Plague of the Zombies

Hammer beats George Romero to the zombie punch by a year, but needless to say their effort, though perfectly respectable, was overshadowed by Romero’s groundbreaking classic. I went into this film with mixed feelings. On the one hand, all the stills I’d seen from it looked incredible. Very spooky and atmospheric. On the other hand, my most recent experience with Hammer studio director John Gilling was the dry as a mummy’s shroud The Mummy’s Shroud. But I’m a sucker for pretty much any and every Hammer film that’s been released, and I figure it certainly can’t be any worse than Zombie Lake. It turns out, in fact, that Plague of the Zombies not only isn’t any worse than Zombie Lake; it’s much, much better. Okay, maybe saying something is better than Zombie Lake isn’t saying a whole lot, so let’s revise the praise. Plague of the Zombies is a damn good film, maybe not the caliber of film that is Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead, but certainly on par with other great zombie films like Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and easily one of the best of Hammer’s non-Dracula/Frankenstein films. Is that a mouthful?

Along with Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, it’s Hammer’s best film of the 1960s. Dracula, Prince of Darkness runs close behind. And I guess I’d go ahead and put The Reptile on that list, too. Actually, there was a lot of good stuff from Hammer during that decade, but few are as consistently eerie and likable as Plague of the Zombies. Although the film is, like most of Hammer’s best films, slowly paced, it’s not boring, and the sheer power of atmosphere keeps the film feeling brisk and yet another example of what I wish people today would learn, or remember, or whatever: a slower pace does not mean a boring movie, and sometimes “wall to wall 100% pure action” can be dull as three-day-old dishwater. Plague of the Zombies remembers what it is a horror film is supposed to: creep you out. It has very few startling moments, but the overall sense of mist-enshrouded dread is more than enough to keep a literate viewer on pins and needles.

We start off with the number one man on what some people refer to as Hammer’s B-team — a team that people seem to assume consists of every single Hammer player except for Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The man in question is Andre Morrell as Sir James Forbes, and he’s hardly B-team material. In fact, alongside Cushing, he was probably one of the studio’s most solid and charismatic older leads. He exudes enlightened authority and invests every line, no matter how outlandish, with a sense of absolute conviction that makes you believe just as easily as you’d believe Peter Cushing. He was Dr. Watson to Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles. As with Cushing, Andre Morrell is one of Hammer’s finest “men of reason,” and he’s in one of his best roles here as the seasoned doctor who is called upon by a former pupil to help solve the mystery of a deadly plague that is ravaging a small Cornish town. He certainly deserves to be regarded with as much adoration as Cushing, and frankly, perhaps even a dash more than Lee, though you’d never hear me say that in public.

Morrell’s Sir James Forbes travels to the village with his insistent daughter, played by Diane Clare (most recognizable to classic horror fans for her role in The Haunting, still hands down one of the best horror films ever made). He immediately surmises that this is no ordinary plague, if such things as “ordinary” plagues exist. His pupil, now colleague, Dr. Thompson (Brook Williams, who later starred in the superb WWII adventure film Where Eagles Dare alongside Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton) has been stymied in his attempts to understand the sickness since the locals are a superstitious lot (aren’t they always) and refuse to allow him to perform an autopsy. Forbes, ever the gentleman but never bound by a gentleman’s behavior when it comes to confronting the horrors of disease, figures the best way to solve this dilemma is by sneaking out to dig up a freshly buried corpse so they can perform a clandestine autopsy on it.

Unfortunately the grave they pick is empty, even though they themselves saw the body buried earlier that very day. In fact, the entire cemetery seems to be full of empty coffins. Complicating matters, because matters always have to be complicated, is the fact that Thompson’s own wife seems to be coming down with the plague. A local band of fox-hunting aristocratic thugs under the leadership of local town squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson, who went on to Taste the Blood of Dracula if you will) seem to tie into matters as well. Eventually, Forbes come sot the conclusion that, despite the irrationality of it, someone in the town is practicing voodoo to infect villagers then resurrect them as shuffling zombies. Thompson can hardly believe such a fantastical tale, but Forbes is a more world-aware and open-minded man of science. Of course, when Thompson sees a zombie actually crawling up out of the grave, he has to admit that there might be something to the whole undead theory.

There’s so much going for this film that I don’t even know where to begin. I guess since I’ve already started in on Andre Morrell, I’ll continue from there. He’s superb, striking just the right balance of academic detachment and genuine warmth. He is inquisitive, caring, and when the time calls for it, intrepid. I know a fair number of doctors, but I can’t really think of any I’d trust to competently spearhead a fight against the hordes of the living dead and the gang of Victorian-era frat boys with a voodoo fixation who summoned the zombies from beyond the grave. Forbes is probably one of Hammer’s most likable “men of reason.” Cushing’s Van Helsing was likable but a bit impersonal, and while his Frankenstein was charismatic, you wouldn’t necessarily want to be on his bad side. But Forbes is a class act from beginning to end, and as I said, Andre Morrell’s belief in the role is contagious. In an era and a genre where mad scientists were and sometimes still are all the rage (thought they’ve been replaced more or less by the far less interesting “amoral greedy corporate madman”), it’s nice to see a legitimately nice scientist for a change. And hooray for a character whose chief heroic traits are a sharp mind and a belief that intelligence can prevail.

While Brook Williams doesn’t make as much of an impression as the supporting Dr. Thompson, he’s still a pretty good guy as well. Likewise for the rest of the supporting cast, including Diane Clare as Forbes’ demure yet determined daughter. She has some great scenes and emerges as one of Hammer’s stronger supporting women, even if she, like most other women, eventually gets carried over a misty set by one of the monsters. John Carson’s squire is an exquisitely reprehensible character who oozes charm even when we all know he’s a total bastard. The rest of the cast and extras perform with what you should now, after several of these Hammer film reviews, recognize as typically solid Hammer professionalism.

