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Thursday, September 3, 2020

‘The Plague of the Zombies’ Delivered a Frightening, Gothic Spin on the Zombie Mythos [Hammer Factory]

While Hammer Studios has been in business since 1934, it was between 1955 and 1979 that it towered as one of the premier sources of edgy, gothic horror. On top of ushering the famous monsters of Universal’s horror heyday back into the public eye, resurrecting the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy in vivid color, the studio invited performers like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Ingrid Pitt and so many more to step into the genre limelight. Spanning a library housing over 300 films, Hammer Studios is a key part of horror history that until recently has been far too difficult to track down.

In late 2018, Shout Factory’s Scream Factory line began to focus on bringing Hammer’s titles to disc in the US, finally making many of the studio’s underseen gems available in packages that offered great visuals as well as insightful accompanying features. Over the course of this column, I will focus on these releases, gauging the films in context of the Hammer Studio story as well as analyzing the merits of the release. It’s time to highlight the power, impact and influence of Hammer Studios and ignite new conversation surrounding some forgotten classics.

Welcome to the Hammer Factory. This month we dissect The Plague of the Zombies.

The Context

In the back half of 1965, Hammer Studios struck up a partnership with 20th Century Fox that would lead to financing for several of their key properties and secondary films. The pitch was to quickly and efficiently produce a series of double features with an assembly line approach, utilizing much of the same sets, props and crew, generating less expensive films without having to sacrifice the built in marketability of Hammer’s output.

The first four properties in this deal were produced back to back and then split up into headlining A-style films and accompanying B-level titles. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) and Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966) both starred Christopher Lee and were made as the primary features while The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Reptile (1966) were filmed together as the secondary pictures for their respective pairings. All were made at breakneck speed, often with less than one week in between production schedules, leading to months of grueling work for the cast and crew.

While most of the advertising was allocated to the A-titles, the B-features offered an exciting sense of originality and discovery that something like Dracula: Prince of Darkness sacrificed in lieu of the familiar. Of particular note was The Plague of the Zombies, which dealt in creatures that had been deemed too gruesome to join Universal Studios’ roster of classic monsters several years prior. Anthony Hinds and Peter Bryan, originally behind the Universal pitch, instead brought the idea to Hammer. As longtime collaborators, the studio was more than willing to give this particular brand of “gruesome” a try, especially given that an American studio was footing the bill.

The set was a somewhat contentious one, Hammer bringing on trusted director John Gilling who was known for his brashness, savage temper and adeptness with marrying the storytelling with the technical side of filmmaking. Somewhat notorious with the cast and crew, he was considered someone who would get the job done, on time and on budget. At the same time, respected actor André Morell was brought in to play the lead and wore his immediate and unforgiving distaste for his co-star Diane Clare on his sleeve throughout the whole of the production. There’s even some thought that when production wrapped, Morell himself was a factor in why all of Diane Clare’s dialogue was dubbed by Olive Gregg without the actress’ knowledge or consent.

Ultimately the film delivered a frightening, gothic spin on the zombie mythos. With a class based sense of social commentary, it foreshadowed much of the stylistic shifts that would soon be occurring in the genre. Employing chilling effects, rich production design and a discordantly eerie score by James Bernard, the picture wowed audiences and created a lasting impression.

A film which operated several years ahead of its time, The Plague of the Zombies’ influence is as present in the genre today as it was in the flesh-eating glut of films which would come in the wake of George A. Romero’s breakout masterpiece Night of the Living Dead (1968) just two years later. But unlike The Plague of the ZombiesNight of the Living Dead would go on to change the genre and, ironically, provide the first concrete hint that Hammer’s relevance in the marketplace just might have an expiration date.

The Film

“Do you believe in life after death, Miss Forbes?”

Men pound ritualistically on drums as two robed figures wearing druidic masks approach a candlelit altar. The score hammers discordantly while the men exchange a small totem, carved to look like a coffin, containing a doll crudely crafted out of clay. Concurrently, a woman awakens in her bed, somewhere far away from the dank cave of dark rites, terrified and bleeding from a wrapped wound on her wrist. Back in the cave, one of the men removes a bottle of what appears to be blood and pours it on the doll, ceremoniously observing his efforts with power and pride.

