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Classic Horror on Blu: ‘Plague of the Zombies’

THE MOVIE

Produced in 1966 by England’s legendary Hammer Films, The Plague of the Zombies was shot back-to-back with The Reptile by director John Gilling, using the same sets and locations. Period horrors set in Cornwall, these two “Cornish horrors” were originally intended for release as a double feature but were never shown that way, as the similarity in the settings was too obvious. The Plague of the Zombies ended up on a double feature with Dracula—Prince of Darkness, while The Reptile played with Rasputin, the Mad Monk (both ‘A’ pictures that starred Christopher Lee and also used similar sets).

The Plague of the Zombies was the last major zombie film before George A. Romero turned the genre on its head in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, a film that forever associated zombies with cannibalism and led to some extremely gory schlock-horror. A classically-structured Victorian thriller, Plague tells of medical doctor and Van Helsing substitute Sir James Forbes (André Morell), accompanied by his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare), investigating a series of mysterious deaths in a small Cornish village at the request of former student Dr. Peter Tompson (a rather wooden Brook Williams). The trail involves death, voodoo, and the living dead (along with a considerable amount of obvious day for night photography), and leads to callous aristocrat Squire Hamilton, played with delicious menace by John Carson, whose velvet James Mason-esque voice would have been perfect for Dracula.

The Plague of the Zombies

Living in an opulent mansion, the Squire has styled himself as local coroner, magistrate, judge, and jury. He surrounds himself with a posse of arrogant, entitled upper class thugs who, in a disturbing sequence that almost ends in gang rape, think nothing of abducting Sylvia and drawing playing cards to see who gets to sexually assault her first. Like the prologue to Hammer’s earlier The Hound of the Baskervilles (also written by Plague scribe Peter Bryan), this aspect is a sharp critique of the British aristocracy. The Squire and his men have little concern for the lower classes and no use for them except as sex toys or mindless fodder for labour. And as in The Reptile, colonialism has brought back something dark and dangerous, here the voodoo rites and rituals that resurrect the dead into slave labour for the Squire’s tin mines. This seems a rather convoluted scheme to get employees, but there again zombies don’t need unions, fair working conditions, or wages.

Based on an original screen treatment by Peter Bryan and studio executive producer Anthony Hinds, the story was originally pitched to Universal as The Zombie in a version that was too gruesome for the studio. It was reanimated and sold by Hammer as part of a four-film package for Seven Arts/Fox/ABPC. The story unfolds as an almost Holmesian mystery (though it is obvious from the beginning who is behind the evil) that is punctuated by several notable horrific sequences that are fairly graphic for the time.

The Plague of the Zombies

One involves Dr. Tompson’s wife Alice, elegantly played by Jacqueline Pearce, rising from the dead in the village’s eerie graveyard. In this moment the film’s parallels to a vampire film are evident. When Alice’s eyes pop open in a coffin and she climbs out of the grave and glides towards the camera she could just as well be a bride of Dracula as a zombie. In fact, this sequence is reminiscent of the moment in Stoker’s Dracula when Van Helsing and Dr. Seward catch and destroy undead Lucy Westenra in a graveyard crypt, a moment that Hammer brought to life in Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula. In this version the undead creature is decapitated with a shovel rather than staked. Immediately after this moment is another, more celebrated sequence, a dream where the buried denizens of the graveyard push their way up through the black earth and lumber towards their victim. The image of a reanimated corpse pushing its way up through the soil is one that has been subsequently pinched by many horror flicks, including the Lucio Fulci’s gory Italian Romero spin-off Zombie.

It is interesting to consider how much influence The Plague of the Zombies could possibly have had on George Romero. It is unknown if Romero even saw it before lensing Night of the Living Dead, but Plague’s more explicit zombie horror and its mouldering, decaying look for the undead certainly seem to anticipate the 1968 gamechanger. Gilling’s film is almost a transitional piece between the somnambulistic creatures raised by voodoo in the old black and white horrors and the unrelenting, predatory flesh eaters of the post-Romero era.

