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Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Plague of the Zombies

The Plague of the Zombies
by Jason Henderson

Producer: Anthony Nelson-Keys

Director: John Gilling

Screenplay: Peter Bryan and John Gilling


Sir James Forbes-Andre Morell
Sylvia Forbes-Diana Clare
Dr. Peter Thompson-Brook Williams
Alice Thompson-Jacqueline Pearce
Clive Hamilton-John Carson
Denver-Alex Davion
Sgt. Swift-Michael Ripper

"Are you at all familiar with Voo-Doo?"

Watching Hammer today is a strange practice of viewing a picture through the gauze of thirty years and several thousand miles, providing a moment of entertainment at once recognizable and yet distinctly alien. The Plague of the Zombies was made in 1966, and it is impossible to step outside of the perspective of a viewer who has, since, seen Night of the Living Dead and Michael Jackson's Thriller. There are two large theories for viewing an old horror movie like this, and each has its critical proponents:

# View the picture as if you are seeing it in 1966. This is an exercise in trying to imagine the picture in the context of life at the time - Kennedy has been dead three years, Thunderball came out last year, etc.

# View the picture as detached from time and place, and respond merely to the picture itself, on its merits. This is the one that, in fact, most of us do first- which is why old movies can be irritating, since they usually lack modern editing or pacing. There's a more generous side of this, though: I might watch seven Hammer Draculas, Frankensteins, or seven James Bond pictures in a row, ignoring the fact that they span three decades, but thinking of them as a "series" of texts connected to one another.

With Hammer horror, though, I think it's best to employ a hybrid variant, or you'll miss a lot of the best effects. Unlike James Bond, most Hammer horrors are period pieces that take place in that curious, vaguely Victorian Hammerscape. It is absolutely impossible to view Hammer without thinking about the fact that this movie indicates how a cast and crew in the 1960's thought life might have been like in the 1890's, so the commentary on sexual mores is distinctly sixties in style, filtered through Victorian characters. Then, your own viewing of the picture cannot help but be effected by your placement at the turn of the twenty-first century. Likewise the period settings are often used to push certain political ideals of the sixties which may seem irrelevant to the turn of the century. And so on.

With this film, though, you needn't work all that hard. The Plague of the Zombies is a thoroughly charming zombie movie which actually embraces some pretty heavy themes of despair (it charms you into not noticing.) The movie was released in the United States as a double-feature with Dracula-Prince of Darkness, and it's chic to call this the superior picture. It's probably true. Dracula: POD is lucky enough to play with some themes already in place, plus Chris Lee; we fans will sort of imprint on whatever's there and will be grateful if the movie succeeds in helping. of the Zombies sets out on its own and tries to break new ground, and succeeds without any help from us at all.

The Plague of the Zombies is a Hammer Horror placed firmly in England- in Cornwall, in fact, on the southern tip of Great Britain, giving the picture a fairly contemporary feel, and making it extremely accessible to a new viewer. The plot, in brief: Young country doctor Peter Thompson is at a loss to explain the sickness that is killing the locals of his Cornish town, and is getting no help from the creepy local magistrate and rich man Squire Hamilton. Dr. Thompson sends a letter to his old mentor Sir James Forbes, who rushes off to Cornwall with his lovely daughter Sylvia in tow (Sylvia was a school chum of Dr. Thompson's equally lovely wife, Alice.) Sir James and Sylvia get to creepy town and find everyone acting strangely, poor Alice is the next to die, and Sir James takes an awfully long time to figure out who's responsible for the deaths and why. Hamilton, it turns out, is killing people and raising them from the dead, voodoo-style, for reasons entirely his own.

There are lots of neat scenes in this film, a very high quotient for a 90-minute picture.

Squire Hamilton employs a small army of young hooligans to do his bidding. For much of the movie we see these guys in Fox-hunting attire and on horseback, making them rather like a threatening bunch of fraternity brothers. Sylvia, who disapproves of hunting, disrupts their hunt early on in the film, and we're very worried when later the hunters manage to corner her in the woods. In a very tense and uncomfortable scene, the martinets surround her, leering, and forcefully remove her to Squire Hamilton's castle, tossing the terrified woman around like a plaything before Hamilton interrupts the proceedings. The sense of helplessness and threat of rape are deeply disturbing, especially since we get the impression that the movie is not going to play nice with characters we expect to progress by unscathed.

The first zombie appearance is frightening, even today: Immediately after her release from Hamilton's hooligans, Sylvia goes searching for her friend, who wandered off in a daze. She finds her way to a ruined mill, and hears a horrible, unearthly cry. She looks up to see a rotting, risen corpse, screaming at her from the hill. The shroud-clad creature is holding the lost Alice in its arms, and suddenly it flings Alice's corpse to the ground at Sylvia's feet. We liked Alice. We like Sylvia. So far we've been charmed into thinking this movie is about as threatening as an episode of Perry Mason and then this happens. This is skillful horror. This moment is riveting.

Later, Sir James asks Peter to assist him the autopsy of Peter's own wife. And Peter does, and by golly, handles it pretty well. There is something terribly wrong with these people, even the good guys. Moreover, it's always troubling when major characters die, because then we know that, once the movie is over, the characters don't get to go home and laugh. If important people are dead- in this case, the hero's wife- then the characters will suffer for years, even after the emergency has passed.

Squire Hamilton, played by the intimidating John Carson, comes to visit Sylvia and pay his condolences for the passing of Alice. We already know he's the bad guy, and even Sylvia suspects it strongly, so there's a delicious creepiness to the strong erotic attraction between the two. The Plague of the Zombies is, more than anything else, about the charm of evil.

Director Gilling does some wonderful things with the zombies in the mill where they're being forced to work. There are several scenes with lots of zombie business in the background, framed by an extreme close-up of a zombie face in the foreground, the way we usually see something like a column or wall used to anchor a scene. Zombies are so unusual, this is a jarring effect and works nicely.

The scene where the dead Alice rises from her grave is unnerving and deliciously perverse. It's just not right that someone should have to see their loved one's corpse rise toward them; this breaks all natural laws. Immediately after Alice's corpse is beheaded by Sir James, Peter falls unconscious and has a terrifying dream that seems like a preview of Night of the Living Dead, in weird greens and reds. This dream sequence is extremely creepy, and talked about at length just about everywhere.

There's a lot here. The Plague of the Zombies is a depressing film that sneaks up on you by seeming to be rather jovial until loved ones get hurt. Layered in are a number of themes, most notably a heavy distrust of capitalists and the rich, and some uniformly impressive make-up effects. It is also important to note that this was the first film to represent zombies as rotting corpses rising from their graves.

One the new tape: since this tape has just been released, now is an excellent time to view it just as it was originally, in a double feature with Dracula-Prince of Darkness. The fun there is to begin one's journey of recognition of Hammer sets, which of course were redressed and re-used, over and over.

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