before finally escaping to the bright city lights of Birmingham, I can safely say that the Cornwall shown in this film hasn't changed much from the Cornwall today, while also in another completely random piece of trivia while on the subject of Cornwall is the fact that my parents live near were they shot the bridge scene in "The Omen 3: The Final Conflict". Still I have to wonder why there isn't as much rural horror these days, especially with Cornwall and it's aversion to change still making it a prime horror location. Still the minimalist location were needed seeing how scaled back the budget was for this film, compared to the earlier Hammer films and certainly works to the advantage of the film here.
Honestly I really struggled to get into this film, even entering into with the expectation of some cheesy zombie fun, but thanks to it's plodding pacing and under used zombies, it felt like it went on forever and really tested my patience at time, while it's lackluster finale which despite featuring zombies on fire, feels like it comes way to late and adds nothing to the film, apart from catching the viewer by surprise that the film has suddenly ended. The is no doubt that "Hammer" has in the past been responsible for some classic moments of horror and despite it's influence on the zombie genre, this is far from the studios best work and best certainly approached with caution.
I do like a good Zombie film but recently the trend has been to focus on zombies as the result of some post apocalyptic nightmare, usually a virus or other organism that brings back the dead or at least causes people not to fully die in the first place, all well and good but where have the original old school zombies gone? These were not products of scientific catastrophe but came about to the practice of the dark arts, Black Magic. In this Hammer Horror the zombie plague is firmly rooted in the supernatural, in the practice of Voodoo!
"THE LORD IS PUNISHING US FOR OUR SINS!"
In deepest darkest 19th century Cornwall all is not well. The inhabitants of a small village are afflicted by a mystery ailment that leads to listlessness and a seeming lack of will to live. The young doctor not originally from these parts writes in desperation to an old friend and mentor Sir James Forbes an eminent professor of medicine, for his for help in explaining the mystery. The doctor's young wife also happens to be the close friend of the professor's daughter Sylvia so both the professor and his daughter travel down to Cornwall on a social visit and also to see if they can help out the doctor. It soon becomes apparent that whatever is going on it will require more than knowledge of medicine or science to explain. Whatever is going on it seems likely that the local Squire Hamilton might know more than he is letting on.
"I DREAMED I SAW THE DEAD RISE!"
The performances on the whole are very good especially by Andre Morell in the role of Professor Forbes. Morell was a veteran Shakespearean actor and brings gravitas to his part and the film, something hammer film often achieved by employing excellent character actor to balance out the often ridiculous storylines. John Carson as the baddie is again on good form; he is also a recognisable face from 60's and 70's films and TV and as always is dependable. The let downs are the younger members of the cast both Brook Williams and Diane Clare (who? You may ask!) are rather wooden and their acting is shown up whenever they interact with any of the other actors on screen. It's not surprising that neither went on to have huge success in their future careers. Of interest is also the appearance of Jacqueline Pearce later to become every schoolboy's guilty fantasy as the sexy but evil Servalan in Blake's Seven. She made a few Hammer films in the 60's before becoming the evil ruler of the known universe in the late 70's!
Initially the film suffers from a rather uninspiring leading man but we soon realise that Peter is actually playing second fiddle to the Professor and unlike most features of this period the film doesn't have a young central hero with a love interest but rather an older leading man, I suppose in the more paternalistic Van Helsing mould.
"WE MUST HAVE A BODY TO EXAMINE!"
'The Plague of the Zombies' is a Hammer classic; it features all the elements that make up the best of Hammer horror at this time. The locations indoors and out are all believable we get to see a creepy deserted mine, a small village with suitably scary graveyard and of course as often is the case in these films the classic country manor where the true evil lurks. In the best Hammer tradition the colours are vibrant as is the costume design. From the very first scene where we see white robed satanic acolytes are performing secret blood rituals in order to posses and bring back the dead we know we are in for a treat. I also like the fact that the story is set in Victorian times, I always feel that it adds to the atmosphere of the horror movies especially those with classic themes. The 19th century costumes and the settings always have that Sherlock Holmes feel to them. Certainly vampire movies are always best when set in the past although maybe this isn't always true with Zombie films.