With atmospheric camera work and settings, some nicely-textured performances, and imaginative makeup, The Plague of the Zombies is one of the most enduring creations from the Studio that Dripped Blood. It’s unfortunate that it is Hammer’s only foray into the zombie genre.

TRANSFER

Reportedly the same transfer as the UK Studio Canal Blu-ray, the picture quality of Scream Factory’s disc is a rather glorious restoration, sharp and clear while retaining film grain. The colour is by DeLuxe, which is based on Eastmancolor, so the picture doesn’t quite have the vivid primaries of the earlier Technicolor Hammers. The last time I’ve seen this film was in an Anchor Bay VHS tape, which at least was in widescreen, and so this Blu-ray is a considerable boost in detail and colour to my eyes. The picture appears to be framed at about 1.78:1, which looks like appropriate aspect ratio as there is no cutting off of detail at the top and bottom.

SPECIAL FEATURES

World of Hammer episode, Mummies, Werewolves, and the Living Dead (25 minutes):  This was originally part of a television series produced in 1990, and narrated by Oliver Reed. Shown in its original 1:33:1 aspect ratio, this is essentially a series of clips from films like Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Curse of the Werewolf, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, and of course The Plague of the Zombies. Though mildly diverting, the picture quality is drab and faded and nothing is added to the clips beyond Reed’s narration.

Raising the Dead – The Making of The Plague of the Zombies (35 minutes):  A brief but engaging documentary that features interviews with John Carson, Jacqueline Pearce, Marcus Hearn (“Hammer Films Historian”), Mark Gatiss (actor, writer, and horror film fan), Jonathan Rigby (author of English Gothic), David Huckvale (writer of Hammer Film Scores and the Musical Avant-Garde), Don Mingaye (the film’s Art Director), Wayne Kinsey (author of Hammer Films: The Bray Studio Years), and Jon Mann (Technical Restoration Manager). Not exactly essential viewing but nonetheless worth a watch.

Restoration comparison: A series of clips from the film that shows the original print alongside the restored picture developed for this disc.

Audio commentary with Ted Newsom (a writer/producer), Constantine Nasr (a writer/director) and Steve Haberman (a writer/producer): Three individuals who are all involved in filmmaking and are clearly fans of this film result in a very lively commentary track that is well worth a listen. However, hearing Val Lewton’s sublime I Walked With a Zombie being lumped in with other B-grade zombie films and described as “schlock” is a little jarring.

Audio commentary with author Troy Howarth: A more exhaustive track that delves into factoids like the date certain scenes were shot. There’s inevitably some overlap in information with the other commentary track, and there is a little too much description of what’s happening onscreen, but it’s rich in detail.

Theatrical trailers and still gallery: What it says on the tin.

BOTTOM LINE

A must have for classic horror fans, based on the picture quality alone. One of Hammer’s most beloved horror entries in a vibrant transfer with a decent documentary and two worthwhile commentary tracks.

About Paul Sparrow-Clarke

A child of the ’60s and ’70s, I was born in Caerleon, Wales, where I spent my formative years. The ubiquitous ghost stories of the region piqued my interest in horror at an early age and from there I gravitated to books on horror films, with Dennis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Films, Alan Frank’s Horror Movies, and Ed Naha’s Horrors: From Screen to Scream being particularly influential. With the help of these books, I became an “expert” on screen terror far before I was allowed to see any of the films on the telly. I moved to Alberta, Canada in 1981, and the culture shock (and the cold winters) did nothing to dim my interest in genre cinema. Here I discovered Fangoria magazine, VHS tapes, and the fact that my tall height was a ticket to sneaking into Restricted movies in the theatre. Thus began a banquet of terror treats that continues to this day, though I no longer fear being asked for ID at the box office. I have worked as a retailer, cinema usher, invertebrate zoology technician, map cataloguer, bureaucrat, teacher, freelance business/technical writer, and now earn my keep in university administration. I have previously written about genre cinema for Her Majesty’s Secret Servant and We Belong Dead magazines and books, and I’ve hosted public film screenings and co-hosted film podcasts.

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