Online reviewers seem to love this one, praising its atmosphere and themes and calling it one of Hammer's best films. Personally though, I've found a new director I hate.
This film was shot back-to-back with The Reptile in 1966 on the same Cornish village set, built at Bray Studios by Bernard Robinson. The Reptile bored me out of my skull, so I was understandably suspicious when this film managed to be tedious in exactly the same way. I did a little investigating and, yup, it's the same director. His name's John Gilling and I recommend avoiding his films. A factor in this might be that he's more of a writer (54 films) than a director (44 films), although in both roles the man was certainly prolific. That's not necessarily meaningful, though. Some of the worst hackwork I've seen has come from directors who churned out an endless stream of movies, e.g. Christy Cabanne for The Mummy's Hand (1940). Anyway, John Gilling's films include:
- The Reptile (1966)
- The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
- The Mummy's Shroud (1967) - still in my "to watch" queue, gyaaah
...and if you go a bit further back, an oddity:
- Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952) - starring Arthur Lucan & Bela Lugosi
The odd thing is that I'd been looking forward to this. George Romero invented the zombie film as we know it in 1968, but he wasn't without forebears and I was interested in seeing them. This one precedes Romero's debut by a mere two years, but much earlier examples include White Zombie (1932) and Revolt of the Zombies (1936), both directed by Victor Halperin, and Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie in 1943 for Val Lewton. Obviously I wasn't expecting a Hammer film to be anywhere near as powerful as Night of the Living Dead, but in its own way it seems that this film was influential too. Its zombies are a mixed bag, but the best of them provide some of the most memorable zombie imagery I've seen. The first two we see are startling, with an air about them that you could almost call intensity. Jacqueline Pearce is planklike as a human, but check out the smile on her face as a zombie. Wow. Their make-up is crude and occasionally shoddy, but somehow it doesn't matter. Those grey lumpen faces look right.
For me, everything good in this film had a zombie in it. Our first glimpse of one in the woods? Awesome. Their underground army? Loved it. The dream sequence? Ground-breaking (literally)... hold on, wait. One of the saving graces of this film is a dream sequence? Yikes. I'd been watching for an hour and was almost chewing my arm off when suddenly zombies started climbing out of their graves. This woke me up and put me in a better frame of mind to try to enjoy the last thirty minutes, even when it turned out to have been the filmmakers gratuitously sneaking in cool stuff they couldn't fit into the plot. However ironically given the title, this is one of the few zombie films out there where being undead has nothing to do with disease or infection. We've got two doctors saying so. The word "plague" isn't even metaphorically accurate, since the undead action is so sparse that I'd suggest calling it A Touch Of Flu Going Around of the Zombies.
So you've got surprisingly effective zombie imagery, but on top of that one could also argue that the film has themes of colonialism and exploitation. The villain is a white aristocrat (John Carson) who's spent time in Haiti and has come back with black servants and their voodoo to help him oppress the lower classes. The racial side of this could have been cringeworthy, but fortunately it isn't really touched upon and the only villains are Carson and his rich white bully boys. That's the argument for a theme of colonialism. More fully developed, if not entirely convincing, are Carson's reasons for what he's doing. Deliciously he's not merely being evil for the sake of it, although if you look at what he actually does in the film it's hard to see any benefit to his targeting of our heroes' womenfolk. He's the villain in a horror movie. They're women. Presumably we're not meant to be asking ourselves these questions. Nevertheless on the face of it his ostensible motive is prosaic. He's zombifying the villagers as a source of income, to work in his mine. It's the exploitation of the proletariat! Horror movies don't get much more Marxist than this, especially when you take into account the fact that his rapist thug friends are also into fox hunting.
You don't have to be a communist to think all this is cool. However unfortunately this reading is undermined more than a little by the script's apparent contempt for its exploited workers and the way that our hero is every bit as socially elevated as the villain. The only significant villager is an obnoxious moron who's of so little interest that his zombification takes place offscreen. In contrast our hero is Sir James Forbes (note the "sir"), one of the country's most important doctors who's been called down from London by one of his former pupils. Thus the protagonists of this film are two physicians (hurrah!) and their womenfolk (zombie meat!), with the villagers being portrayed as superstitious and unpleasant.
I can't deny that power relationships play a significant part in the film, though, with a policeman (Michael Ripper) playing an important part in addition to the people I've already mentioned. Apparently this is being underlined by some elaborate use of lighting and photography, in particular lots of high-angle and overhead shots. There are little role-reversals, such as the men watching the dishes and our respectable heroes being caught graverobbing, while there are also references to religion and resurrection, as you'd expect given its subject matter. All this is praiseworthy.
Nevertheless I don't believe I've yet talked about why the film sucks.
Basically, it never breathes. The acting is lifeless, even from Hammer stalwarts like Michael Ripper, with the worst by a considerable distance being Brook Williams. Looking up his imdb profile, it looks as if his career after this tended to involve roles like Male Nurse and Helicopter Pilot. I can only presume his character married Jacqueline Pearce's because bad performances attract each other. Pearce partially gets away with it though because her character is being zombified and so is meant to be like that, plus of course she's cool once she's turned. The only actors I even believed in were the villains and Andre Morell, which means that there's a relative highlight late in the film when Morell confronts Carson and suddenly you've got a scene populated by non-incompetent actors. Carson is okay, but he's no Christopher Lee. Meanwhile it's interesting to watch Andre Morell, in that he's an actor I've really liked in other things (e.g. his Dr Watson in Hammer's Hound of the Baskervilles) and yet casting him in the lead role here is a failure. Oh, he's good. I liked him. However he doesn't have the classical leading man's ability of carrying the film along with him. Peter Cushing could make a bad film worth watching and used to do so repeatedly. Andre Morell can't do the same here for even the length of a single scene. I'm still a fan of his, but the evidence from this film would seem to be that he's an admirable supporting actor and nothing more.
I realise it's unfair to compare a real director to Pennant Roberts, but I honestly got a whiff here of Pennant-esque "couldn't care less". There's a fight between Andre Morell (aged 57) and the leader of Carson's foxhunting thugs (half his age), which lost me because in reality this duel would last five seconds and end with Morell's death. Shortly afterwards there's a fire which becomes an inferno, which Morell attacks with a small towel before leaning against a wall to look philosophical. The director didn't give a toss about making this look convincing, did he? Obviously there's also the usual Hammer day-for-night shooting, which looks a little worse than usual in that it was clearly sunny at the time.
I didn't care, basically. There are good bits here and there, but scene after scene just plods past in a dreary, uninspired fashion. I'm not even sure what century it's trying to be set in, since I'd been assuming it was contemporary until we hit the autopsy with Victorian-looking brass instruments and physicians wearing cravats. However I suppose I should praise the stuff I liked.
1. The bully boys are nastier than I'd expected, although they pretty much disappear from the film after helping to kick-start it in the early scenes.
2. Carson's voodoo is logical and makes for cool visuals, although obviously much smaller and cheaper than Live and Let Die. Nevertheless you've still got to love the way they open with a frenzied ceremony of drums, blood and a doll.
3. All the zombie stuff, which means that the ending's good too... well, until it just stops and you wonder if the camera ran out of film or something.
Enough people have praised this, sometimes glowingly, to make me suspect that my reaction might be atypical. However these are people who'll use the word "ham" to describe Brook Williams, so I'm not going to lose too much sleep over not conforming to their opinion. There's certainly a lot of meat to the film if you're prepared to dig for it, while the zombie scenes are worth watching if you've got enough patience to stick around that long. It's better than The Reptile, anyway. However I found it bad enough to make me look up the director's name so that I could avoid his films.