PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1965) 30th July 1977 00.05 – 01.30
Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell)
There is a well-established and widely-accepted narrative of the history of Hammer Films into which Plague of the Zombies might seem to fit nicely, filmed as it was in 1965 back to back with The Reptile, utilising the same sets and many of the same cast and crew as a cost-cutting experiment in reducing Hammer’s shoestring budgets still further. The accepted – and to me rather annoying- line goes something like this:
Hammer burst onto the scene in the late 1950s with a new, fast-paced and dynamic approach to Gothic horror. There was a brief run of very polished productions (Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy and The Hound of the Baskervilles) before trouble with the censors and increasing difficulty in attracting American finance meant a quick descent into uninspired and cash-strapped sequels, often featuring a visibly disinterested and disapproving Christopher Lee. The 1960s for Hammer was one long exercise in diminishing returns until the company disintegrated into bankruptcy and irrelevance by the early 70s.
The truth however, as always, is rather more complex than the 30-second soundbite news agenda version might suggest. Yes, Hammer made some shockingly bad films in the 1970s, but they also made some very good ones such as Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter and the ‘ so much better than its title might give you any reason to expect’ Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. And actually, at least for me, Hammer’s early to mid-1960s output, despite the occasional misfire, includes the very best films the company ever made.
From that point of view, whoever selected the films for transmission in the 1977 season of BBC2 horror double bills demonstrated a quality of judgement bordering on genius. Not so much in the choice of the Universals, which, once you start with Dracula and Frankenstein pretty much select themselves, but in approaching the AIP and the Hammer movies the level of critical discernment is extraordinary.
The Premature Burial and Fall of the House of Usher, both of which I first saw as part of the 1977 season Dracula, Frankenstein – and Friends, remain, for me, the most powerful and absorbing of Roger Corman’s Poe films. The others are all great; the more critically lauded Masque of the Red Death including some breath-taking cinematography by Nicholas Roeg; Tomb of Ligeia making full use of the opportunity to break out of the series’ claustrophobic, studio-bound conventions in its beautiful deployment of the Norfolk landscape, and The Pit and the Pendulum featuring some more overtly frightening imagery. Even so if I were given a choice of only two for my desert island film season it would always be the two shown on BBC2 in the Summer of 77.
Same with Hammer. The studio was so extraordinarily prolific that there is a wealth of wonders for the programmer to select from, but the decision to largely steer away from the more obvious selections – Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula Prince of Darkness – meant the inclusion of some of the less well-known gems which, for me at least, are the best things that Hammer ever did.
Brides of Dracula, Kiss of the Vampire, The Reptile and Plague of the Zombies. It’s an inspired selection – to this day they would probably occupy slots one, two, three and four in my list of favourite Hammer films (think I don’t spend my idle evenings making and remaking that particular list, even though it never really changes? Ha!). Of all Hammer’s films the only others that would ever edge close to that top four would be The Devil Rides Out and Quatermass and the Pit (both also from the company’s mid 60s period and both of which I saw first in a subsequent season of BBC2 horror double bills in 1979).
Thank you, anonymous acquisitions and scheduling genius of the airwaves, for bringing me Plague of the Zombies and the others in such quick succession. I can never repay you.
For one thing, Plague of the Zombies is still a very effective shocker, in the good old-fashioned sense of the word. Borrowing most of its plot points and characterisation from a combination of Stoker and Conan-Doyle, the literary pedigree was a promising one. One of the features that moves Plague of the Zombies beyond its unacknowledged source material, however, is a real nastiness in many of its key moments which is quite ‘modern’ in sensibility. I mean nastiness as a compliment; there’s a harder, edgier quality to the film than is often associated with Hammer in the 1960s.
The most obvious example is the genuine brutality with which the film disposes of Jacqueline Pearce’s Alice, one of the films female leads. Ben Aris, in a zombie makeup which would hold its own in a gruesomeness competition with anything in The Walking Dead, appears at the crest of a hill, emits a gleefully inhuman cackle of delight and hurls Alice’s broken body down the rocky slope, her neck horribly and unnaturally twisted.
It may be the best-known single image from the film, but it’s by no means an isolated moment.
There’s a truly disturbing sequence in which Squire Hamilton’s red-jacketed, fox-hunting posh-boy henchmen kidnap Diane Clare’s Sylvia in a scene – virtually a restaging of the opening of Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles – which is quite overtly leading towards gang rape, with only the intervention of the squire himself preventing the action becoming even more horrifying.
There is also a fantastic sequence in which a zombified Alice rises from her grave, while a horrified Andre Morell murmurs ‘Zombie..!’ before striking off her head with a handy shovel.
That scene in turn prompts an equally gripping dream sequence – a very rare storytelling device for Hammer – in which a whole array of zombies struggle out of the earth to menace Alice’s horrified husband. Perhaps a response to the success of the dream sequences being so effectively deployed by Roger Corman in the Poe cycle for AIP, Doctor Thompson’s nightmare actually illustrates the differences between the approaches of the two companies far more than the similarities.
