Director: John Gilling
Cast: Brook Williams, Andre Morell, Diane Clare, John Carson, Jacqueline Pearce
Words – Scott Burns.
Hammer’s zombie movie (released two years before George A. Romero and John A. Russo’s Night of the Living Dead) remains a strong contender in the living dead sweepstakes and is a fan favourite despite the lack of recognisable stars and without being based on a classic story.
After a string of mysterious deaths in a Cornwall mining town, Dr. Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) calls upon his former teacher Sir James Forbes (Hammer mainstay Andre Morell) for help. Forbes and his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) travel to the town where they run into of a bunch of loutish upper-class fox hunters (who disrupt a funeral procession) and an angry, scared local population. Thompson and Forbes investigate claims that the recent dead have been spotted near the local tin mine, owned by the squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson), a strange idea confirmed when Sylvia sees a grey-faced man carrying the dead body of her friend and Thompson’s wife Alice (Jacqueline Pearce). But the truth is even more terrible: the dead are being brought back to life, via Voodoo ritual, to become slave labour for the squire’s mine. Only Forbes can stop this evil from claiming more lives.
Directed by John Gilling, who rose through the ranks to become a director having been with Hammer since the 1930s, and written by Peter Bryan from a story by Bryan and Anthony Hinds (originally pitched to Universal as The Horror Of The Zombie, but rejected for being too gruesome). Gilling wrote a couple of films for Hammer (including The Gorgon) and graduated to directing. His first film for the company was The Shadow Of The Cat (1961) and his association with Hammer continued with The Pirates Of Blood River (1962) until The Mummy’s Shroud (1967). He had a reputation for being combative with his actors, crew and his bosses. Although not as famous as his Hammer contemporary Terence Fisher, his films are comparable in quality of craftmanship. He died in Madrid in 1984 aged 72.
Andre Morell had worked with Hammer before, most notably as Dr. Watson to Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes in Terence Fisher’s adaptation of The Hound Of The Baskervilles (1959) as well as roles in The Camp On Blood Island (1958) and The Shadow Of The Cat. Known for being particularly acerbic to people he took a dislike to, Morell has a fantastic presence to rival Cushing or Christopher Lee. Here he plays a rational man forced to confront and defeat the supernatural and he turns in a great performance. He became a household name after appearing in the must-watch television sensation Quatermass And The Pit as Professor Bernard Quatermass. Other notable films he appeared in include The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) and Ben-Hur (1959). He died in 1978 aged 69.
Another Hammer icon appears in this film, the character actor Michael Ripper. He became a sort of totem for the company appearing in more films than Cushing or Lee, usually in a small role (here he is a policeman). His last appearance in a Hammer film was in the comedy That’s Your Funeral in 1972. He worked steadily until retiring fully in the nineties. He died in 2000 aged 87.
The treatment of zombies in this film is closer to that seen in White Zombie (1932) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943): a recently dead man re-animated by black magic to do the bidding of a powerful Voodoo priest. The zombies’ blank-eyed stare and rotting features pre-figures the ghouls in Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) and wear muddy smocks like medieval serfs. Gilling gets the maximum scare effect out of them, especially in a creepy dream sequence where Thompson is surrounded by walking corpses, who have clawed their way out of the grave in the town cemetery.
The Plague Of The Zombies adds an element of class warfare with the aristocratic Hamilton and his bully boy, fox hunting friends (not the first time screenwriter Bryan used fox hunting as a symbol of upper-class privilege as seen in his script for The Hound Of The Baskervilles) using Voodoo to exploit the working classes. This was a common trope in Hammer movies where the villains were usually aristocrats who dabbled in the dark arts or arrogantly pursued power or knowledge at the expense of human life. The most disturbing scene in the film sees Hamilton’s friends, still wearing their fox hunting red jackets and brandishing horse whips, using playing cards to decide which of them will ravish Sylvia first.
A superb B-movie (it played in a double-bill with Dracula: Prince Of Darkness) and a huge fan favourite, it is almost a pity Hammer never returned to the zombie idea until their seventies swansong The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires (1974). But this unique movie still has the power to send a shiver down your spine.
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