As previously noted in my review of Dracula Prince of Darkness, The Plague of the Zombies was released with that film as a double bill in early 1966, forming one half of their Cornwall located productions that utilised the same sets on the back lot at Bray and were produced as part of their contracts with Eliot Hyman's Seven-Arts, Fox and ABPC.
The Plague of the Zombies had been knocking about as an unfilmed property at Hammer for some years, originating from a Peter Bryan synopsis, The Zombie, in 1962, with further embellishments to it from producer Tony Hinds a year later, and announced as a forthcoming production in November 1963. It later appeared as Horror of the Zombies as part of the Hammer programme for 1964. Director John Gilling's association with Hammer went back to 1949, primarily as a writer on such projects as The Man in Black (1949), Room to Let (1950) and, uncredited, on Whispering Smith Hits London (1952), and then directing and writing a gamut of variable films, including Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952), the Anthony Newley vehicle Idol on Parade (1959), and a number of television dramas during the 1950s. Between 1959 and 1960, he directed two films with Peter Cushing as the lead, the cult classic about Burke and Hare, The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) and period adventure Fury at Smugglers' Bay (1961). His handling of both horror and period adventure would determine the nature of his work with Hammer when he returned to the company in 1960 to direct The Shadow of the Cat (1961).
Gilling was offered the 'back-to-back' productions of The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile in 1965 and agreed to take the director's chair on the condition that he had control of the scripts. The Plague of the Zombies depicts the nefarious machinations of local Squire Clive Hamilton, who uses Haitian voodoo rituals to raise the dead while two doctors, Peter Tompson and James Forbes, set out to investigate a spate of mysterious deaths in a Cornish village, including the death of Tompson's wife Alice. Gilling observed in Little Shoppe of Horrors that "like so many successful thrillers, the dramas unfolded against tranquil, soothing backgrounds like Cornwall, thus heightening the foreground action that was concerned with thrills and horror." Many have also observed, and this is pointed out by Jonathan Rigby in the disc's documentary 'Raising the Dead', that the narrative structure and characters of The Plague of the Zombies harks back to Dracula (Squire Hamilton is equated with Count Dracula, James Forbes with Van Helsing and Sylvia and Alice as stand-ins for Mina and Lucy) and recycles some elements of Bryan's scripts for Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles, particularly the symbolism of the Squire and his fox hunt.
The script, as per the usual routine, had to be submitted to the BBFC for their review and in June 1964 the first draft received a list of requested changes to enable the film to achieve an X certificate. John Trevelyan and his readers were clearly upset about the abundance of gore and violence in the script, particularly a scene where the Squire and his men threaten the female lead. As Wayne Kinsey notes in his Hammer Films -The Bray Studios Years, they considered the depiction of the men 'playing cards' for her and one of the men brandishing a riding crop as "excessive" and requested the intimation of rape "be toned down". "Anything really unpleasant" was frowned upon where the script depicted coffins, dead bodies, burning zombies and the decapitation of the undead Alice and this coupled with the rising of the dead was snootily regarded as "horror-comic material which simply would not do." The MPAA, the US censor, also raised its concerns about how many blows would be used to remove Alice's head.
Hammer make-up genius Roy Ashton was charged with creating the zombies and handling the decapitation of Alice. Zombie faces were made from layering up crumpled tissue paper, Fuller's earth and latex and Ashton designed sets of contact lenses, encompassing a small hole to allow the artist to see and with reverse tone values - white with black backgrounds - and applied these to the motley group of artists playing the zombies including stunt men Peter Diamond, Del Watson, Keith Peacock and actor Ben Aris. Ashton also fashioned the voodoo mask that actor John Carson, playing Squire Hamilton, wears during the ritual scenes from an old polishing cloth and his own bootlaces.
