The Plague of the Zombies, 1966.
Directed by John Gilling.
Starring André Morell, John Carson, Jacqueline Pearce, Brook Williams and Michael Ripper.
As a mysterious plague ravagers a remote 19-century Cornish village, two scientists desperately search for an antidote, only to discover a world of black magic and a legion of flesh eating zombies.
Zombies are big business these days. Re-animated corpses seem to strike a chord with the public imagination. We have zombie TV shows, zombie merchandise, zombie fiction mash-ups, zombie video games, and of course, zombie movies by the truckload. It wasn’t always so. Before George A. Romero, before we had umpteen Somethings Of The Dead and a generation barricading the loft space in readiness for the zombie apocalypse, zombies were but a whisper of a myth.
The name of the beast itself comes from the Haitian Creole language, spoken by the practitioners of Voodoo. Any history of that religion makes for pretty gruesome reading, but from a horror fiction point of view, it’s provided a wealth of narrative opportunities.
From the very first frame of The Plague of the Zombies, we’re immersed in the trappings and rhythms of this culture. Jungle drums rumble and pound. The air is thick with pungent smoke. Skulls adorn every surface. The priests themselves wear grey death’s head masks; the blood they use in their strange and disturbing rituals is no cop-out symbolic red communion wine. This is the genuine article, and we’re walking in on them mid-ceremony.
The blood is poured onto a tiny idol. Somewhere else, a young woman wakes with a start, a wound opening on her hand. It’s Jacqueline Pearce, better known as the scheming villain Servalan from Blake’s 7. Here, she’s Alice Tompson, wife to a Cornish village doctor and worryingly detached from the sudden, strange attack she’s suffered.
We’re somewhere else again. London. The house of a distinguished professor of medicine, Sir James Forbes (André Morell). He’s trying to kick back and enjoy cigars and not being around spotty, student-type oiks. Too late. His daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) is in a Let’s Give Dad Something To Do sort of mood, and she’s helped along by a strange letter from her old school friend’s husband, Peter Tompson. He writes of weird happenings and a need of guidance from his mentor. Reluctantly, Forbes agrees that a bit of fresh air down in Cornwall wouldn’t hurt.
Let loose on this fragile little community, running scared from mysterious deaths, Forbes proves himself a force to be reckoned with. André Morell, criminally underused thus far by Hammer at this point in his career, is a dapper old hand here. He’s acting at the top of his game, lending this central role all the weight of presence and experience it deserves. Without Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes to overshadow him (as in The Hound of the Baskervilles), he has space to be decisive and charismatic, a proper Van Helsing-type bane of the undead.
Where his former protégé Peter (Brook Williams) has been floundering and feeling sorry for himself, Forbes makes huge leaps of progress within hours of his arrival. Sylvia does her bit in wandering about as unwitting bait for stray antagonists, just so we know who to watch out for. She also serves as our introduction to Squire Hamilton, a brusque, reptilian sort of nobleman with a taste for exotic souvenirs and non-conformity. Gilling makes certain his funky Voodoo ring doesn’t escape our notice; he’s not about making us guess who’s behind the skull mask. He’ll make us work for the why, though.
Granted, there is some work, keeping up with what mine used to be where, whose cousin died from whatever and putting up with Brook Williams’ overwrought dizzy spells. It’s scant enough mental labour though, for the rewards Gilling has on offer. He perpetuates an air of suspense worthy of the finest Dracula adaptations – fitting, since his story parallels so many of Stoker’s own plot devices. Of all these parallels, it has to be said that his version of Lucy Westenra’s midnight rise from the dead actually goes one better.
To begin with, Alice has died, with no apparent cause for it. Forbes insists on a swift postmortem, but he can find no sign of malice besides a small wound she made great pains to conceal from her husband. One awkward funeral and half a night of distractions later, Forbes and Tompson discover her grave dug up and her coffin lid open. Alice’s fair complexion turns a hideous, crusty green-grey. Jacqueline Pearce slips into undead mode with a certain malevolent glee, bereft of the usual shuffling stiffness of gait. A slow, sly grin forms on her lips, her deathly pallor and merciless eyes paralysing these two would-be heroes with fear, as Forbes whispers one horrified word: “Zombie…”
So The Plague of the Zombies isn’t entirely original. Boo bloody hoo. After 40 something years sipping on brain soup and playing out every possible variation of localised apocalypse, we can safely surmise that new and exciting plots are hardly the big draw for international zombie fans. The trick is in finding new ways to convince an audience of a terrible and imminent danger, just at the edge of the frame, where we can’t quite see it coming.
By that standard, Gilling and company can hold their heads high, even today. No small feat for a small British studio trying to reduce the overhead with a quick horror double feature. This boldly adventurous, stunningly gothic masterclass in budget film-making was made on a mere handful of sets and well-chosen locations, and it still sells the hyper-reality of it all 40 years after the fact, when far superior technology and technique is taken for granted.
This cast and crew put their heart and soul into what anyone else might cast off as a trashy B movie. Perhaps it’s fitting then, that The Plague of the Zombies rises again, whilst its expensive, major studio contemporaries languish in obscurity. Long live the living dead.
EXTRA FEATURES: ‘Raising The Dead’ proves even juicier than previous docs, with two of the films’ finest actors on hand to tell us how things went down on set. Jacqueline Pearce and John Carson pay tribute to André Morell’s masterful performance, repeating his original regrets that his co-stars Brook Williams and Diane Clare didn’t quite match up to the rest of the cast.
Pearce observes that he could be ‘outspoken’ and ‘waspish’ to people he felt were wasting everybody’s time, creatively speaking. Somebody must have agreed with him; Diane Clare’s voice was entirely dubbed for this film, perhaps in a fit of post-production damage control.
Besides the dirt, Pearce and Carson have a great deal of memories to share on how they approached their roles, and in particular how Pearce coped with having a life-sized replica of her own head on set. The usual experts and commentators have a twinkle in their eye for Michael Ripper, Hammer’s semi-resident character actor. His gruff Cornish police sergeant in The Plague of the Zombies is but one of many instances where he grounds the horror with his effortless air of practical affability. It’s easy to take this sort of jobbing actor for granted, and all the more heart-warming to see one remembered with due deference and affection.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.