The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
DIRECTOR: John Gilling
CAST: Andre Morell, John Carson, Diane Clare, Jacqueline Pearce, Brook Williams, Michael Ripper, Alex Davion, Marcus Hammond, Roy Royston.
SYNOPSIS: In the 19th century, the eminent Sir James Forbes (Morell) is called to a Cornish village to investigate a series of mysterious deaths. He and his daughter, Sylvia (Clare), arrive to find village doctor Peter Thompson (Williams) distressed, his wife, Alice (Pearce), ill and withdrawn, and bereaved locals angry. Forbes and Thompson take it upon themselves to defy the villagers by exhuming a body in order to investigate the cause of the deaths, but are interrupted by Sergeant Swift (Ripper). Unabated, they proceed to open the coffin anyway, only to find the body missing. When Alice too dies, it is up to the brave pair to discover for themselves the roots of the epidemic, and the clues all point to one person: The sinister, yet strangely charming Squire Hamilton (Carson). At the Squire's mansion, Forbes uncovers black magic and voodoo rituals, and with time of the essence, he must put an end to the Squire's diabolical activities before Sylvia shares in Alice's fate.
COMMENTS: As a ripping yarn in Hammer's best style, 'The Plague of the Zombies' is magnificent. Its depths do not end at the level of entertainment, however, for it is a tremendously complex film from a talent, Gilling, who after Terence Fisher, may well be Hammer's most impressive auteur-director.
Admittedly, it has its weaknesses. Unfortunately, Williams's unfettered acting style comes with a more-than-ample slice of ham, and Clare is not as convincing as she could have been. Peter Bryan's script is usually fine, but there are one or two moments in the dialogue that don't ring true (e.g. Dr Thompson's encounter in the pub with grieving villager Tom Martinus). The strengths of the film far outweigh these glitches, however. Among the cast, the three performances from Morell, Carson and Pearce are masterly. Morell, never less than sturdily reliable, provides a necessarily strong and convincing performance as the chief protagonist, and his scenes with Williams serve to highlight his skilled and professional restraint as an actor. Carson proves himself a worthy Hammer villain in the tradition of Christopher Lee, to whose mixture of cool magnetism and chilling repugnance Carson's persona here inevitably invites comparison. Lastly, Pearce shares Morell's sense of restraint, offering a suitably subdued and credible portrayal of Thompson's depressed and ailing wife.
Arthur Grant's photography and lighting has rarely been as elaborate as here, and it is one of the film's many pleasures. The camera frequently roves behind the objects and furniture in the foreground, increasing the film's sense of isolation and entrapment. James Bernard's frenzied title theme has its moments, but it is during Sylvia's midnight pursuit of her entranced friend Alice, as well as later in the much-celebrated dream-sequence, that Bernard's music truly comes into its own. And credit is certainly due to the often-unsung talent of designer Bernard Robinson, whose impressive revamping of the Bray backlot into the film's Cornish setting (sharing it with Gilling's 'The Reptile', which began filming within weeks of the end of Plague's shoot) is key to the action and atmosphere.
It is thematically that the film is most interesting and enjoyable. In common with 'The Reptile', 'Plague of the Zombies' is a complex critique of power, control, exploitation and imperialism. As already noted, Grant's technique of constantly locking the actors in behind objects and furniture give the film an oppressive ambience. The Squire is the chief oppressor, a member of the ruling class who exploits and tyrannizes the weaker classes (the undead) for his own gain. Moreover, the Squire's means of exploitation are black magic and voodoo imported from the East, thereby cementing the film's themes in the context of British Colonial Imperialism. His minions, the huntsmen, are a further symbol of imperialism and oppressive rule, whose striking appearance underscore the bloody and murderous nature of their power, also evoking the sadistic Sir Hugo and his cohorts in Terence Fisher's 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', (1959). Another teasing allusion to colonial imperialism is the coloured servant (Louis Mahoney) in the Squire's household.
The ubiquitous high-angle/overhead shots draw attention to the characters' subservience to the evil Squire's lust for power, again demonstrating the importance of Grant's camera in exemplifying the themes of control and domination, as well as creating the oppressive atmosphere of the film. Several instances of Forbes and Thompson in the hallway are shot in this manner, emphasizing their impotence and powerlessness over the situation. Contrast that with our first glimpse of the Squire, a brief but powerful sequence shot from a relatively low angle (and nicely scored), giving the character an incredibly domineering presence.
