Hammer Horror Series: Plague of the Zombies (1966)
by Victor De Leon
Director John Gilling is not a name that usually comes to mind right away when one thinks of Hammer Films and the stand out entries they produced in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. He did write some fantastic stories like The Gorgon and The Mummy’s Shroud, but even though he wrote plenty of movies that go back as far as 1947 with Black Memory, he did have a deft command of the craft of directing genre pictures, some of which are very well renowned today. The Shadow of the Cat and The Night Caller being two very thrilling entries. With many films under his belt, Gilling, with a script by Peter Bryan (Hound of the Baskervilles and Brides of Dracula) put together the production of The Plague of the Zombies. It was one of Gilling’s last films before he passed away in 1975, a decade after his last picture, La Cruz Del Diablo.
Gilling started work on the movie at Bray Studios in England and he continued working straight through to The Gorgon, which he did with Terence Fisher. Distinguished actor Andre Morell (Ben Hur) plays Sir James Forbes, a Professor, who is called to a Cornish village in the mid 1800’s to help his former student, Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams). It appears that Peter is overworked and stressed out trying to solve some mysterious deaths in his village and is not able to get the locals to co-operate with him as a result of a town ordinance that does not allow autopsies. Forbes and his daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare of The Haunting 1963), go to Peter’s aid as Sylvia plans to reconcile with Peter’s wife, Alice (Jacqueline Pearce), since they were old school friends. As they arrive they inadvertently bump into some men on horseback during a foxhunt and afterwards in town the very same men overturn a coffin during a funeral procession. They seem to have some connection to a young and rich Squire who lives at a nearby Estate outside the Village.
Forbes and Sylvia find Peter and his wife in dire straits and try to convince the local police to help. Peter fills Forbes in about the recent deaths and the claims by some that recently deceased persons have been seen walking about in the dark on the moors. This prompts Peter and Forbes to disinter some townsfolk and when they find that the coffins are empty, they get Sgt. Swift (The versatile Michael Ripper) to help them since Swift himself had lost a young child to the “Plague.” They also attribute some strange goings on at Squire Hamilton’s mansion. Forbes suspects that Hamilton (John Carson of Doomsday and The Night Caller) has gone abroad to Haiti (Forbes pronounces it Hi-ate-te) and has learned to practice voodoo and black magic. All in order to control his townspeople, upon his return, by turning them into zombies to assist him with mines that run underneath the village. Furthermore, it appears that Hamilton is a bit smitten with Sylvia and he manages to get close to her, but appears to have deadly motives of his own.
The Plague of the Zombies is a different sort of creature for the famed House of Hammer. As far as I know it is the only attempt at a zombie movie they managed to produce. A film before Romero’s breakthrough zombie indie, Night of the Living Dead, which owed much to The Last Man On Earth. Gilling’s movie is a shadowy and dim movie with an air of mystery and dread that is established from the beginning when during the credits we are introduced to a ritual with a high priest and slaves banging on big drums. Gilling’s film unfolds like a nightmare with his camera exposing an ethereal otherworld that is dangerous and deadly. Gilling and Bryan make no mistake in projecting the movie as a genuine and realistic story. Actors Morell and Williams have a good rapport as the heroes and Clare does well as a doe eyed, intrepid and pure woman who is entangled in evil. Carson is menacing as Hamilton and Ripper is always the stoic presence as Sgt Swift. Gilling supplies some stand out sequences for this early zombie exercise like rising corpses, nightmares, out of control fires and dark funerals and rituals but it is the resurrection of Alice that has an incredible impact. Actress Pearce (Blake’s 7) manages to raise the hairs on my arms and neck with that incredibly chilling grin that is the stuff of nightmares. You must see it to believe it.
Furthermore we get a great score from James Bernard and even though many sets were re-used and re-dressed from other Hammer Productions (Like The Reptile, which was shooting back to back with Plague), Bernard Robinson makes the film look big and elegantly horrific. His mine sets are claustrophobic and dank. DP Arthur Grant’s camera is full of nice flourishes and flair. I particularly loved his reveal shot of a zombie carrying a woman’s body that reminded me of something from a Universal Classic Monster movie. Grant’s manipulation of the camera is best when in dark scenes and during reveals much to the credit of Gilling’s eye for composition and placement. Plague of the Zombies has gained quite a cult following that counters, somewhat, the huge popularity of the bigger cousins in the genre. Movies like Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein are two that come to mind. I would put Plague of the Zombies in the company, easily, of films like Fisher’s The Gorgon or even The Devil Rides Out with Christopher Lee. Even among other zombie films this title can still remain elusive when it comes to notoriety. But, the movie on it’s own is quite chilling, original and full of the atmosphere, rich colors and mood we come to expect from a Hammer production.