As befits the more psychological terrors the Poe films exploit, Corman’s frequent and brilliantly imaginative dream sequences feel vague, formless, hallucinogenic and genuinely dream-like. By contrast there is something hideously concrete about the dream scene in Plague of the Zombies, a sense that the undeniably nightmarish imagery is also solid, remorselessly physical and corporeal.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all, however, is the sheer pace of the storytelling. For illustration, consider the fact that all of the scenes I’ve just described occur, virtually one after another, in the space of about fifteen minutes of screen time. The sheer velocity of the narrative is exceptional, even by the adrenaline-packed standards of Hammer’s scriptwriters.
The performances are also worthy of attention. Andre Morell – previously a very effective Watson to Cushing’s Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles – is on top form as Professor Forbes. Crusty and irascible, he’s introduced to us treating his daughter as though she were an idiot and observing that he ‘should have drowned her at birth’ – to which our preferred response is clearly intended to be ‘what a lovable old curmudgeon’, which is, bizarrely, exactly what Diane Clare as his daughter seems to feel about it.
Morell is skilled enough to lend Forbes a considerable degree of charm alongside the grumpiness however, and he inhabits the role of upper class scientific hero adventurer convincingly.
John Carson is an equally effective antagonist, doing suave aristocratic villainy to the hilt in a highly impressive performance aided by his uncanny ability to channel the voice of James Mason and thus echo all those cold-hearted blackguards Mason delivered in a series of Gainsborough melodramas of the 1940s.
Also worthy of note, lending a genuine depth and sincerity to the limited screen time she is allowed, is Jacqueline Pearce, later to help a whole generation of schoolboys through their difficult teenage years in her role as Supreme Commander Servalan in the BBC’s Blake’s Seven. Her Alice Thompson is a subtle, affecting performance which helps give the horror of the character’s ghastly demise a far greater impact than it might have had were the part to have been played by a less skilled actress. Although only appearing in a handful of scenes, Pearce is responsible for much of what is best in Plague of the Zombies, and she was given a further chance to display her considerable talent for Hammer in The Reptile.
One further mention seems appropriate. Roy Ashton’s grisly makeup designs are genuinely terrific – the undead monsters here are the first screen zombies to actually look like rotting corpses, as opposed to the wide-eyed somnambulists seen earlier in films like the Halperins 1932 White Zombie and Val Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie for RKO.
I think I may be right in boldly asserting that Plague of the Zombies also represents the last major cinematic outing of the original Haitian version of the zombie which had been introduced to the movie-going public in Lugosi’s White Zombie. Only a couple of years after the release of Plague of the Zombies, George A Romero’s seminal 1968 Night of the Living Dead stripped away all the magic and exoticism, re-imagining the zombie as a grimly non-supernatural creature lurching much more uncomfortably close to home in quasi-documentary form.
Given the seemingly endless proliferation of its hellish progeny, Romero’s masterpiece has a fair claim (at least alongside Psycho) of being the movie that spawned the contemporary horror film. It is, without question, one of the most influential films of the past fifty years, a movie of undeniable power, not least in its scathing social commentary, but also in it’s approach to narrative resolution. For me it is Night of the Living Dead which made the downbeat ending almost de rigueur for the horror genre, at the time subverting the convention so strikingly that it has itself become the convention, to the extent that Hammer’s narratives, with their ultimate triumphs of the forces of good, now seem rather quaint.
For all that, however, I rather like a touch of the supernatural in my monsters, and respond if anything even more deeply to the old-school zombie than to the thinly disguised satirical purpose of Romero’s gut-gobbling head splatterers and their descendants, in movies like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later or the brilliant TV series The Walking Dead.
There’s a satirical purpose in the old-school Plague of the Zombies too, of course, but it’s less overt and specific than, say, Dawn of the Dead’s pleasing ‘zombies as consumers’ shopping mall conceit which feels so on the nose as to be, in the end, a little trite, and for me the older film is ultimately more subtle and powerful as a result.
Class politics lie at the centre of Plague of the Zombies, but they remain the sub-text of a rattling good horror yarn, rather than giving the impression that the neat intellectual metaphor came first and the plot second. Consequently the Hammer film, like White Zombie before it, has much more of what is sometimes referred to as ‘heart’.
The zombie workforce operating the abandoned Cornish tin mine under the control of the aristocratic Squire Hamilton makes the sense of the zombie as a symbol of an exploited proletariat fairly self-evident. What is altogether less evident is why Hamilton feels it necessary to go to such extravagant lengths to run a tin mine – minimum wage is a possibility without necessitating the use of voodoo.
Marxist theory would see nothing strange in this however. The logic of ownership and acquisition always has an unacknowledged absurdity at its heart which makes the – in this case quite literal – objectification of the workforce an inevitable corollary of capitalist economics. Marx used the analogy of vampirism more than once to describe the relationship between Capital and Labour, but the zombie as a living (no, sorry, not living) embodiment of the process of reification is perhaps an even more potent symbol. Even death is not an escape from economic slavery.
The class conflicts simmering through Plague of the Zombies are not restricted to this central metaphor though.
