I had seriously meant to watch Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession for this position in the Hubrisween. It’s a movie I’ve been meaning to get to for years. But it has a reputation for being challenging, and between personal setbacks and an ongoing horrorshow of an Election Cycle, I really did not feel the desire to voluntarily challenge myself on another level. Looking over my list of movies, one popped up that was another movie I had meant to see for years, and one which was unlikely to poke any bruised places on my psyche: Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies.
Then I found out that fellow Hubrisweener Chad Plambeck at Microbrewed Reviews (formerly 3-B Theater, for all my fellow old-timers) had already staked it out weeks before. Well, go over and read his, if for some reason you got here first. (As I type this out, I say a silent prayer that I remember to come back here and link to it) Double-dipping is a time-honored tradition in Alphabet Challenges, and I’m a bit surprised we actually made it three-quarters of the way without doing it.
Circa 1860 or so, posh London medical professor Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) is convinced by his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) and a troubling letter from his former star pupil Peter (Brook Williams) to spend his holiday in the Cornish village where his student has taken up practice. Peter has a problem: a slow-motion epidemic of “marsh fever” has killed a person a month since his arrival, and the superstitious villagers won’t allow him to perform an autopsy.
As there was a funeral for the latest victim during his arrival, Sir James convinces Peter to join him in a bit of resurrectionism in the dead of night (it is amusing to speculate that Sir James had some experience with this in his younger days). They find the freshly-buried coffin empty.
The Plague of the Zombies is constructed like a mystery, as Sir James puzzles out exactly what is happening, and why the graveyard is full of empty coffins. As an audience, we have an idea of how but not the why. The local Squire Hamilton had a lucrative tin mine that had to be shut down over safety concerns, and when the young Squire (John Carson) returned from lengthy time spent in the Carribean (particularly “Hy-eight-tee”, we are told), he brought with him the power of voodoo. He – and the band of rich young ne’er-do-wells which are a staple in Hammer films – are killing people with curses and then reviving them as zombies to work in the mine.
This is a good Evil Plan (I’m sure many capitalists are wishing there was such a thing as Zombie Labor), even though parts of it are quite suspect, such as why Hamilton decides to do away with Peter’s wife Alice (Jacquelin Pierce), and then Sylvia (except, you know, for the whole Being Evil thing). The scene involving Alice’s resurrection, though, is one of the movie’s most chilling sequences, brilliantly evoking one of the best parts in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula – the confrontation with the undead Lucy in a graveyard. That’s a brilliant piece of writing perfectly transferred here.
Plague of the Zombies was shot back-to-back with The Reptile, another Hammer movie which is unjustly relegated to the second tier in most fans’ estimation. Both, like 1964’s The Gorgon, are attempts to diversify the studio’s output from what had become its stock-in-trade, vampires and mad scientists. Like a comedian attempting to perform a serious, dramatic role: people do not like having to face the unfamiliar in their entertainment. I realize that’s an absurd critique given how I came to be watching Plague instead of Possession, but here I am, Exhibit A.
Also working against it is its lack of star power: there is no Lee or Cushing here, but the cast is outstanding and solid. Morell has an impressive resume, but his major previous work for Hammer was as Dr. Watson in the 1959 Hound of the Baskervilles, and that detective work aids him greatly in this role. Diane Clare is going to be instantly recognizable from The Haunting, and that most essential Hammer actor, Michael Ripper, is on hand as a constable who is as helpful as he can be under trying circumstances.
The zombies here are genuinely chilling, the story engaging, production values high. This is not second-tier Hammer, at all. It is first-rate entertainment (if entirely suspect in its colonialism and misrepresentation of another culture’s religion) and should be treated as such.
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