Right from the start, The Plague of the Zombies offers a more modern approach to engaging its audience, allowing a glimpse at what might normally play as a late event in the second act. As it is, with its bombastic score and arresting imagery, the sequence unseats expectations and establishes a unique and earthy aesthetic that serves as a contrast to the gothic manors and rustic taverns one might be accustomed to in Hammer’s oeuvre.

That’s not to say that Plague has any shortage of manors or taverns. Far from it. The film absolutely abides by the tropes of its gothic horror lineage, it simply injects the proceedings with a healthy dose of West Indies Voodoo. As a result, the film offers a sense of seriousness and class that intermingles with a level of grotesquery and horror normally reserved for what might be perceived as a more crude production.

The film follows Sir James Forbes and his daughter Sylvia (Morell and Clare, respectively) as they travel at the behest of Forbes’ former pupil Peter, played by Brook Williams, to a small Cornish village under siege by a mystifying plague. As the town’s physician, Peter is under scrutiny from the community and his own conscience, desperate to discover the source of and solution to the town’s fatalistic dilemma.

Despite rumors of André Morell’s distaste for his onscreen daughter Diane Clare, the two exhibit a friendly dynamic that makes their interactions a joy to watch and provides authenticity to their relationship. A classically trained actor, Morell brings gravitas and intensity to the title role, carrying the narrative’s ideological transition from science to superstition with subtlety and impact.

Although her lines were dubbed over, Diane Clare fares well in the role of curious daughter and concerned friend, although she is mostly relegated to the frightened and eventually brainwashed victim. Brook Williams’ Peter, on the other hand, is distracting to say the least. Requiring heavy emotional output and empathy, I am sad to report that Williams generates neither. Instead, he comes across as huffy and stilted, easily the picture’s weakest link.

The story sets itself up as a multi-tiered whodunnit, pitting Morell’s Forbes’ scientifically driven mind against the inexplicable nature of disappearing bodies and sightings of corpses roaming the moors at night. Opposite Morell is John Carson as Squire Clive Hamilton, acting as the spiritual and financial leader of the village. Carson delivers an understated and yet authoritative masterclass in villainy, which is apparent from the very beginning, despite the protagonists’ ignorance. The film makes no qualms about informing the viewer of its villain’s true intent, presenting the in-story mystery as less of a twisty draw and more of a straight-forward narrative device.

The frame is lush and beautifully photographed, aside from some rather poorly processed day-for-night sequences, and the effects are well realized. The film contains one of Hammer’s more famous moments of terror when a screeching zombie appears in the night, carrying the corpse of a young woman, but it would be reductive to only mention that over the zombie makeup at large. One scene in particular, involving the undead rising from their graves in the darkness, hands and faces emerging from the grainy earth, feels as effective and relevant to modern day zombie features as most anything made post Night of the Living Dead.

There are of course differences between these zombies and the ones George A. Romero would popularize several years later. The deceased exhibit more vampire-like tendencies than their slavish origins suggest in Voodoo mythos. For example, when Sylvia’s friend Alice, in a consistently scene-stealing performance by Jacqueline Pearce, rises from the grave, she moves wearing a wide, devilish grin, suggesting a seductive spell that feels undeniably vampiric.

The film is not without its flaws. The depiction of the natives drumming madly in the caves is insensitive, somewhat thoughtless and painfully dated. The plot doesn’t always quite add up, which is most glaringly apparent in Hamilton’s inexplicable masterplan to kidnap Sylvia and turn her into a zombie. Still, its inventive take on what was considered a relatively boorish monster at the time allowed the filmmakers to tell a frightening story layered with working class commentary, lending meaning where there might otherwise have only been mild entertainment.

The movie is fun, frightening and undeniably potent, standing as one of Hammer’s best efforts. It feels fresh despite being beholden to recycled sets and genre tropes, offering up its blood and gore with a social message condemning the elite aristocrats Hammer movies so often served up. Its story plays out remarkably similar to the original Dracula tale, both in plot and character, bringing with it a level of class and contemporary awareness that elevated it far beyond its second-tier classification.

