The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
Dir. John Gilling
Written by Peter Bryan
Starring Andre Morell, Diane Clare, Brook Williams, John Carson
The year is 1966. It’s been almost a decade since the success of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA ushered in the golden age of Hammer horror. Since then, they’ve tried werewolves, mummies, reptiles, abominable snowmen, hounds of Baskervilles, gorgons, witches, phantoms of operas, lost civilizations, women, and many, many sequels. That it took them this long to get to zombies is in itself telling about the time and place; NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is still two years away, and hence zombies are still a minor gimmick from a handful of racist voodoo horror movies from the 30’s and 40’s (WHITE ZOMBIE, KING OF THE ZOMBIES, etc). Hammer got to zombies only after covering pretty much all the familiar Universal Monsters several times over and adapting any potential literary horror classic they could get their hands on.
The result is that this is pretty much the last of the voodoo zombie films, before the very term would get (unintentionally) redefined by George Romero in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and become the ubiquitous bore it remains to this day. Yes, it’s hard to imagine, but once upon a time zombie films were not only referring to a particular religion and region, but were in fact fairly rare. There had been around 20 zombie films* in the 30 years prior to PLAGUE (since WHITE ZOMBIE’s premiere in 1932). By contrast, there were 16 zombie films in 2011 alone. So it’s actually kind of refreshing to see what Hammer was doing with this genre before it became the unimaginative parade of cliche that currently clutters up the DTV horror market.
Fortunately for voodoo zombie aficionados, this last gasp of the subgenre is a worthy capstone, eliminating some problems which, ah, plagued earlier entries in this subset of films and --more importantly-- simply working as a prime example of everything a tightly crafted, highly entertaining Hammer film ought to be.
|Before they wanted BRAAAAAAIIIINNNS, Zombies frequently provided transportation means for beautiful comatose women.|
The story revolves around the redoubtable physician Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell, Watson in Hammer’s HOUNDS OF THE BASKERVILLES) who sports an impeccably manicured mustache and the kind of precision-guided witty indifference that only a level 10 Englishman would be able to muster. Forbes receives a letter from a former pupil (Brook Williams) a novice doctor who is struggling against a mysterious ailment in an isolated rural village, compelling Forbes and his spritely daughter (Diane Clare, THE HAUNTING) to come to his aide. When they arrive, however, it becomes quickly clear that something beyond a mere epidemic is afoot here. And we the audience already have a strong suspicion it may have something to do with the sinister masked figures we’ve seen conducting murderous ceremonies in the title sequence. Maybe not, though, who knows, could be anything.
PLAGUE succeeds over other Hammer films of this period (lookin at you, EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN) by getting the basics right. It’s a simple, complete narrative story with likeable characters that moves along at a good pace and makes certain to throw a memorable set piece in every ten minutes or so for punctuation. Director John Gilling (a veteran of more than 35 films by that point, this being his first Hammer collaboration) isn’t as interested in moody atmosphere as some Hammer directors, but evokes Terence Fisher’s work on THE DEVIL RIDES OUT in his commitment to entertain. There’s pretty much always something interesting and menacing happening here, helped along by the uniformly charming cast (how often does that happen in this kinda movie?)
|Sir Forbes bemoans the indignity of having to save the day.|
The zombie material itself is probably a little tame by today’s standards (almost no gore) but that’s OK because the design is good and the film makes a real effort at crafting eerie, unsettling zombie sequences that make the most of them. But remember, this is a voodoo zombie movie, so the zombies are just henchmen, under the thrall of a voodoo master. And fortunately, Gilling and company excel at creating a charismatic, satisfyingly hateable antagonist with a genuinely unique evil plan and a superlative visual style. The masks that he and his bastardly polo-playing henchmen wear are the movie’s signature horror icon, and frankly they’re so great that I can’t imagine why they haven’t been ripped off a million times by now. Stylized masks are one of my favorite horror tropes, and these are definitely some of the best I’ve seen in awhile, creepy and ominous without being overly representational.
