Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Blu-Ray Review: Plague of the Zombies

Directed By: John Gilling
Starring: Andre Morell, Diane Clare, Brook Williams, Jacqueline Pearce
Within a remote eighteenth century Cornish village, an evil presence lurks within the darkness of the witching hour, a mysterious plague relentlessly taking lives at an unstoppable rate. Unable to find the cause, Dr Peter Thompson enlists the help of Professor James Forbes. Desperate to find an antidote what they find instead are empty coffins with the diseased corpses missing. Following a series of strange and frightening clues, Thompson and Forbes are lead to a deserted mine where they discover a world of black magic and a doomed legion of flesh eating slaves, the walking dead.


Part of a four picture deal with Hammer's new distributors back in 1965. The film initially supported Dracula Prince of Darkness in a Double Bill feature. Ironically, it's one of the most interesting Hammer film, along with my personal favourite: Twins of Evil.

The idea of Haiti rites transplanted to a Cornish village doesn't bear a lot of scrutiny, but it's innovative nonetheless and influenced a number of movies. The look of the zombies gave way to movies like The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue and the gag when the recently revived Alison is decapitated by a shovel had to have influenced Sam Raimi when making The Evil Dead. Fulci clearly referenced Plague at the end of City of the Living Dead, with zombies being set on fire. The contacts that the zombies wore could have influenced the look of the zombies in Shaun of the Dead. So, whilst the zombies in this feature aren't cannibals, there's plenty to interest the zombie film fan.

Typically, the producers looked to provide a decent and memorable cast. Andre Morell gives a sterling performance as the Holmes inspired Professor James Forbes and can be recognised as a sort of H.G. Wells inspired character, too, perhaps even a nod to Quatermass. Morrell has a presence and charisma that is easy to like.
Diane Clare who plays his daughter Sylvia is fairly typical of the blonde woman in peril but has enough to do to avoid being a full stereotype. Brook Williams, who played Doctor Peter Thompson was unfortunately not given much to work with. As discussed in the interviews, playing the good guy isn't always easy because there's less to do. Williams did a good job of providing the movie with an everyman character that we can relate to but the character isn't the most interesting of the lot.Sadly, Jacqueline Pearce, who played his onscreen wife, felt the need to point out this defiency in the accompanied featurerette. With all the potential to talk about in the featurette, I was disappointed that Pearce chose to berate a fellow actor. It's possible that she was led to this point by the interviewer and the editing of the piece helps focus on it. With no question or interviewer to reference the anaecdote, it's difficult to judge. Thankfully, the rest of the cast chose to talk mainly about the positive experiences during the shoot. Pearce, herself was fine in the role of Thompson's wife, Alice, who comes to a grisly end in the most memorable scene in the movie.

As ever, the story is widely important to the enjoyment of the movie. The film is a bit vague as to what made Hamilton bring back Voodoo rites to the village to gain cheap labour but it doesn't really matter what his intentions are; the story is concerned with that fact that he's doing it and doesn't care who he kills to maintain it. It falls to Forbes to stop him. Whilst it would be a full three years until George Romero's hard hitting game changer hit the cinemas, Plague still has it's moments of darkness. The scene where Sylvia is beset upon by the thugs in red jackets is tinged with a cruel implication as to what fate could have befallen the young woman. She is "saved" by Hamilton and given the nature of what he does later we can only assume he saved her, either out of a misplaced sense of honor or because he needed her for his workforce.
Two stand out scenes are that of the dream sequence and Alice 's second death. The dream sequence is a zombie film lover's delight as outstretched hands burst forth from soil graves to shuffle on to murder Peter Thompson. Despite an make-up error during the scene, Alice 's resurrection is creepy enough on it's own, but Forbes finds a spade to use to lop off the undead Alice 's head. The camera lingers on the convincing severed head, and my memories of  The Evil Dead meant that I expected to see the eyes move in the decapitated head's sockets.
Later scenes with the zombies in the mine are also effective. The only downside is that the zombie that scares Sylvia, earlier in the movie, when it throws Alice 's corpse at her, whilst issuing a cackle through it's undead lips, is easily the creepiest zombie of the lot.

Benard's score gives Plague its no-nonsense attitude. The voodoo drums would be borrowed by Fabio Frizzi for Fulci's Zombie Flesheaters, over dubbing wailing on to the music giving it a further creepy atmosphere.Typically, for that era, the score borders on the avant-garde but Benard keeps the score accessible and not too abstract.

This Blu-ray presentation is fantastic. You can see how good the work has been from the restoration comparison featurette on the disc.  Extras also includeWorld of Hammer episode “Mummies, Werewolves And The Living Dead” / Brand new featurette: ‘Raising The Dead’ / Restoration comparison / Restored trailer

The restoration makes the movie look as if it had been released yesterday. Hopefully, more Hammer movies will receive this treatment in future and I know a couple are in the pipeline for restoring. This British Institution certainly deserves the effort.

Score: 9/10

Plague of the Zombies was released on 18th June 2012. Grab one!

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