Tuesday, March 16, 2010

All about Plague of the Zombies -- a Hammer classic

Plague of the Zombies, 1966, British film, directed by John Gilling, Hammer Films, 91 minutes, starring Andre Morell as Sir James Forbes, Diane Clare as Sylvia Forbes, Brook Williams as Dr. Peter Thompson, Jacqueline Pearce as Alice Mary Thompson, John Carson as Squire Clive Hamilton, Alexander Davion as Denver and Michael Ripper as Sgt. Jack Swift. Schlock-meter ranking: Eight stars out of 10.

"Plague of the Zombies" is a superior Hammer entry from the mid-1960s. A very English gentleman doctor (Morell) heads to the small British village, Cornwall, with his daughter (Clare) to visit a protege (Williams) who is the local doctor. Mysterious deaths are occurring. The next to die is the local doctor's wife (Pearce). It's soon discovered that the graves are devoid of corpses. To solve the case, Morell and the local police sergeant (Ripper) reach back to Carribbean lore and the local, very rich squire (Hamilton) who also has an abandoned tin mine ... or so everyone thinks.

Prior to George A. Romero' "Night of the Living Dead," most zombie films involved Haitian voodoo to create the undead. The best example of this is Bela Lugosi's "White Zombie." "Plague of the Zombies"was the last great zombie film with the familiar Caribbean origin The film's villian, Squire Clive Hamilton, is a student of the Haitian occult and eagerly takes its teachings back to his native village. Carson's character is less evil than fanatic. Even as the net closes in on him, he can't stop from trying to turn pretty Sylvia Forbes (Clare) into a zombie. The scenes of zombies toiling in the abandoned tin mine and roaming the country are chilling, as is Alice Mary Thompson's (Pearce) change to a zombie.

As protagonist and antagonist, Morrel and Carson are superb. The former masters the droll wit and sense of honor of an old English gentleman. The latter mixes his mask of polite, gallant breeding very well with his loathsome zombie-creating persona. It's an effective contrast. The Cornwall villagers are realistic. "Plague of the Zombies" does a good job detailing the class differences between the ultra-rich squire and the poor villagers. The oppressed villagers are mere toys for greedy Squire Hamilton and his henchmen. This theme of class injustice lends depth to what might have been just a routine horror programmer.

"Plague of the Zombies" is worth more than a rental. Cult film collectors should own a copy for repeat viewings. It's an example of Hammer at its best. It can easily be found for sale in VHS or DVD prints.

Notes: Morrel, who died in 1978, had a long and distinguished career. His credits include "Dr. Who," "Quartermass and the Pit," "Ben Hur," and he was the voice of Elrond in Ralph Bakshi's animated "The Lord of the Rings." Director Gilling directed and produced the 1952 Bela Lugosi film "Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire!" It wasn't until 1986 that another major release tackled the zombies, Caribbean curse plot. It was Wes Craven's "The Serpent and the Rainbow." An alternate title for "Plague of the Zombies" is "The Zombies." The film was released on a double bill with "Dracula: Prince of Darkness."

-- Doug Gibson

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