"IN THE MIDST OF LIFE WE ARE IN DEATH!"
The stand out moment for me in the whole film is a short but very effective dream sequence about halfway through the story. In this we see Zombies in the graveyard reaching out from beneath the recently dug earth, first fingers claw their way through the fresh soil, then arms and heads. Before you know the whole place is full of Zombies. The zombies themselves are not your more modern flesh eating type so there isn't the visceral violence or gore content that one might expect from this genre. They are more like slaves that shuffle around and attack people at their masters bidding. Despite the lack of gore there is one scene in particular, a decapitation of a young woman, that did give the studios problems. In the original script the head was to be cut off by repeated strikes from a spade, hacking at it until it was severed at the neck. This was deemed to be a little too strong for the viewing sensibilities of the time and the scene could only be included if the slicing of the head was actually done out of frame. The scene is still effective although it lacks the punch that the original would've had. Although there is little in the way of gore that most zombie film lovers are used to nowadays, what there is skilfully filmed and executed and whilst not being 'scream out loud in terror' frightening it can still make you jump in places relying more on tension and suspense for thrills rather than fake blood and the CGI of more modern films.
The make-up and special effects are very good on the whole; the studio must've invested a fair amount in to this production. Many of the indoor sequences were filmed at the famous Bray studios, a small country manor that Hammer owned and used in many of their films. The director John Gilling is a veteran of horror and sci-fi having previously directed 'The Night Caller' (1965) and 'The Flesh and the Fiends' (1960). He went on to two more hammer films including 'The Reptile' the same year also featuring Jacqueline Pearce and 'The Mummy's Shroud'(1967) so as you would expect handled the gothic hokum with flair and expertise.
When we assess the value of this film we must remember that it was made in 1966 two years before the 1968 landmark Zombie film 'Night of the Living Dead' which it undoubtedly greatly influenced, such was Hammer reputation in horror cinema at the time. Taking this into account I think we can say that 'The Plague of the Zombies' is a hugely important film and doesn't generally get the credit it deserves, but above all it still is a well made and entertaining movie.
Technical Details & Bonus Material
Screen Widescreen: Full screen
Languages English - Dolby Digital (1.0) Mono
Duration 91 minutes (approx)
Region 2 - Will only play on European Region 2 or multi-region DVD players.
The film carries a UK 12 certificate but there are a few disturbing scenes to look out for. What we don't get is the customary sex and nudity that was standard in the later 70's Hammer productions.
In this Hammer Collection DVD there is little bonus material included. When the film was first released it was included as the second feature in a double release with 'Dracula Prince of Darkness' being the main film, as part of the bonus feature is include the original double feature cinema trailer, which show more spoilers than it really should. There is also a very entertaining trailer for the film alone which makes great use of the Voodoo drums and 60's graphics, this has also too many spoilers but judging from the more reserved voice over was intended for the British market Both are very interesting for film buffs. A standard scene selection option is also included and that's your lot.
André Morell ... Sir James Forbes
Diane Clare ... Sylvia Forbes
Brook Williams ... Dr. Peter Tompson
Jacqueline Pearce ... Alice Mary Tompson
John Carson ... Squire Clive Hamilton
Alexander Davion ... Denver
Michael Ripper ... Sergeant Jack Swift
'The Plague of the Zombies' can be bought from Amazon UK for £3.99 (including p&p) at the time this review was written.
The Plague of the Zombies is a classic Hammer Horror film, made in 1966 when Hammer was still one of the finest studios Britain had. Hammer have always had films of varying quality, from some pretty poor attempts to some first rate ones. And it has to be said that for a film with next to no budget and a total cast of unknowns, this really is quite good with enough thrills and fun moments to really keep you entertained.
Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) is a prolific Professor of medicine who is very well respected. He has a daughter called Sylvia, and she brings him a letter from a friend in Cornwall, who was also a former pupil, asking for his assistance because there is an illness there that is becoming more and more out of control. So Sylvia manages to convince her father that they should both to Cornwall, as she happens to know the former pupil's young wife.
Meanwhile in Cornwall the former pupil, called Dr Peter Thomson, struggles to find a cure because no one will allow him to perform an autopsy. Soon, Sir James arrives and is able to rescue Peter before he gets involved in a fight with the locals who are unhappy that he has not found a cure.
Sir James and Peter talk, and Sir James asks why no autopsy has been performed. He learns that the local squire won't allow them. Sir James travels to speak to the squire. Meanwhile, Peter's wife becomes even more ill, before she runs away and is found dead.
After some more bizarre incidents, Sir James and Peter realize that they are dealing with something that is pure evil, and are soon in a fight for their lives, leading to a thrilling and typically hammer style climax.
Make no mistake, this is a Hammer Horror, so it's not in the league of the Exorcist or anything like that. But it really does make for a fabulous, fun and at times tense ride that you can watch at night. The acting is pretty decent all the way through, even if sometimes it's a bit theatrical from some of the support. Nonetheless, it's a lot of fun and really is one of the better Hammer Horror films.
Film's Title - The Plague of the Zombies
Year of Release - 1966
Director - John Gilling
Stars of the Film - Andre Morell, Diane Clare, Brook Williams, Jacqueline Pearce, John Carson
UK rating - 12
Continuing to watch the films on the 21-disc DVD boxset The Hammer Collection, I found myself watching my first ever zombie movie! I had always avoided these before, believing them to be "not my thing" but I was willing to give it a go, especially when discovering Jacqueline Pearce was in this one. I loved her in Blake's 7 years ago and have met her a couple of times since, and she was lovely, so that was an added interest.
The film is easy to get into and you soon come to know and like the main characters. The plot is an interesting one too. People in a Cornwall village are dying young, seemingly of some mysterious virus. The local doctor Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) feels it is beyond his control, so writes to his former professor Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) to ask for help. Forbes and his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) go to the village, as Sylvia is keen to visit her friend Alice (Jacqueline Pearce), who is Peter's wife.
Arriving at the village, they antagonise the local hunt when Sylvia tells them she saw the fox, but gives them wrong directions. Shortly afterwards, they witness the hunt careering into a funeral procession, where the coffin falls off a bridge, the lid being dislodged on impact. Poor Sylvia sees the contorted face of the young dead man. But this won't be the last corpse she sees....
The film was made in 1966 but is set in a quaint period, where ladies wear long dresses with bustles and a carriage ride is the best way to travel. I really enjoyed this setting and the interiors of the homes.
Sir James Forbes is a very dignified, strong and intelligent man, who you can't help but respect and admire. Andre Morell plays him beautifully, with a great presence and authority which makes the character completely believable.
Diane Clare is also very good as his daughter Sylvia. I hadn't heard of her before, but she is a good actress and is quite feisty for a woman of that time. Bizarrely, she looks uncannily like Angela Douglas, who played the same kind of role in Carry On Screaming, also made in 1966!
Dr. Peter Tompson lacks the composure of his elder mentor, but that is to be expected. He is good-hearted and caring though, so you do warm to him and Brook Williams portrays this well.
The cast overall is very good, with a notable mention here for John Carson as Squire Clive Hamilton, who also has a good screen presence and a quiet power.
The script is well-written and the film moves along at a very good pace. The tension builds and there are actually a few moments that briefly scared me. That is a compliment, as I have seen lots of these kinds of horror films and am used to their style.
(Personally, I love these old horror films for their style - a spooky atmosphere, building a mood, creepy characters, and women in peril, beautiful sets, a talented cast and a good story. I don't want to watch a horror film that is so gory, it makes me feel sick and have nightmares, so I will avoid The Omen-type films. But I still enjoy a surprising twist and the odd moment that makes me jump!)