|Not a guy you'd want to meet in a dark ally, which is exactly what happens in this scene. Still, I bet those horns really help his radio reception.|
But wait, Voodoo master? That sounds uncomfortably close to all those racist 40’s movies where decent, God-fearing white people get to be menaced by malicious, godless “other” cultures. Not to worry, this is 1966 England, they knew that shit wasn’t gonna fly anymore, so they solved the problem by removing all black people whatsoever. There’s like two black guys seen playing drums in the villain’s house (maybe they’re zombies, too?) but otherwise everyone is white and the villain is condemned for his actions, not his religious practices. So as long as you’re OK with a total whitewash of the entire concept, you don’t have to feel like a bigot for enjoying this one. In fact, without spoiling anything, it almost delivers on my challenge to make a non-racist zombie-master film which works as an analogy to capitalist exploitation of labor (see first footnote). I rather doubt that Gilling and company had any specific socio-political allegory in mind, but the concept of a rich Englishman subverting African religious practices explicitly to create an army of slaves seems rife with subtext.** Hopefully someone in Hollywood will someday take a cue from this one and make a modern interpretation of the Voodoo Zombie myth with some slightly more explicit political undertones. But even if not, at least PLAGUE amply demonstrates the strength of this particular horror conceit, while gracefully shedding a lot of the unpleasant baggage from its early iterations.
|The disgruntled dead.|
The point here is that this isn’t just a good genre movie, it’s by a large margin the most enjoyable Hammer film I watched all year. It’s full of great sequences --like the one where Forbes and his pupil check on a recently buried corpse only to find that things are already considerably worse than they imagined-- but the real surprise here is how endearing the characters are. Morell is a hoot as the upper-crusty doctor who finds this adventure to be a rather trying bore (but who isn’t above beheading a zombie with a shovel should it become inescapably necessary) and John Carson gives him a good foil as an aristocratic fiend so smooth you almost believe him when he protests that he’s been unfairly maligned. But my personal favorite is Diane Clare as one of the only memorable female Hammer characters that I’m aware of. Her character has all the cliches you might expect from this sort of setup (including ending up as the damsel-in-distress) but Clare has such a natural ebullience about her that the character still manages to seem confident and self-actualized even if she never has a swordfight or walks away from a huge explosion without looking back or is played by Angelina Jolie. Obviously I’m all for badass women characters who show up the men at their own game, but I like this sort of female character too; even though she’s perfectly in sync with the gender stereotypes of the time, she’s way too smart and vivacious to ever be a simple object. She’s a full character and a likeable one at that, which in some ways is just as feminist as being a starship captain or something. Good on her. Unfortunately like poor Alex Datcher in BODY BAGS it doesn’t seem like Clare went on to much else and retired from acting two years after this movie came out.
As evidenced by it’s gender roles, PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES does have a faint sense of datedness to it. Otherwise, though, it’s a thoroughly rousing experience and a great example of the good things that could happen when Hammer made an effort to get the fundamentals right. Snappy dialogue, good characterization, excellent monster designs, slight but effective atmospheric impulses, energetic pace, gothic sets, a tense but trippy dream sequence, some iconic images, and a suitably exciting climax. If there’s a reason it seems unfairly forgotten today, it may be that the lack of Hammer luminaries like Cushing and Lee may have worked against it, giving people the false impression this was an also-ran cash grab. Far from it. This is one of Hammer’s best works, and if that wasn’t enough on it’s own, it’s also a fascinating historical oddity, a window into a particular time in horror filmmaking. The last groan of the pre-Romero zombie film.
*Wikipedia’s “List of Zombie movies” cites 23 titles, there may be more but the list also includes some questionable entries like Vincent Price’s THE LAST MAN ON EARTH or INVISIBLE INVADERS, where the dead bodies are possessed by aliens. Not sure that counts.
** On an unrelated note, I always kind of wonder what strongly religious people must think about movies like this, where Voodoo is clearly shown to work and yet Christianity seems curiously unable to mount any kind of defense. Isn’t this pretty much demonstrating that Voodoo is the correct religion? I mean, if Christianity was true and there really was only one God whose will appears in the Bible, other religions wouldn’t be able to produce this kind of result, right? So de facto, this movie demonstrates that, at the very least, Christianity is fundamentally wrong, if not that Voodoo is demonstrably right. Don’t religious folks realize that merely by buying into the film’s central conceit, you’re essentially discrediting the Abrahamic religions? Maybe they don’t think about it much or figure it’s the devil’s work or something. Anyway, I digress.