Plague of the Zombies sports some gruesome make up fx, well placed terror, and a quickly paced horror story at it’s heart. It’s chilling and under-rated with fine performances and inventive direction from Gilling. It may even be Gilling’s best Hammer entry as a director and Bryan’s as a writer. It is a shame that Hammer did not make more zombie pictures since they covered other types of monsters multiple times. If they had then they would have added a bit of class and even elegance that most of today’s zombie flicks lack. Recommended!
Plague of the Zombies is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After the success of Sergio Leone’s violent 1964 spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, a whole slew of Italian directors scrambled to emulate Leone’s reinvention of the western. While many of the spaghetti westerns that were made in the wake of A Fistful of Dollars were overlooked or forgotten, some managed to recruit a following and for good reason. In 1966, director Sergio Corbucci released Django, which really sent Europe into a western frenzy and at the time happened to be the most violent film every made. By today’s standards, Django is rather tame aside from a certain scene featuring a man having his ear sliced off and then fed to him, but it still manages to get the adrenaline following for an hour and a half. Along with Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly), Django stands as a shining example of the spaghetti western and one of the more fun exploitation films out there. It does have some shoddy craftsmanship in places (the dubbing leaves a lot to be desired, the cinematography is so grainy that the picture almost flashes at certain points, the music is a bit cheesy in places) but you can honestly say you’ve never seen a western quite like it. If the reckless violence and bad attitude don’t lure you in, wait until you get a load of Franco Nero’s brooding gunslinger Django, a nasty piece of work that tugs a mud-caked coffin behind him that conceals one hell of a deadly weapon. He almost looks like he stepped out of the coolest comic book you’ve never read.
After saving a prostitute named Maria (Played by Loredana Nusciak) from two bloodthirsty gangs, former Union soldier turned gun-slinging drifter Django (Played by Franco Nero) takes Maria under his wing and leads her to a nearby border town that is largely abandoned. Behind him, Django drags a mysterious coffin that he never lets out of his sight. Django and Maria take shelter at the town brothel, which happens to be the haunt of the two gangs that Django saved Maria from. It turns out that the two gangs, one being a KKK style cult led by Major Jackson (Played by Eduardo Fajardo) and the other being a trigger-happy gang of Mexican banditos led by General Hugo Rodriguez (Played by José Bódalo), are locked in a battle for the dying town and Django has unfinished business with the heads of both gangs. After a nasty confrontation with Maj. Jackson’s men, Django teams up with Gen. Rodriguez for a robbery that will make both Django and Gen. Rodriguez very wealthy men. Little does Gen. Rodriguez know that Django has plans of his own and that Maj. Jackson is responsible for the death of Django’s wife.
Quick to get into the savage gun battles, fistfights, and staring contests, Django is certainly a different breed of western, even when compared to Leone’s patient and thoughtful work. Corbucci doesn’t appear to have anything deeper on his mind and he is more concerned with getting to the next brutal confrontation between Django and anyone dumb enough to make him angry. Is there really anything wrong with this? No, not really. The film consistently keeps you glued to the action and you just can’t wait to see what is hidden inside Django’s coffin of death. In between the bloody showdowns, Corbucci builds a menacing and slightly creepy atmosphere in the confines of the ghost town and the local graveyard where most of the action takes place. The streets are muddy, the buildings collapsing, and the fences twisted beyond repair as storm clouds loom in the distance. It is the type of place that is so rough and tough, even the prostitutes get into muddy brawls in the streets. The graveyard is just as worse for wear, a dusty wasteland where jagged graves and dead trees barely stand against the howling winds and walls of dust. It certain is a grimy and vaguely apocalyptic vision where there are no heroes to make things right, just those looking out for number one and those who want to kill everyone in sight. Hell, these guys are so vicious; they don’t even flinch when they gun down the kindly bartender Nathaniel (Played by Ángel Álvarez).