The script by Peter Bryan, who also wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles and the under-rated and under-seen Brides of Dracula for Hammer, is another of the film’s strong points, and you know, it’s always good when the story in your story is one of the story’s strong points. Hammer specialized in making outrageous and sometimes downright absurd situations seem wholly reasonable, and Bryan hits this one out of the park. Despite whatever wild stuff gets paraded across the screen, Gilling’s direction, the casts’ performances, and Bryan’s sincere script make it plausible, even intelligent. Bryan knows we all know the obnoxious rich guy who spent time in Haiti is the one responsible for the zombies, so he doesn’t make the “whodunit” central to the plot. We know early on who the culprit is, and the script draws its energy from making us see how Forbes and his rag tag little group of weary doctors, cranky constables, and the small town vicar will triumph over this seemingly all-powerful man of privilege who also just so happens to command the dark undead forces of evil. Because Plague of the Zombies takes time out to make you like the central core of characters, you in turn care about the movie, even when it’s taking a breather in between digging up graves and being menaced by shrieking ghouls on the dark moors.

The story also continues a favorite theme of Hammer horror films, that of the enlightened “literate” class struggling to drag the masses into the light while combating the upper class forces that profit by keeping them there. Forbes is a man of sophistication and culture, but he’s hardly upper class. By contrast, the wealthy Squire and his crew of hooligans behave like lunatics and revel in the exemption from suspicion granted them by their position of power. The masses are too brow-beaten by the caste system to think that maybe the elites aren’t as cultured as they seem, and it takes a man who values reason and inquiry and free thought over outdated notions of class and social standings to pull back the curtain and reveal the ugliness. He’s a kindred spirit of Frankenstein, only without the acidic bad temper and homicidal tendencies. And he’s certainly more sexually liberated than the misogynistic Frankenstein. Heck, he even gives his daughter a break and does the dishes himself!

But ultimately, Bryan’s biggest accomplishment with the screenplay is how perfectly structured it is. Everything that happens is essential, but nothing is thin. It’s a very dense, literary work, and despite not being based on a classic novel, perfectly conjures captures the ideal of “Gothic horror.” There is no throw-away scene, no filler, and that’s what keeps the film moving ahead so skillfully. Something is always happening, and that doesn’t mean “action is always happening and stuff be blowing up all the time.” It means that plot is always happening, which is a beautiful, beautiful thing to behold, especially when it’s so smartly constructed as this. Man, do you know how good it feels to be able to ramble on and on about how good the script for a horror film is — or any film, given current standards? So forgive me if I over-indulge. I was just happy to have a plot that’s really worthy of sinking into. And hey! Characters you actually like and care about! What a novel concept!

The final ace in the film’s hand is Gilling’s clever direction. As I said in the beginning, I had misgivings about him after viewing The Mummy’s Shroud, which came out the same year and also starred Andre Morrell. It just shows what a good script can do for a movie. The Mummy’s Shroud was a lumbering bore. Here, Gilling turns in one of Hammer’s most thoughtful, inventive, and flat out spooky movies. For this film, at the very least, Gilling proves himself the equal of Hammer’s legendary Terence Fisher, and perhaps even the more visionary of the two a he indulges in surreal dream sequences and some utterly horrific imagery that will stick with you long after the film is over. Gilling fills every shot with a palpable sense of menace and creeping doom, even when someone is just having a nip of Scotch. His exteriors — foggy forests, windswept moors, mazelike little country villages, dilapidated old mining works — are the stuff of nightmares. Where as Fisher’s films are possessed of a very British, very rational approach to direction, Gilling seems willing to indulge more experimental techniques, and ultimately Plague of the Zombies feels like a perfect blend of British perfectionism and continental European surrealism. It exists somewhere between Fisher and Mario Bava.

The shots of the atrocious, white-eyed, gray-faced ghoul screaming insanely as it lumbers across rotting moors with a dead woman in its hand is as chilling as anything Hammer has ever filmed, up there and perhaps even more striking than the shots of Christopher Lee’s cadaverous creature stumbling across the bleak country forest in Curse of Frankenstein. Likewise, the scene of the zombies besieging Dr. Thompson in the cemetery is incredible. Dark, unnerving, and thoroughly beautiful in a sinister, macabre way. The creatures themselves are haunting but ultimately play little role. They are more akin to the undead slaves of earlier films like White Zombie than the aggressive and independent (if not particularly bright) zombies of Night of the Living Dead. They follow a master and do only what he bids them to do — at least, naturally, until the fiery climax of the film. Still, they’re quite ghoulish in their appearance, and used and shot as they are, they remain menacing and creepy. They represent the final hurrah for the old guard before George Romero changed everything. It’s certainly a hell of a way to go out, or pass the torch, or whatever it is zombies do when they shift paradigms.

Plague of the Zombies was originally filmed back-to-back with another Gilling film, The Reptile. Both were exceptional endeavors despite being meant as the B-side of a horror double feature. Plague of the Zombies was paired with the higher profile Dracula, Prince of Darkness, which celebrated the return of Christopher Lee to the role of the bloodthirsty undead count a full decade after he starred in the original. Plague of the Zombies got lost in the large shadow of Hammer’s vampire juggernaut, but later fans have had a chance to go back and re-evaluate the film. The result has been that many people discovered what I discovered — one of the great ignored gems of the horror world.