The Plague of the Zombies is an excellent film in every respect and I really enjoyed it. Despite lacking the star names and top billing - Christopher Lee was in Dracula Prince of Darkness, which was the A-feature in the cinema, with The Plague of the Zombies as the B-movie! - this film is superior to that (still enjoyable) Dracula film.
I am enjoying my little trek into the 1960s Hammer films and so far, The Plague of the Zombies is the best one I have seen.
The film is currently available on Amazon UK for £3.98.
A review of the Hammer Collection DVD.
This is one of Hammer's best horror films. Released in 1966, when the company was still *the* name in horror, it's different enough to their normal fare to be engaging, while still having enough of the cosy Hammer trademarks to please the traditionalists.
A Cornish village is troubled by a mysterious illness. A big-shot London doctor arrives to try and figure out what's going on (silly man brings his pretty daughter with him, an obviously bad idea in a Hammer film. Pretty daughters invariably find themselves hunted for sport or fallen under the mesmeric influence of a tall, dark baddie - or even both!). He soon stumbles across some shocking, voodoo-related doings - given the title of the film you can probably figure out what they are.
As with most Hammer horrors, you can expect lush colours (especially red, red blood), cheap but decent sets and perfectly competent period trappings (this is set some time in the 19th century). The music is screamingly unsubtle, but anything else would be a let-down, and it amusingly throws in more drums than usual for that authentic voodoo flavour. The locals are ludicrously hostile towards outsiders in a way that *almost* goes too far and the night-time scenes are all very obviously shot during the day. But other than that there's nothing obviously risible here. Hammer by this point could put together a decent gothic horror in its sleep.
But this one's more than just 'decent'; it really stands out. For one thing, it actually has scary bits. There are some fairly shocking moments, and one sequence in particular is frightening and intense in a way that Hammer's films almost never are. This is the scariest film Hammer ever made. The director, John Gilling, wasn't one of Hammer's usual directors (he made the excellent Burke and Hare film The Flesh and the Fiends for someone else, though, so was no stranger to horror). His direction seems more dynamic than the films handled by Terence Fisher or Freddie Francis. The camera prowls around a lot more than usual. And the director clearly has a feel for the human face that most Hammer directors seem to lack.
The cast are all fine. The London doctor, Sir James, is played by Andre Morell. It could almost have been written for Peter Cushing, but Morell is slightly less familiar (but no less good), which again makes the film stand out a bit. He does all the explanation stuff reasonably well and is nicely grouchy. The villain is played by John Carson, and again, it could have been written for Christopher Lee. It's to the film's advantage that Hammer obviously wasn't willing to spend enough to get its regular stars this time round. Other cast members include the sexy as hell Jacqueline Pearce (later to turn up as the evil Servalan in Blake's Seven) and Hammer bit-part expert Michael Ripper as a flummoxed copper.
In terms of negative points, there aren't many, apart from a certain samey quality you get in most Hammers. There's not much blood (it has a 12 rating; there's one decent decapitation, but otherwise this is good wholesome scares). Likewise, although there's an element of heaving cleavage, sex is a lot less prominent than in some of Hammer's films (it's more about class - the zombies are the proletariat being exploited by the evil voodoo squire). The plot is pretty straightforward - one thing leads inevitably to another and the audience already knows what it takes the characters ages to discover, which is a bit frustrating. There are no real surprises, plot wise, but you can't have everything.
The picture quality on the DVD is very good. There are two trailers included as extras, one of which is for a fun-looking double bill of this and Dracula Prince of Darkness.
This can be picked up for about £6 on amazon, and probably cheaper if you look around. It's the last zombie movie that used voodoo and old-fashioned scares rather than an over-reliance on gore - I probably prefer the modern, bloodier zombie on the whole, but it's a shame that the quaint old-school version was allowed to die out so completely.
A sadistic squire dabbles in voodoo rituals, resurrecting rotting corpses as slaves in an old eerie Cornish village. But exposing the evil zombie cult means risking human sacrifice when the day of the dead finally dawns.