While no one in Django gives an A-list performance, the players are all very memorable mostly because their characters are so colorful. Nero is the one in charge here as Django, a stone cold gunslinger who has hidden his heavy heart behind a brick wall. He has little use for Maria, who he saves from certain death and then largely ignores (Yeah, I haven’t quite figured that one out either.). He spends most of his time sitting in the brothel, sipping a glass of whiskey and waiting for Maj. Jackson to show up and pick a fight. Naturally he does and Django kills a shocking number of his men in the span of maybe five minutes. We don’t learn too much about this mysterious drifter, only that he is out for blood and that he fears no man. Nusciak is quiet and haunted as Maria, a beautiful prostitute who finds herself in love with the consistently distracted Django. We learn that Fajardo’s Maj. Jackson is one wicked guy as he picks off innocent Mexicans in the muddy streets just to let off a little steam. Bódalo’s Gen. Rodriguez is a sweaty brute that is constantly being saved by Django yet is quick to dish out a little revenge despite all he owes to the heartbroken drifter. Álvarez is sweet and timid as the shaky bartender who tries so desperately to keep the peace between everyone. His fate is the only moment where the viewer’s emotions are put to work.
Despite its stunning brutality, Django was a massive hit in Italy and it inspired a huge number of unofficial sequels that all managed to work Django into their titles yet have very little in common with Corbucci’s film. There was only one official sequel, Django 2: il grande ritorno, that did star Nero but wasn’t directed by Mr. Corbucci. For fans of exploitation cinema, it may interest you that Ruggero Deodato, the man responsible for Cannibal Holocaust, served as assistant director on Django. If you’re looking to jump into the spaghetti western subgenre, Leone’s marvelous trilogy and Corbucci’s Django are great places to start. You may want to ease in with Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars to really see if this is your bowl of pasta but if you are big on action, Django will really have you on the edge of your seat. It’s also worth checking out for the super catchy theme song that plays over the dreary opening credits (Good luck getting it out of your head!). Overall, Django is flawed but it also happens to be a gritty, savage, pulpy, and highly influential ride through the Wild West. If you’re a cinema geek, western fanatic, or exploitation guru, you may want to seek this sucker out. It truly is one of a kind.
Django is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Green Hornet (2011)
by Steve Habrat
I’ll admit that I was itching to see The Green Hornet the second I heard the buzz (pun intended) about it. I have vague memories of catching the short lived 1966 television series with martial arts legend Bruce Lee as the ass kicking sidekick Kato and Van Williams as the Green Hornet himself Britt Reid. I remember that old theme that still every once and a great while makes its way into pop-culture, whether it is sampled in rap songs or Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. I remember those masked avengers riding around in their tricked out Black Beauty. In fact, I think I was drawn to it because of the similarities to Batman. They both feature a masked millionaire and his sidekick who has come from nothing. They ride around in cool cars. They fight crime in really cool outfits (Although, if GQ ever did a best-dressed superhero list, I think the Green Hornet and Kato may take it from the Dark Knight and the Boy Wonder.). But mostly, they were vigilantes that operated outside of the law. And it was precisely the anti-hero set up that lured me in. Hell, Val Williams and Bruce Lee even had cameos in the popular Adam West Batman television show. While I’m too young to be overly familiar with where the Green Hornet got his start, which was a radio show from the 1930s, I can still hold on to the hope that the film has had some form of respect for him and stayed true to his origins.
Enter the writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who also penned the hilarious coming of age story Superbad and whimsical director Michel Gondry, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Science of Sleep fame. Intrigued yet? You should be. Even if you are unfamiliar with the Green Hornet and Kato, there is still the promise of some truly unique visuals and some stinging humor right? You bet there is, and there is also some bone crunching action, lively car chases, eccentric villains, smoking hot secretaries, really cool cars, and a painfully hilarious cameo from James Franco. Somewhere in there, there’s the plot of playboy Britt Reid (Played by Rogen), the–What else?–slacker son of a newspaper publisher who takes over The Daily Sentinel in the wake of his father’s mysterious death. On the seedier side of town, a murderous villain Chudnofsky (Played by the brilliant Oscar winner Christoph Waltz), who looks like a super villain from the seventies, is slowly trying to control all the crime in gangland Los Angeles. The day after his father’s funeral, Britt wakes up to his morning coffee and to his horror, his coffee is dreadful. Plus, it lacks the elegant and decorative leaf that usually adorns the top. Britt storms through the estate looking for the person who usually makes his morning coffee. That person, he discovers, is Kato (Played by a seriously good Jay Chou), who is also his father’s mechanic. After a night of drunken shenanigans, Britt and Kato decide they are going to become masked vigilantes and take on crime throughout the city. Then the Looney Tunes meets 300 style action kicks into high gear.
