Movie Review: Plague of the Zombies

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Plague of the Zombies (1966)
Directed by John Gilling
Starring Andre Morell, John Carson, Diane Clare, Alex Davion, Jacqueline Pearce, Michael Ripper

In a small Cornish village, strange happenings are a foot! Some sort of deadly disease is creeping through the town and the local doctor is clueless as to what is the cause. He sends a letter of distress to Sir James, his former teacher, for assistance in this grave matter. Cutting short his vacation, Sir James travels to the village with his daughter to see if he can be of any assistance, but has no idea the evil deeds he is about to uncover there.

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Out of all the wonderful titles that Hammer gave us over the decades, this one really stuck with me for some reason, like a hex had been put on me! I think the main reason of that is simply because of the visuals within this amazing picture. The zombies looked incredible, the cast was top notch (or at least most of them), and it had one of the most amazingly terrifying dream sequences in cinema.

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Plague was the only time Hammer dabbled with the zombie sub-genre, which is a damn shame since they really hit this one out of the park. Playing with the same kind of theme as in White Zombie, these creatures are not flesh eaters, but used for cheap labor, created through the use of voodoo. The story first started making the rounds at Hammer back in 1963, from writer Peter Bryan, entitled simply The Zombie. Hammer producer Tony Hinds developed the story a little more later that year and was announced in Hammer’s schedule, though nothing seemed to develop from there. The following year, it was now called Horror of the Zombies, eventually changed to the final title that we know it now as. When Hammer sent the finalized script to the BBFC for review, they called it “insane rubbish”. Good thing they never really listened to their opinions!

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Right off the top, our hero of the story is Sir James, played by the talented Andre Morell, who was no stranger to Hammer fans. Playing the stereotypical British gentlemen, prim and proper, with the whole stiff upper lip thing going on, he plays the older doctor very seriously, but also with little wink of humor. Morell is the kind of actor I could watch reading a grocery list and be entertained. Just a class act. He really enjoyed making the picture, saying “I absolutely loved it. We had great fun. To make a film like this, of course, one doesn’t believe in zombies, but one says this is it and does it seriously.” No matter what role he was playing, he always brought the character to life and always was a joy to watch on screen.

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John Carson, another familiar face to Hammer fans, plays the heavy here and just like Morell, he excels at it. With this unique and commanding voice, that sounds a bit like James Mason, he is the local squire Clive Hamilton, who seems to have some shady business going on, not to mention that he treats the villagers with very little respect. To this day, his performance as the evil squire is one of my favorites of Hammer’s villains.

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The rest of the cast does an adequate job, with Diane Clare as Sir James’ daughter, and Brook Williams playing the young doctor in need of help. Clare seems a bit flat and Williams tends to go a wee bit overboard in some scenes. Nothing terrible, but nothing to write home about. Maybe because they are in the same film as Morell and Carson, being a bit difficult seem hard to compete. But Jacqueline Pearce does shine as the weary Alice, wife of the doctor, who has fallen under the voodoo spell. She gives a very believable performance as someone who’s will is being drained from them. When she rises from the grave, it is cinematic magic, and Hammer Horror at its best!

And of course, let’s not forget Michael Ripper in the role of a local policeman. Always great to see him on screen.

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Director John Gilling took the job of this film, as well as The Reptile, from Hammer with the agreement that he could re-write the scripts. Gilling, who gave horror fans a few classic films in his career, such as The Flesh and the Fiends, he does an exceptional job here with Plague, as he did with The Reptile as well.

One of the highlights of the film are the zombies themselves. Makeup man Roy Ashton did an exceptional job here, giving us something we’d never seen before and hard to forget. With gray colored, peeling skin, white eyes and a dead stare, they look like they just dug themselves out of the grave. The nightmare sequence is still one of Hammer’s best and most memorable in their horror history.

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The film seems to be lacking in the usual female flesh that they had been leading up to, but does make up for that in the monster department. Not a lot of blood and guts, but there is a decapitation scene that you’ll remember for years to come.

Made back to back with The Reptile, it was also filmed on the same re-dressed sets from Dracula Prince of Darkness. What the talented Bernard Robinson could do, using the same sets over and over again, is simply astonishing. He definitely is a reason that Hammer’s pictures looked as good as they did.

For us older Hammer fans, it took years for this film to finally get a VHS release over here in the states, but it eventually did happen thanks to Anchor Bay. But now you can get it on both DVD and Blu-ray (though an import one), it is at least available for everyone to be able to see and enjoy this fantastic picture. I don’t get think I could recommend this title enough. While it won’t be in the same vein of the Italian gut-munching zombie flick, or of the flesh fiends in general, it is still one that I would call one of the best in the sub-genre. Check it out…you won’t regret it.

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