Welcome to week three of Schlock & Awe‘s Hammer Horror-centric month, which I’m affectionately calling “Hammer Schlocktober.” If you’d like to catch up on previous entries, read my reviews of Frankenstein Created Woman and The Curse of the Werewolf right there where the hyperlink tags are.
This week, we’re going to right smack in the heyday of Hammer Horror, 1965, during a particularly fruitful period which saw Hammer partner with a new overseas distributor — 20th Century Fox — after several successful years trading off between Warner Bros and Universal. As a way to show off for their new partners, Hammer made four films in rapid succession to be released on two double bills. The A-pictures would use the same sets and cast members, as would the B-pictures, the former starring Christopher Lee and directed by Terence Fisher, and the latter being shot and set in the Cornish countryside and directed by John Gilling. In many ways much more interesting and ambitious, the first of Gilling’s B-side films ended up being one of the studio’s very best: The Plague of the Zombies.
The Plague of the Zombies represents the one and only time Hammer attempted the zombie subgenre and, releasing a full two years prior to George A. Romero‘s Night of the Living Dead, represents one of the last and best of the voodoo zombie cycle, though the zombies in this movie are indeed the living dead. Gilling had been working with Hammer since the ’30s, but he had proved difficult to work with and hard on actors. After leaving and directing an effective horror film called The Flesh and the Fiends, Gilling was re-hired at Hammer and directed the smashing pirate adventure, The Pirates of Blood River, before getting the chance to direct both Plague and The Reptile, the pair known as “The Cornish Double.”
John Bryan wrote The Plague of the Zombies, who had previously pitched a version of the Haitian zombie horror when Hammer was still working with Universal. His previous work for Hammer consisted of two truly phenomenal films, The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes, Andre Morell as Dr. Watson, and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville; and The Brides of Dracula which saw Cushing’s Van Helsing as a roving vampire hunter. While his later scripts for Hammer and beyond left much to be desired, Bryan’s first three Hammer scripts create a glorious triptych of smart mysteries with a horror edge.
The film takes place in and around a Cornish village during Victorian times. At the beginning, we see a strange voodoo priest with an ornate mask perform a ritual on a doll, cutting between that and the target of the curse, Alice (Jacqueline Pearce), the attractive wife of the town’s London-educated physician, Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams). She’s afflicted by something, and gets visibly sicker as the film continues. Elsewhere, Sir James Forbes (Morell) and his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) make their way to the village in a carriage. Sir James was Dr. Tompson’s professor at medical school and the younger man has asked for help with a strange illness killing young men in the village. On the way, Sylvia lies to a group of fox hunters about where the fox had gone, which draws the ire of the men once she and her father reach their destination.
Dr. Tompson is baffled; young, seemingly healthy men are dying and nobody knows why. It’s made even more infuriating because the villagers — a very God-fearing, blue-collar sort — refuse to allow an autopsy on anyone. The village is under the control of Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson), an aristocrat who acts as coroner, mayor, judge, and jury all in one. Hamilton, meanwhile, has seen Sylvia and has the fox hunters — who are all his cronies — round her up. They toy with her and it gets very close to something like a gang rape, but Hamilton intervenes. He likes the girl.
The brother of the most recent dead man comes to Sir James and Dr. Tompson and swears that he’d seen his brother up walking around, which is impossible, right? Sylvia, too, sees the man up, looking frightful, and carrying a now-dead Alice. Sir James reads up on voodoo and black magic which gives him an inkling there’s a voodoo priest somewhere in the village, which would also explain why all of the recently-buried men’s graves are now empty and filled back in. Zombies, friends. Zombies are everywhere, and the next one might be Sylvia.
I really adore this movie, for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the awesome and macabre makeup on the zombies, which looks at once like decaying old wood and ancient stones. This is one of the few voodoo zombie flicks where there is actual death and resurrection, but through black magic and ceremony, as opposed to just living people becoming cursed. The second big reason is the fantastic central performance by Andre Morell as Sir James. Hammer became famous for having these stalwart older gentleman characters as their heroes — often being much more capable and intelligent than the strapping younger leading man — and they’d usually cast a well-respected character actor in the role. When Peter Cushing or later Andrew Keir weren’t available, they got Morell, who only ever did a couple of Hammer films but is just terrific in the lead role.
The movie also contains some of the most harrowing and well-directed horror and violence of the age. Gilling offers a masterfully shocking moment when Sylvia sees the lead zombie toss the dead body of Alice down the hill by the mill. It has a hideous, wincing smile on its face and lets out a shriek. Later, when Alice is brought back as a zombie, Sir James has to kill her by decapitating her with a shovel, which causes Dr. Tompson to faint and have a truly horrifying dream in which he is slowly beset by zombies as they rise from their graves. There are gorgeous shots of them coming out of the ground and creeping up behind tombstones. The fact that the whole of the movie’s night time scenes were shot day-for-night (and not particularly convincingly) actually adds a strange air of otherworldliness, like the whole village has been cursed to forever twilight as the zombies rise to do their master’s bidding.
The Plague of the Zombies is easily one of the best non-franchise Hammer horror films and one that doesn’t get nearly as much play as it should. It can be said that the first pair of double bills that Hammer made in this period did markedly better than the second. Gilling’s The Reptile (about a girl played by Jacqueline Pearce who turns into like a were-snake) is quite good, though, and played second to Rasputin: The Mad Monk which had Christopher Lee as the titular character. However, neither quite holds a candle to Plague and its A-picture, Lee’s return to his most famous role, Dracula: Prince of Darkness. We will look at this entry in the long-running Dracula series next week!
Images: Hammer Films/Studio Canal