Monday, 27 December 2010
Plague of the Zombies
(John Gilling, 1966)
“Would you like to tell me about your dream, Peter? It sometimes helps..”
An unusual choice for ‘favourtie Hammer movie’ perhaps (back when the Watching Hammer weblog was asking people to pick their favourites, it didn’t even turn up in anyone’s top ten), but John Gilling’s “Plague of the Zombies” holds a special place in my heart. I’m not sure why really – partly just nostalgia for seeing it for the first time on late night TV many years ago I’m sure, but more than any other Hammer film, it just makes my nerves twitch and my senses warp in the best possible way.
And, looked at on a more objective basis, “Plague..” does thankfully prove pretty unfuckable with as a solid, mid-table British horror flick. Andre Morrel is absolutely superb as our hero, Sir James Forbes, holding the sanity of the afflicted village together with a mixture of aristocratic authority, courageous practicality and humane concern that he should have had bottled and sold to lesser horror movie protagonists. As in his role as Professor Quatermass in the definitive BBC version of “Quatermass & The Pit”, Morell is a joy to watch here, his stirring delivery of the script’s frequently absurd dialogue and his character’s vigorous, two-fisted approach to the action marking him out as the best leading man Hammer ever had, Peter Cushing notwithstanding. I really wish they could have cast him in more leading roles.
More than anything else, my love of British horror films probably crystalised during the scene in which Sir James and his younger doctor friend are busy doing the washing up after dinner (and oh what a sterling example of a Victorian peer he is - elbow deep in suds without complaint in the middle of a mysterious plague outbreak, rather than leaving the women/servants to get on with it while he sees to more ‘important’ matters - good chap), when the following exchange transpires;
“But we must have a body to examine, we can’t possibly work without one!”
“If you’re thinking of applying for an exhumation, I can tell you now --”
“Apply for nothing, we’ll dig one up.”
“Dig one up – that one they buried today will do, nice and fresh.”
“But we can’t just start --”
“Why not? There’s a full moon, couldn’t be better. We’ll start off about midnight.”
Amazing. And joy is heaped upon joy when said escapade sees Sir James being very politely arrested by Michael Ripper as the local copper – “and on what charge, Constable?”, “ooh let’s see.. graverobbing I should think, Sir”.
By its very nature, the script for “Plague..” is stranger, more imaginative and more action-packed than your average mid-sixties Hammer, its tale of the decadent squire of a small Cornish village importing Haitian voodoo to help resurrect a new workforce for his ailing tin mine so batty, it’s hard to do anything else but just sit back and accept it in stunned good humour, especially as relatively authentic-sounding voudoun drums start to pound ceaselessly on the soundtrack, and the iconic oatmeal-faced, cassock-clad zombies start to march abroad on the barren moors, menacing the classically nightgowned Diane Clare in an astounding bit of cracked cross-cultural exchange, at least two years before George Romero brought our modern conception of ‘zombies’ to the masses.
More than just a great, fun horror movie though, “Plague…” has a heavy, potent atmosphere too it that just slays me - the doomed, fog-drenched village with its dilapidated stone cottages, the sodden, swampy woodland surrounding it and the rusty machinery of the obsolete tin mines – one has the feeling Sir James and friends are fighting not just against an evil weirdo and the fears of a superstitious peasantry, but against a whole tide of cosmic lethargy and empathy, threatening to drag this benighted corner of England literally back into the ground, food for the tunnel-dwelling zombies who trudge away eternally to the hypnotic beat of out-of-place Caribbean drums - a perfect, mindless proletariat, kept alive to serve the needs of industry until their rotting flesh literally falls from their bones.
As much as I love the exquisite production designs of Bray-era Hammer, this film has somewhat altogether different going on. Something thick and sulphurous, something more in tune with the atavistic, rural, subversive horrors of “Blood On Satan’s Claw” and “The Wicker Man”; something, in other words, that is more in tune with morbid teenage layabouts like me about ten years ago, staying up past their bedtime, smoking pot, letting the poorly tuned in images flicker before their eyes…
The first time I saw that scene – yeah, THE scene, the one everyone remembers from this movie - where Jacqueline Pearce rises from her grave, I was absolutely stunned, I could barely move or speak. Her dead eyes, her evil, Mona Lisa-like smile, the way Morell makes a grab for that shovel…. here, essentially, is EVERYTHING that defines the modern horror film, compressed into one, primal, heart-stopping sequence.
I could wax lyrical on that scene for pages, but thankfully you’ll be spared that, as the sequence has been immortalised for all time (well, for a few months at the very least) on Youtube, for you to experience yourself and draw your own conclusions;