It’s a rumination on belief, both logical and otherwise, and the overwhelming conviction those under its influence are subject to. Like the pounding of ritualistic drums as they resound through a hollowed out cave, The Plague of Zombies resonates long beyond its brisk runtime, aiding the genre on its path to resurrecting the dead for many years to come.

The Special Features

Previously released by Studiocanal in 2012 on Region B blu-ray in the UK, this version comes equipped with the same studio master. Meticulously restored by Pinewood studios, the transfer is clean and detailed. Colors pop and textures are lifelike and engaging. The ported over DTS-HD Master Mono track honors the power of the film’s striking score while still allowing for clarity in dialogue and sound effects, making for a captivating experience overall.

Audio Commentary, by Filmmaker Constantine Nasr, Film Historian Steve Haberman and Writer/Producer Ted Newsome


No strangers to Scream Factory’s Hammer line, Constantine Nasr and Steve Haberman return once again, this time with Ted Newsome in tow, to provide their own thoughtful insight regarding the production, players and impact of The Plague of the Zombies.

They discuss the thematics of the story and its influences, likening it to the Corman-Poe cycle from earlier in the decade as well as looking at the Val Lewton approach it occasionally adopts. They discuss the controversial tactics but undeniable effectiveness of director John Gilling, while also touching on André Morrell’s dislike of Diane Clare and her subsequent re-voicing, suggesting that it may not have been bad acting so much as it was her modern feel which didn’t quite fit the production.

The historians talk at length about the egregious day for night shooting, calling out that the issue is more with the lab timing and not so much the filmmaker, while still giving kudos to the sequential makeup effects and overall EC Comics feels of the zombies in the picture. They go on to discuss how William Lustig plucked the film from obscurity years ago, licensing it for DVD in the States and the struggles of making forgotten films available for discovery once more.

It’s a fun and informative track by people who have nothing but respect and admiration for the film. It deepens the personality of the production and is an enjoyable way to further explore the forgotten genre classic.

Audio Commentary, by Author Troy Howarth


The disc also offers a second new commentary track, this time by author and Hammer aficionado Troy Howarth. He provides an incredibly informative, detailed account of the production, the actors and their histories as well as the timeline of the film’s conception through its realization.

He covers much of the same information as the previous commentary, going deeper into how similar the story is to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He views the film with an honest eye, making his displeasure with the day for night shooting abundantly clear and laying into Brook Williams performance. He discusses the fascinating dichotomy between the different types of religion and beliefs on display in the film and praises the filmmaking techniques, analyzing the cinematography with the same level of detail he does the performances and anecdotal history of the production.

Ultimately, the track is a tad dry and a little too encyclopedic when it comes to the filmography of even the smallest onscreen performers, but for fans of the film it is utterly fascinating and his dissection of how the story parallels Dracula is worth the listen alone.

World of Hammer: “Mummies, Werewolves & The Living Dead” (24:55)

(1990, Hammer Film Productions Ltd)

An episode of Hammer’s TV series, narrated by Oliver Reed. The show was a clip and compilation block that briefly summarized the plots and events from some of the studio’s most famous films.

This particular episode primarily contains clips from The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), Captain Clegg (1962), Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and The Plague of the Zombies. While offering nothing new, there is a certain wholesome charm to seeing Alice’s decapitation edited with Oliver Reed voiceover in 4×3 standard definition. It reminds of a time when these films were infinitely less available, showing the somewhat lost value of episodes such as this.

Raising the Dead: The Making of the Plague of Zombies (35:27)

(2012, Directed by Marcus Hearn, Produced by Studiocanal)

A series of interviews featuring actor John Carson, actress Jacqueline Pearce, actor Mark Gatiss and film historians Marcus Hearn, Jonathan Rigby and more discussing the making of The Plague of the Zombies.

Covering everything from John Carson’s frustration that Hammer is what he’s remembered for to the film’s journey from Universal films pitch in 1963 to 20th Century Fox co-produced Dracula: Prince of Darkness B-picture in 1966. The historians offer thoughtful analysis, praising the film’s originality and use of Voodoo zombies in quaint Cornwall while the actors provide charming reminiscence. Jacqueline Pierce in particular livens things up, describing her excitement at seeing herself on the big screen for the first time with Plague and her claustrophobic struggles when making the plaster head for her decapitation scene.