This is also a film about imperialism being overthrown, however, and there are a few role-reversals scattered throughout the film that foreshadow the Squire's final downfall. For example, one of the most amusingly ironic instances of a role-reversal is when Forbes and Thompson do the "ladies' work" of washing the dishes after supper, again with the trademark overhead angle accentuating the sense of power-reversal. A similarly wry moment is when Sergeant Swift and his fellow policeman (low-angle) discover Forbes and Thompson (high-angle) unearthing a body in the graveyard. Again, we see the authority-power motif, and we also get an ironic turn-around as the two heroes become common, mischievous graverobbers, caught in the act. The first subtle hint of the lower echelons actually taking control and revolting against the ruling class with some success, is when Forbes breaks into the Squire's house, and kills one of the henchmen. Not only is Forbes for the first time on the outside of the locked-in arena (the shelves in the Squire's study) that has typically contained the action and characters so far in the film, but we also see Forbes for the first time from a low angle as he lurches over the body of the henchman he has just killed. All these role-reversals are prolepses of the Squire's final comeuppance, when his victims ascend from the blazing mine, leaving him trapped, a sequence that ends with a point-of-view shot from the ascending lift. For once we see the Squire himself caged in as those he exploited were, both metaphorically and cinematographically -- in his last moments he is literally clawing at the cage-like doors of the lift-shaft.
It is not insignificant that the Squire meets his death in a raging inferno of such biblical proportions. As a director, Gilling shows traces of the sensitivity to Christian themes that characterized the work of Terence Fisher. Indeed, the Squire's entire project is a kind of gross inversion of the Christ-story. In his confrontation with the Squire, Forbes characterizes it as a matter of "people who should be at rest now, at rest in their graves", in other words, a reversal of the natural scheme of things. Rather than a resurrection that brings life, the Squire's enterprise is a parody of Christ's resurrection, an immoral and selfish subversion of nature. To link it with the Resurrection of Christ like this is not arbitrary. Rather, the film is replete with clues: Sylvia and the Squire talk of "life after death"; the Priest (Royston) recites Scriptures relating to the Resurrection (of all people) at Alice's graveside; and Thompson's recollection of his dream -- "I dreamed I saw the dead rise; all the graves in the churchyard opened, and the dead came out" -- is almost certainly an allusion to Matthew 27:52-53, in which the Resurrection is accompanied by a simultaneous opening of graves, at which the bodies of dead saints are raised. The parallel is enforced by the intercutting between the Squire's ritual and Alice's funeral.
And indeed, the voodoo ritual the Squire begins to enact over Sylvia also has overtones of the Atonement (death of Christ) and Eucharist: A sacrificial offering placed on the altar; and the symbol of the cross on the Squire's mask reminds us of the connection. It is unsurprising, then, that the film's final redemption takes the form of a descent into hell (the mines, which ultimately become a blazing inferno). If, as David Pirie noted, Plague is the most "pessimistic" of Hammer's films, with little sense of relief at the end, the Christian-salvific overtones must surely go someway towards recompense.
In structuring his film around a somewhat Christian-mythological framework, Gilling of course follows in the footsteps of Fisher, and so it is interesting to note that the role of the central protagonist corresponds neatly to Fisher's "man of faith and reason" (a convention identified by critic Paul Leggett). In Fisher's work, the hero is typically a man of strong character who represents the balance between faith on the one hand and science and reason on the other, and usually those on either extreme -- the incorrigibly superstitious or the coldly rational -- provide the foil for bringing out the protagonist's virtues. In Plague, Forbes is a sound critical thinker, a man of reason and science who laughs off mere superstition (e.g. the locals' belief that the mines are "haunted") and yet who affirms belief in God and the supernatural when it is required (e.g. when at the police station he gravely suggests that "Only God knows"). Even the village priest lends approval to the Fisherian balance of faith and reason, telling Thompson that he will have peace "with God's help and the energy of your good friend here".
There are other touches that may be interpreted as homages to Fisher: The quick cut to an owl in the graveyard, whose hooting momentarily startles us, is almost a direct quote from 'Horror of Dracula'; and the overarching theme of the "charm of evil", which Wheeler Winston Dixon chose as the title for his 1991 biography of Fisher.
Although critics have generally acknowledged the film's seminal influence on the zombie genre -- the green-infused dream-sequence has been frequently imitated and quoted on film -- neither it nor the rest of Gilling's extensive canon of work have quite received the critical attention they deserve. At least with fans, however, 'The Plague of the Zombies' remains one of the best-loved films to come out of Hammer Studios in its heyday.