When it’s on: Sunday, 10 May (3.40 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
The Plague of the Zombies was, even by Hammer’s thrifty standards, made on the cheap. Filmed back to back with The Reptile and making use of the same sets, along with a cast that slipped from one production to the next, it was intended to be released as a B-movie partner for Dracula Prince of Darkness. Though its low overheads are occasionally shown up in the final movie, The Plague of the Zombies naturally turns out to be a much better and more interesting affair than the illustrious vampfest. According to the various fansites and reviews I have read, it is much loved, and the reason is simple. It’s nothing more or less than pure entertainment. It has the usual Hammer staples – creepy atmosphere, ‘ye olde worlde’ setting – and attaches these to a plot that never lets up, making full use of the limited running time and some very good performances.
The film is set in a tin mining community of Cornwall, sometime during the nineteenth century. People are dying at an epidemic rate, and bemused doctor Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) is at a loss to explain the causes. When his young wife, Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) also begins to express the fatigue and listlessness that are the typical early warning signs, he writes to his old mentor, Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) to lend a hand. Sir James agrees, taking his daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare) with him.
The pair’s first encounter with the community is with its upper class. They comes across a fox hunt, led by the retainers of local Squire, Clive Hamilton (John Carson). Hamilton clearly has the town in the palm of his hand. His henchmen have no regard for the people, demonstrated to ghoulish effect when they pass a funeral and force the coffin to crash into a ravine, revealing its occupant. Peter explains to Sir James that he’s unable to carry out autopsies on any of the corpses at Hamilton’s behest, who along with his other duties is the closest they have to a coroner. Without proper research, there’s no way he can work out what’s happened to these people. The pragmatic Sir James offers a solution – they’ll simply have to dig one up for themselves.
Peter and Sir James go about their grisly business, and sure enough the grave they exhume is empty. Worse still, their antics have spiked the attention of the local bobby (Michael Ripper), who turns out to be on their side once the doughty Sir James explains their intentions. In the meantime, Alice slips out of the house, and starts making for the woodlands that surround their community. Sylvia shouts after her, but Alice doesn’t appear to hear. When the former resolves to pursue, she runs afoul of Squire Clive’s malevolent retainers who summarily whisk her off to the big house. Alice, in some sort of trance makes for an old tin mine, where she’s about to come a cropper at the hands of a monster, but is the ashen-faced zombie the real creature, or are both victim and attacker being manipulated by something much worse? The goodly Squire, perhaps? Back at his house, Sylvia is in some trouble. Teased by a gang of toffish rakes, all Sylvia’s high-minded confidence seems to vanish until she is rescued by none other than Clive Hamilton himself. The Squire is mortified at her treatment – he can’t be bad, can he? Maybe not, but the sliver of blood he collects from her during a later meeting tells an altogether different story…
And that’s just the first half of the movie, breathless swathes of story hurtling past whilst its horrors are introduced at a masterfully gradual rate. The suspense builds steadily. By the time the zombie makes its first appearance – actually quite a scary sight – we already know roughly what’s going on. We have a pretty good idea who the baddies are, what’s happening to the dying folk and it remains to see how Sir James will resolve all this. As a result, much lies on the shoulders of Andre Morell, a veteran actor who chews up the scenery to delicious effect. There’s a scene where his character is trapped in a room that’s on fire – as he tries to find a way out, Sir James grows more desperate and almost feral. It’s a classy moment, the camera simply pointing in the right direction and following his movements.
Talking of cinematography, the film is another example of the crew effectively making much from a small budget. Though the Bray Studios sets ought to be familiar to any seasoned Hammer viewer, they’re used exceptionally well, never more so than in the little graveyard that features prominently in a number of scenes, each one nudging up the horror a little further. The village is nothing more than a studio backlot, but it looks authentic enough, and with scenes set in the local pub and police station it develops a real sense of small town community. Better still are the moments of claustrophobia that are captured during the film’s more frightening sequences. The bit where one of the main characters comes to undead life is creepily effective, the camera jumping from the face of the reanimating corpse to close-ups of Sir James and Peter, filming them from a slightly askew angle to unbalance the viewer. Simple stuff, but played brilliantly.
Credit goes to the crew responsible for creating a late nineteenth century backdrop to the action. The costumes add to a detail of authenticity, and the film’s largely rural setting means much of the shooting can take place in the wild and makes The Plague of the Zombies appear to have a much broader setting than it actually does.
Not that it’s perfect. In terms of its acting personnel, the film gives us a mixed bag. Carson is fine as Hamilton, and makes his character more three-dimensional than you might expect for a B-movie baddie. Check out his wooing of Sylvia. It’s almost possible to believe he has some genuine affection for her, but of course he wrong foots both her and the audience. Pearce is great as the dying Alice. She’s given some stock ‘waking up screaming from a bad dream’ bits to do, yet shows sufficient vulnerability during her early scenes to show why Sir James invests so much of his time and energy into getting involved, and later in the film puts in one of the sexier undead performances to be committed to celluloid. Weaker are Williams and Clare. The former should aim for an air of exhausted frustration, which would happen if you’re the local doctor working in a village where death after unexplained death is taking place, yet he never pulls it off, instead maintaining an expression of vague concern throughout. As Sylvia, Clare looks suitably scared when the scene calls for it, though otherwise she’s monotonous and rather blank-faced, her lines spoken like blank, wooden readings.
Thankfully, Morell holds it together. Not only does he manage to dish out some of the fairly silly dialogue with a straight face – ‘I find all kinds of witchcraft slightly nauseating and this I find absolutely disgusting‘ – but he exerts a degree of elder statesman authority from the moment he steps foot into the village. It’s his turn that really elevates the film, and perhaps it’s the fact he was cast in this rather than The Reptile that makes this the more memorable piece of work.
The zombies look great, mainly because they’re genuinely scary. With their ashen faces, bulging white eyes and staggering gait, they set a template for much of zombiekind – you can see their performance in many subsequent entries. The Plague of the Zombies was released two years before George A Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, a similar instance of a director putting his tiny budget to good use. And though it isn’t quite up to the standard of Romero’s subversive, politically-charged shocker, which took the genre on an entirely new tangent, it’s possible to see Gilling’s shuffling automatons as benchmarks for every walking dead that followed.
The Plague of the Zombies: ****