By this point, be it from reading what I have described to you or seeing the energetic trailers, you know if this is the type of film for you. If you’re a fan of Rogen’s haw-haw stoner humor or a superhero aficionado, you were probably already in line and have already seen The Green Hornet. If you’re not a fan of either, I can’t really do much to convince you to see it. I suffer from my own fanboy demons, so naturally I jumped at the opportunity to see it opening weekend. Now, I’ll also admit I walked out of the theater with a big grin slapped across my face. The film is cartoonish mayhem at it’s absolute finest. And Gondry can’t resist spicing the film up with his trademark surreal flare. The action scenes are inspired, resembling something out of a video game (Kato hones in on all of the baddies weapons that they are wielding). Rogen never snaps out of his along-for-the-ride shtick and some will find that a hard hurdle to jump over. But it’s Chou’s Kato who’s the real star of the film and even through broken English; you can’t help but love him. Whether he is kicking and punching through countless hoards of Chudnofsky’s henchmen or whipping up countless Black Beauties, Chou is always entrancing. And what about Oscar winner Waltz? Well he seems to be lapping up his new career in Hollywood with demented merriment. I’ll tell you this much about his character, just wait until the climatic showdown. He’ll have you laughing and gripping the edge of your seat. And we can’t forget to mention Cameron Diaz, who seemed to be a last minute addition to make the fanboys drool. She isn’t given much to do but fill Reid and Kato in on some of the criminal activity that is taking place in LA. And how does Rogen fare as a superhero? He pulls it off just fine, even if Chou is the real action star here. Rogen mostly falls back on spewing out silly one-liners and hiding behind Kato. Don’t let that fool you, as Rogen does get his chance to play the hero in a show stopping fight scene at the climax. I’ll confess that it is welcome in a genre that has become dominated by brooding heroes who take themselves a little too seriously. But then again, it’s what we have pushed for isn’t it? Heroes that are more emotionally complex, solemn, and that operate within the world we are familiar with. But The Green Hornet’s main objective is to throw all of that out the window and invite us to just have a campy good time.
Every party has its moments where the fun lags and The Green Hornet does suffer from a few lagging moments. The plot of the film is uneven at points and the more twists that they try to throw into the mix, the more cluttered the plot actually becomes. The film works better when it stays on the straight and narrow path. The entire movie is played up like a psychedelic madcap comedy and trying to give it more depth than it deserves slightly spoils the fun. The opening of the film doesn’t provide much of a back-story to the relationship between Reid and his father. They simply don’t get along and Reid’s father doesn’t understand him. That’s about all we get we are supposed to just accept it. The film is just under the two-hour mark and it leaves us asking why they didn’t go another ten minutes and make their troubled relationship a little bit meatier. And the 3D? It reeks of an afterthought and I will say that it’s the first 3D movie that actually began to bother my eyes.
Through it all, The Green Hornet works because it seems like everyone in it is having a blast. I had as much fun watching it, as I’m sure they did making it. The fact of the matter is that the Green Hornet is a third string superhero. He always has been and will continue to be. His film does not rank among the best of the superhero genre and I don’t think anyone under the sun expected it to run with Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, Kick-Ass, Iron Man, or Watchmen. It also certainly does not rank with the worst of them (I’m referring to you Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Punisher and Wolverine!). I went in with high hopes but, due to some of the seething reviews, I had my doubts. I emerged smiling and completely satisfied. Plus, in these early months of the year where Hollywood dumps all of its crap, don’t expect much in the way of solid entertainment anytime soon. The Green Hornet is the best we will get for a while and after sitting through all the serious award contenders, it was utterly refreshing. The Green Hornet is pure fanboy euphoria. Grade: B
The Green Hornet is now available on Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, and DVD.