Next in the Made in Britain season, screening at various cinemas around the UK, comes classic horror from Hammer.
There’s something rotten in a Cornish mining village, but who knows what it can possibly be? Professor Forbes (André Morell) arrives from the city to assist his friend and former student, Peter Thompson (Brook Williams), the local doctor, who is having difficulties coming to terms with the increasing number of deceased residents that are reducing the population of the former mining community. Forbes has brought his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) along as she is good friends with Thompson’s wife Alice (Jacqueline Pearce). Sylvia isn’t accustomed to country living and has to get used to the local customs some of which she finds to be distinctly undesirable, whether it be fox-hunting or the local arrogant gentry. When they arrive, Alice is clearly not quite herself. With the death toll rising, could there possibly be some connection with the squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson), and his collection of exotic ephemera and artefacts? And are the dead as inanimate as one would expect them to be?
Often (and rightly) regarded by aficionados as one of Hammer’s finest films The Plague of the Zombies performed reasonable business upon its release but hardly dominated the box office and, given the unusual nature of its plot and the fact that its stars were not as well known as, say, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee or Oliver Reed, it is perhaps only now seeing the re-evaluation it deserves.
If there is any doubt this is going to be a Hammer horror the opening scene, which doesn’t reveal details of the plot that will follow, clearly signposts the film’s genre to its intended audience. The Plague of the Zombies’ revelations play out like an Ealing comedy (without the comedy, Dead of Night excepted) that makes it a fascinating combination of social commentary, heritage cinema and, of course, horror. The normality of the country setting is seen initially as oppressive by Sylvia, but who can blame her rejection of the aristocratic brutish behaviour she encounters as soon as she arrives? Hamilton is a bully and a thug, even if he is – somehow – incredibly wealthy. This characterisation makes social class status a fundamental element of the plot and goes a long way to ensure that the eventual revelations are shocking but also strangely plausible in a way that supernatural horror rarely achieves due to its more fantastical elements. And while the gore may seem a little less extreme than George A. Romero’s and the plethora of future zombies that would follow thanks to the never ending popularity of the genre, the horror nevertheless remains evocative and immediate. Using characterisation, unexpected plot devices and a notable scene involving undead decapitation using a gravedigger’s spade, the final result is graphic in its own way. It works because the scripting, combined with skilful direction and editing, manages to defy audience expectations.
A great choice for the Made in Britain season, this is a splendid ‘reanimated’ British horror which also receives a most welcome re-release on Bluray. It has been restored beautifully and has scrubbed up magnificently. The Plague of the Zombies demonstrates that it is possible to mix social drama, heritage cinema and supernatural shock horror to great effect. A welcome return of the celluloid dead.