Actress Jacqueline Pearce, playing Alice, recalls the claustrophobic process she had to endure to create the prop head, used in the decapitation sequence, in the documentary 'Raising the Dead' featured on this release but the extent of her claustrophobia also meant that she had great difficulty remaining calm lying in the coffin in the graveyard during the sequence where she rises from the dead. Roy Ashton remembers, in Greasepaint and Gore, "It was only when the first assistant director Bert Batt offered to lie beneath her that she agreed to enter the grave. He talked to her all the time to keep her calm."
Marcus Hearn notes in The Hammer Vault that The Plague of the Zombies represented "a turning point in Hammer's history, where the production values familiar from the company's late '50s classics combine with a more visceral and immediate style of horror." This combination, particularly the immediacy of the film, is down to Gilling's direction and visual style. The film opens with a striking title sequence that tells the viewer that the source of the film's horror lies not within the European Gothic tradition but taps into a British colonial past and features, as David Pirie argues, "a kind of alien and inexplicable plague which has been imported from the East via a corrupt aristocracy" and around which the film constructs an anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist metaphor.
This importation of voodoo into Hammer's vision of Victorian England could also perhaps be a reflection of the still simmering racial tensions in the aftermath of the 1958 Notting Hill race riots. While the film exploits the disrupting exoticism of Haiti and its black magic presence in England, it also subverts the nonsense that Contemporary Review writer Esme Wynne-Tyson was trotting out in the late 1950s about the effects of ethnic cultures on British youth: "The 'hot' music, primitive dances, and other sensual practices of the coloured races, have permeated with their devolutionary influences every corner of a once proud civilisation, debasing and obstructing the process of an originally highly ethical people." The Plague of the Zombies turns the tables on this tainting of a "once proud civilisation" and the colonial theme is supplemented with subtexts about class warfare and capitalist exploitation of the working class, using them, what June Pulliam notes in the film, as "dead labour".
Black presence in the film is peripheral, with the voodoo participants and drummers seen in the rituals and Hamilton's black servant of note, but the film's anti-colonialist subtext is focused on the young white Squire Hamilton who is portrayed as the immoral colonial master attempting to exploit this exoticism for his own capitalist needs and who turns his neighbours, working class men, into zombies to work his abandoned tin mine. As Pulliam notes in Icons of Horror and the Supernatural, "The racial politics of The Plague of the Zombies are also similar to those of White Zombie (1932). Whites, not blacks, have appropriated Haitian magic in order to make zombies." She also sees the film as a transitional one in its depiction of the cinematic zombie and suggests the creatures in Gilling's film are an immediate precursor to those in George A Romero's films, the first of which, Night of the Living Dead (1968) would usher in the genre's contemporary milieu.
Later, in a wonderfully atmospheric scene as the possessed Alice arrives at the disused mine, Gilling frames her through the struts of mill machinery until she turns and her face is covered by the shadow of a hand and then a torso. This is later repeated and punctuated in a stunningly visceral moment, one of the film's key achievements in horror, when Sylvia, on her way home after her encounter with Hamilton and his men, is presented with Alice's body by a snarling, screeching zombie and the sudden appearance of which Gilling drives home with a crash zoom.
Angles are often low or high and with some scenes shot overhead. The simple scene where Peter Tompson and Forbes do the washing up is rendered strange because Gilling chooses to shoot from the ceiling and down onto the exchange between the two men about the mysterious deaths in the village, the uncanniness symbolised by Tompson dropping and breaking a plate. There's even some lovely hand-held shooting as Alice, wandering somnambulistically through the woods, is tracked backwards through the ferns and trees and later, when Sylvia is surrounded and captured by Hamilton's young bloods on their horses.
The sub-text of gang rape is still simmering in the background of this scene, with Sylvia shot at floor level scrabbling around the booted legs of the young bloods and Hamilton's lackey Denver underlining the sadism of the scene in the brandishing of his riding crop. This visual style is carried through into the scene where the local bobby (Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper) catches Forbes and Tompson digging up graves in the local churchyard. The investigation of the graveyard, which reveals that the dead have gone missing, is a prelude to the what are the highlights of The Plague of the Zombies - Alice's zombie resurrection and despatch and Peter Tompson's dream sequence.
