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Hammer Horror Series: Plague of the Zombies (1966)

Plague of the Zombies #1

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.

Plague of the Zombies #2

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!

Grade: B+

Plague of the Zombies is available on DVD.

Hammer Horror Series: Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)

by Steve Habrat

Despite how awesome the final sequence of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave was, Hammer Studios just couldn’t allow Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula to remain dead and bloody for very long. In 1970, the studio unleashed director Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula, another satisfying but flawed entry in the delightfully gory vampire series. Picking up just a few moments after Dracula Has Risen from the Grave ended, Taste the Blood of Dracula is a bit racier than its predecessor and also a little bit more bizarre but that actually adds to its blood-chugging demonic charm. There is no doubt that Taste the Blood of Dracula is suffering from a weaker plot than what we have seen before and the scares are certainly not as spooky as they once were but its Lee’s presence and that welcome gothic chill that elevates the overall quality of this installment. If you can believe it, the film was originally not going to feature Lee’s legendary bloodsucker but at the last second, he joined the project and the filmmakers figured out a way to work him into the story. At times Lee seems unsure what to do with Dracula but his commanding presence is enough to make his fans go wild. While the film may lack the flirty romance and playful humor of the last film, Sasdy spices things up with exotic sights and sounds that certainly make Taste the Blood of Dracula a sexy slice of vampire pandemonium.

Taste the Blood of Dracula introduces us to three wealthy gentlemen, William Hargood (Played by Geoffrey Keen), Sam Paxton (Played by Peter Saccis), and Jonathan Secker (Played by John Carson), who get together once a month to indulge in sleazy debauchery in a back alley brothel. One evening, the three men are approached by the mysterious Lord Courtley (Played by Ralph Bates), who offers the trio a chance to participate in a satanic ritual that would bring Count Dracula (Played by Christopher Lee) back from the dead. The men accept the offer but when the ritual begins, they get cold feet when they learn that they have to drink goblets of Dracula’s blood. Courtley is the only one who drinks the blood and he promptly dies. As his body deteriorates away, Dracula emerges from the ashes and vows to track down Hargood, Paxton, and Secker for allowing his servant to perish. Dracula soon sets his sights on Hargood’s beautiful daughter Alice (Played by Cinda Hayden) and her boyfriend Paul (Played by Anthony Corlan). As Alice falls under Dracula’s spell, Paul races to figure out a way to save Alice from the clutches of evil.

The opening sequence of Taste the Blood of Dracula is certainly a fascinating set up as a husky businessman named Weller (Played by Roy Kinnear) stumbles upon Dracula impaled on the massive cross, the image we saw at the end of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. As Dracula withers away and finally melts into a red sludge that quickly turns to reddish sand, Weller collects Dracula’s cape, blood, rings, and more. It certainly is a nifty way to connect both films and it is neat to see the sequence revisited as it is a chilling vision. It’s almost like Sasdy knew the climax of the previous film was such a keeper that he wanted to figure out a way to work it into his Dracula installment. Sasdy then works overtime to cook up something just as visually enticing as what we saw at the end of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. What he comes up with is a smoky trip into a neon lit brothel where the men drool over an exotic lap dance that involves snakes and brief flashes of bare breasts. It certainly is a steamy and seductive sequence and finds Hammer embracing some of the sleaze of the 1970s. The rest of the film is all blood drenched confrontations that I’m sure pleased fans of the gritty hardcore horror that was becoming more and more popular at the time. The satanic ritual is certainly eerie enough but you get the feeling that this has all been done before and much creepier at that. Overflowing goblets of gore do make things just unpleasant enough but they just don’t make the heart pound like they should.

Then there is the acting, which is surprisingly forgettable for a Hammer horror offering. Lee is certainly enjoying himself as he slinks around the cobwebbed castle and bares his fangs. He doesn’t add anything new to the character but by this point, he really doesn’t need to. There are a few points where Lee’s vampire does seem a bit out of place and unsure what to do, especially in the final moments of the film. Bates also has a bit of devilish fun as Lord Courtley as he flashes his devil-may-care smirk at anyone who dares look at him. We don’t get much of him but what little we get is pretty entertaining. Then we have Keen, Saccis, and Carson, who all fly under the radar. We mostly see the action from Keen’s point of view but we have a hard time sympathizing with him because he is such a miserable old fart. There is also the disappointing Hayden and Corlan who don’t come close to matching the young couple in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. It isn’t easy to see their young love wedged apart by the nasty old William but the two lovers have a hard time finding the spark between them. It is especially hard to buy Corlan’s heroics at the end of the film but you won’t notice because you will be too drawn to Lee.

The plotline of Taste the Blood of Dracula is fairly up and down with plenty of slinky insanity thrown in for fun. The climax is a mixed bag next to what we saw in the last film but you could never expect Sasdy to live up to those expectations. At this point in the Dracula series, it doesn’t take much to realize that the series was starting to run out of ideas and fast.  However, it can be said that the film is fairly entertaining despite a choppy plotline and dry performances. I am still trying to figure out how Dracula never notices that he is hiding out in a desecrated church the entire time. I am still marveling at the fact that these three morons would decide to partake in such an outrageous ritual with a man they barely know. No matter, just marvel the thrilling vampire attacks and gothic cathedrals that that jut into the overcast sky. Dare to tremble when Dracula awakens from his deathly slumber and reveals deep red peepers that look like vats of blood (it is by far the most striking image in the film). Overall, it may not be the strongest film in the series and it is far from the worst but Taste the Blood of Dracula is trying to elaborate on a story that ended long ago. Somebody close the coffin lid already!

Grade: B-

Taste the Blood of Dracula is available on DVD.