One of the more fascinating elements of this feature is the time it spends on the film’s restoration. The negative had been badly damaged over time and here they show the excruciating energy and effort Pinewood Studios took to reconstruct the torn and scratched negative, frame by frame.

While it runs a little long considering it’s mostly comprised of talking heads, it’s an illuminating look at the film. It provides a bite-sized explanation and study of the picture for those who might be interested while not being interested enough to commit to one or both of the commentaries.

Restoration Comparison (3:37)

(2012, Produced by Studiocanal)

A before and after comparison reel showcasing the amount of depth, color and detail regained by the efforts at Pinewood Studios. Shots of the exterior of the house, the characters conversing and the burning visage of the abandoned tin mine highlight pops, scratches, flickering and skin tone affectations all brought to life in the process of restoring the film. Even giant tears in the frame are corrected here in this incredibly compelling testament to an essential operation oft overlooked by physical media fans.

Theatrical Trailers (7:25)

Three trailers are presented here. The first and second are incredibly similar, the words DRUMS and VOODOO flying at the screen atop the emboldened word TERROR. In classic Hammer fashion, they are laden with hyperbole and far too much plot description, announcing: no corpse can remain at peace in this village of the undead… this land of the zombies!

The third and final trailer focuses on the Dracula: Prince of Darkness double feature. After a minute on Christopher Lee’s returning count, it announces: PLUS — UN DEATH. The second half plays out like the first two trailers, only this time going farther and revealing the final shots of the movie whilst announcing the big reveal of the villain’s master plan.

The real highlight is seeing the oddly sexist targeted advertisement for boys and girls to get their free Dracula Fangs and Zombie Eyes respectively, as though the two things are gender specific. Not only is it fun to see the emphasis placed on such a gimmick, it shows that Hammer was well aware of the age groups their salacious cinema tended to attract.

Still Gallery (7:10)

Production photography, lobby cards, headshots, glamour shots, candid moments of the cast, crew and effects work and more! Also fun to see are the various posters and advertisements for the stand alone feature and accompanying double bill, spanning the world over. An entertaining slideshow for fans of the film and Hammer alike.

Final Thoughts

The Plague of the Zombies was a bit of an afterthought, a secondary draw to a far more important headliner. It had neither the stars most associated with Hammer nor the types of recognizable monsters or terrors the studio had spent years basing their image on. It was an oddity, a risk mitigated by the fact that the funding was on 20th Century Fox’s dime and, frankly, it didn’t need to perform— Dracula did.

Beginning as a failed pitch for a larger studio, the project hung in limbo for years before finally coming to fruition. By the time it reached John Gilling, it had undergone multiple rewrites and budget shifts, landing as a project that Hammer believed in while not being so invested that they cared to micromanage the production. Add in the casting of acclaimed British actor André Morell and the project began to take impressive shape.

The result was a uniquely original film, despite its typical conceit of an unlikely aged man of prominence investigating some supernatural goings on in a small, secluded town. The effects are fantastic and the zombies themselves truly horrific, alluding to the evolution of the silver screen monster often more associated with the films of the 70s and 80s. It leans on canted angle graveyard shots and lumbering, dead-eyed ghouls just as much as any Of the Dead knock-off well before those films existed to pilfer from in the first place, deserving all the credit and respect that statement should afford.

Once again, Scream Factory presents a worthy release of an all too under-seen gem. Porting over the great transfer and features found on the 2012 Studiocanal release and commissioning two additional commentary tracks, the release offers the most comprehensive look at the film yet put to disc.

Who knows if George A. Romero saw this ahead of creating his living dead masterwork. Regardless, I think it’s safe to say that even if Hammer couldn’t keep up with the changing landscape of horror cinema in the coming decade, the studio’s legacy lives in films like The Plague of the Zombies. It’s a history that remains intact and influential, resurrected in its successors and alive in the genre, suggesting that relevance sometimes runs much deeper than ticket sales.


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