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.