The villainous squire, and even more overtly the gang of posh ‘young bloods’ who he controls, demonstrate a sense of total entitlement which is deeply unpleasant. When their fox hunt takes a wrong turn – deliberately misled by Sylvia, an early hunt-saboteur – they are quite prepared to disrupt a funeral procession, and utterly unconcerned when they cause the coffin to be overturned and the unfortunate corpse to tumble out.
This sense of entitlement is pushed to it’s logical extreme as a kind of communal droit de seigneur when they kidnap Diane Clare and hurl her from man to man, before cutting a pack of cards to see who gets first go.
Although clearly the hero of the film, Andre Morell’s Sir James is able to take a similarly high-handed and self-assured approach to such matters as the law – which is clearly meant for men of lower status than himself. Indulging in a spot of unauthorised grave robbing, he is caught in the act by (who else?) Michael Ripper as the local copper, but takes less than a minute to have Ripper on-side and helping out by volunteering to fill in the grave himself while Sir James takes a breather.
This sense of assurance, and entitlement, is what Sir James and Clive Hamilton share, and it makes the conflict between them an engrossing one, shown best in the one icy face to face confrontation the script allows them, as it is the only conflict between equals we see throughout the film.
Elsewhere, the conflicts are all about inequalities in status and authority, all about hierarchy.
For instance, the working class villagers lucky enough to still be breathing are bitterly resentful of Doctor Thompson, the middle class professional unable to explain or prevent whatever is causing the flurry of mysterious deaths which have afflicted the village. In a confrontation between Thompson and the villagers in the local inn the brother of the most recent victim snarls ‘Oh, so we’re not good enough for you…’, voicing the source of the villagers’ resentment. They feel it is Thompson’s disdain, regarding them as a bunch of backwards peasants, that means he feels it is not worth his time to discover why they are dying.
The confrontation is only defused by the arrival of the genuinely upper-crust Sir James, who is granted a natural authority as a ‘proper gentleman’, dealing with the locals with an aristocratic grandeur and insouciance which Thompson, educated but lacking in confidence, at times self-pitying and wheedling, at times almost aggressive, is unable to assume.
Brooke Williams’ Thompson is not particularly likeable, and certainly has none of the charisma of Andre Morell’s hero or John Carson’s villain, but I find myself sympathising with him more than the on-screen representation might suggest, because I understand a little bit about class insecurity myself. While I’d like to see myself as the assertively assured Sir John, or as one of the salt-of-the-earth loyal-as-they-come villagers, the truth is that I’m much closer to Thompson.
Perhaps it is a certain uncomfortable awareness of the ambivalences and insecurities of my own class position that means I respond so strongly to the symbolically heightened class conflicts that form the sub-textual heart of Plague of the Zombies. Even as early as that first horror double bill screening back in 1977 I’d already passed what was then called the eleven plus exam and was well aware that I was on the path to being educated away from my roots and into a different order of life, a process that solidified and accelerated as the years went by.
As I type these lines, I’m drinking a glass of St Emilion, from a bottle I bought nipping out to Waitrose just prior to my wife hosting a dinner party for her book group friends – teachers for the most part, though one of them has a touch of blue blood. Sinatra, Astaire, Bowlly, Crosby and Billie Holiday are crooning, Django is burning up the fretboard and Satch is tootling incomparably from my ipod dock; shelf upon shelf of books – nice copies for the most part, Folio and the like – surround me. And I’m writing by scented candlelight. In other words, I’m undeniably, irredeemably and inescapably middle class.
It wasn’t always so. Dad was an electrician by trade, blue overalls never mind blue collar. Mum worked on the factory floor. Wine was for Christmas, and it meant Asti Spumante, or, for a touch of extra sophistication, Blue Nun or Liebfraumilch. Books only came on loan from a library (except for Christmas annuals and my Target novelisations), and candles were only for keeping in a drawer as an emergency measure ready for the 3 day week and the miners bringing down Ted Heath’s government.
Moving between classes makes you more acutely aware of the betrayals and the unexamined hypocrisies inherent in the system than belonging in an unmediated, uncomplicated way to one class or the other, and guilt is an inescapable part of the process. It’s lodged somewhere deep down in my psyche, nagging away at me whenever I write a cheque for the cleaning lady. Resentment and bitterness are just as inescapable, however, surfacing every time one or other of our friends, many of whom are teachers in state schools, pack their kids off into the independent sector and perpetuate the inequalities at the heart of our society. And voting Labour once every five years does very little to alleviate either the guilt or the anger, even in these Corbyn days.
Perhaps that’s why, in some viewings of the film, I like those Cornish tin mining zombies much more than the young doctor who puts them up in flames in the final reel, and why in others I respond to the insecurity and uncertainty of the young middle class doctor himself more than the patrician authority of his old professor or the aristocratic entitlement of the villainous squire.
Incidentally, those 1970s power cuts may have brought the Tories low and inspiringly asserted the collective strength of the proletariat, but they also had the unfortunate side effect of making me miss Jon Pertwee’s Doctor sorting out Aggedor of Peladon. I cried for hours.