Gilling then segues into Peter Tompson's dream sequence and constructs one of the most striking moments in horror cinema. Images are bathed in a green mist as Tompson's vision takes on a nightmarish quality, the camera tilted to suggest an off-kilter view of the world and the great use of hand-held cinematography to give the horrible images a jerky, feverish quality. Zombies rise out of their graves, their hands and arms bursting from the soil like unholy blooms and inspired touches include zombies shaking soil off their faces, scrabbling over the top of gravestones, stepping through pools of bright red blood and the mordant irony of a zoom on the 'with deepest sympathy' card from Squire Hamilton's wreath. A brilliantly shot and edited sequence.
After a delicious face-off between Forbes and Hamilton, the slow burn of the film suddenly rushes to a rather hurried conclusion where Forbes trespasses into Hamilton's house and finds the evidence he's looking for and stabs Hamilton's side-kick Denver. Hamilton puts Sylvia under his spell and brings her to him through the power of the voodoo ritual and prepares to sacrifice her (with some not so subtle sexual imagery as Hamilton strokes a huge knife). She, Peter and Sir James narrowly escape a tin mine full of burning zombies as the manor burns down and takes the voodoo dolls and the effectiveness of the ritual with it. There are one or two shots where Roy Ashton's make-up has been replaced by some rather obvious masks as various stunt men lurch about aflame and attempt to put themselves out but Hamilton's comeuppance, trapped in the burning mine and dragged away by his undead workforce, is eminently satisfying.
About the transfer
After the issues with Dracula Prince of Darkness, there may be a sense of approaching further releases from StudioCanal with some caution but rest assured the film looks and sounds great. The restoration brings the film to life, with well defined detail and colour being the major beneficiaries here. The hunting jackets of the young bloods literally pop off the screen, Ashton's make-up can be seen in more detail, often to its detriment, and the interiors offer a wealth of period detail. Good contrast levels exist throughout and give the picture a solid, robust feel and the requisite film grain is as it should be. The odd speck crops up here and there and some of the scene transitions suffer in quality but presumably that's just down to the source material. As you'll see from the 'Raising the Dead' documentary there were many efforts made to repair some sections of the film too and stabilise certain damaged shots. You'll also be relieved to note that there are no audio sync issues and all is as it should be with Bernard's score thundering away wonderfully, dialogue and effects crisp and clear in a solidly presented soundtrack.
Raising the Dead (29:10)
Another wonderfully put together documentary that looks at the making of and cultural context of the film. Actors John Carson and Jacqueline Pearce recall their involvement in the film, with Pearce discussing the day she had to have her head cast made and the quality of her co-stars' performances and Carson contemplating his career as a screen villain, while Hammer historian Marcus Hearn, horror experts Jonathan Rigby and Mark Gatiss add their opinions and offer further detail about the film. David Huckvale also looks at James Bernard's score, suggesting how modernist the composer's work was for the time. Finally, Hammer expert Wayne Kinsey and set designer Don Mingaye take us through the logistics of the shoot at Bray. A brief coda looks at the restoration process applied to the film over at Pinewood.
World of Hammer - Mummies, Werevoles and the Living Dead (24:49)
Oliver Reed rumbles over another episode of the Sidaway produced series.
Restoration Comparison (4:32)
In similar fashion to the comparison on the Dracula disc, here we get nearly five minutes of split screen 'before' and 'after' shots. The 'before' still looks odd to me. Did the original negative really look as bleached out as it is presented here?
The Plague of the Zombies
Hammer / Seven-Arts
StudioCanal Double Play Blu-Ray & DVD Special Edition / Cert: 12A / Catalogue No: OPTBD0630 / Released 18 June 2012
Blu-ray tech specs: Region B / Total Running Time: 89:54 / Feature Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 / Colour PAL / Video Codec: AVC 1080p / Audio Codec: LPCM dual-mono soundtrack / Feature Audio: LPCM / English Language