The Plague of the Zombies was made at a time when Hammer was basking in the success of their prestige production She, which had been released with great fanfare in 1965. Quick to seize on their enhanced profile, they sealed an 11 picture deal with 20th Century Fox and Seven Arts, later absorbed into Warner, which meant that the American money would be coming in. Bear in mind, though, that this was a schedule which meant making and releasing those films in a little under two years. She had been a big budget affair by Hammer standards, and they had even travelled to Israel for some location shooting, but now it was back to the trusty studios at Bray. These were based around the old mansion at Down Place in Windsor, and Hammer had been transforming the gentile middle England milieu of rural Berkshire into a landscape of gothic terror since Dracula’s castle was erected in its grounds in 1957. The readily identifiable nature of the surrounding countryside, with its beech woodlands, bracken speckled heathland, and much-used lake, which always provides a richly atmospheric backdrop, is one of the things which gives Hammer’s gothic films their unmistakably British feel, whatever the supposedly remote European setting. Nearby Oakley Court could serve as a convenient manor house façade, as it does here, and, after Hammer had moved elsewhere, for 70s films such as Vampyres and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is now a hotel, ideal for a gothic weekend getaway. If She had seen Hammer being uncharacteristically lavish with the spending (if hardly on a Cleopatra scale), their subsequent output saw them resort to more penurious ways. Films were shot back to back on the same sets, the art directors ringing cunning variations with a bit of creative redressing. The first films to be shot thus were Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Rasputin: The Mad Monk, the titles revelling in the emphatic assertion of the central characters’ authoritatively sinister nature. Christopher Lee fully returned to the Hammer fold to finally reprise his signature role, alongside his gleeful if historically dubious portrayal of the Russian royal confidante, and perhaps as a consequence, these films were given the greatest priority and cash. Made under rather more straitened circumstances were the following back to back productions, The Plague of Zombies and The Reptile, shooting on the former getting under way after a breather following the completion of Rasputin – of a week!
Sir James approaches Oakley CourtBoth films share a setting of nineteenth century Cornwall, The Reptile scattering a few props of a nautical nature and blowing in the dry ice sea mist to convert Plague’s tin mining community into a fishing village. Plague of Zombies opens with the rising hysteria of James Bernard’s theme music, characteristically spelling out the title in a strident sequence of chords. Da-da-DAA-da! The African drumming and miniature totemistic dolls to which we are immediately exposed indicate that these will still be traditional zombies of cinematic voodoo provenance. The shuffling hordes of flesh-eating creatures created by scientific catastrophe or as a symbol of social malaise have yet to become the standard image conjured by the word. The pounding voodoo drums echoing through the cavern and the stark outlines of the African ritual masks, both traditionally seen as signifiers of the ‘primitive’, are contrasted with the stolidly aristocratic setting in which we meet Sir James Forbes and his daughter Sylvia, its Victorian clutter betokening a perhaps excessive accumulation of civility. This also tends to suggest that Cornwall is seen as a new locale for the primitive, a place where such ritualistic conjurations might not seem too out of place. The locals certainly take violent umbrage at the local doctor, all but blaming him for the plague which has cursed their village and which he has failed to diagnose. There is a feeling that he is not too far away from a sacrificial lynching. Native inhabitants may or may not agree with such a portrayal. It allows for Cornwall’s air of mystery and sense of separation from the rest of the United Kingdom, whilst suggesting a degree of superstitious yokeldom and mumbling backwardness of the ‘we don’t like strangers ‘round ‘ere’ variety. Sam Peckinpah was still drawing on this view of the Cornish when he came to make his controversial 1973 picture Straw Dogs. Neither film is likely to be highlighted by the local tourist board.
The beer and whisky divide - a Hammer pubThe primitive characters in Plague of Zombies are from the opposite end of the social spectrum, however. We are soon acquainted with the lofty arrogance of the local aristocracy, as Sir James and Sylvia’s coach is interrupted by the local fox hunt. Writer Peter Bryan and director John Gilling eschew the romanticism often associated with hunting in films such as Powell and Pressburger’s Gone to Earth and even Roger Corman’s last Poe adaptation, The Tomb of Ligeia. Here, the hunters are brutish and animalistic, as much of a pack as the dogs they follow. As the coach pulls into the village, they ride through with a disdainfully proprietorial air, as if they are asserting their authority over the land and all who live in it. In an elevated shot looking down on the village, their bright red coats strikingly mark them out as a disruptive and invasive intrusion into the monochrome surroundings. They callously scatter a funeral cortege which obstructs their path, upsetting the coffin and spilling its cadaverous contents. The face of the corpse which the camera zooms in on seems to be gasping in outraged shock. The dead man’s brother can only pound the stones of the bridge in impotent rage. This powerful scene sets up the central class conflict which drives the plot, ratcheted up and painted in such broad brush strokes that it can be said to amount to class hatred. The red of the huntsmen’s coats is associated with the blood of the villagers, which is used to reduce them to undead slavery. The human victims are essentially regarded as no different to the foxes which they hunt (and yes, this is a good piece of anti-hunt propaganda, too).
Zombie grinThe anti-aristocratic theme is no stranger to gothic fiction, of course. Its villains have always tended towards the titled end of the social spectrum, and partially reflected the indulgence in all manner of excess and taboo-breaking decadence towards which the landed gentry directed their wealth. Lord Byron’s escapades on the continent certainly cemented the bad reputation of the English aristocracy abroad and was a direct influence on the anti-heroes and seductive monsters of subsequent fiction, Bram Stoker’s Dracula included. Hammer had upheld this line of descent; its two most famous characters were a Baron and a Count, after all. But the character of Squire Hamilton and his pack of bloods stand apart from this lineage in that they conspicuously lack any trace of charm or even dark seduction. The scene in which the young thugs draw cards to see who will be the first to ‘take’ Sylvia makes their attitude towards women clear. They are there to be used, a further example of their assumption of universal ownership. Presumably, the attempt to create zombies out of the female characters in the film is not in order to add to the labour force at the tin mine, either, as the ghastly rictus grin of desire and hunger on the resurrected Alice’s face makes all too clear.
An honest copper - Michael RipperFew of the regular Hammer repertory company grace the cast of Plague of Zombies, but Michael Ripper is on hand to give his usual redoubtable performance, this time as the village bobby who assists Sir James in his endeavours after initial scepticism. Ripper returns to his civvies for the follow up, The Reptile, and gives perhaps his definitive innkeeper portrayal, a role which he made his own in Hammer world. Ripper is one of the great British character actors, and deserves recognition beyond the cult circles afforded by his genre work. Andre Morell is fine as the aristocratic scientist Sir James, pitting his rational world view against the supernatural forces at work in the village. It’s a part which could almost be seen as a Victorian reprise of his portrayal of Bernard Quatermass in the third BBC serial featuring that arch advocate of scientific rationalism, Quatermass and the Pit (also featuring Michael Ripper as a bobby, incidentally). His moral outrage and open disgust at what he discovers going on is powerfully expressed. Marcus Hammond as the voice of the peasantry, John Martinus, is also splendid, with the convincing air of a Westcountryman about him. He portrays someone whose barely suppressed hatred and rage comes crashing against his sense of complete powerlessness. He largely avoids the pitfalls of playing country as bumpkin and his character is thus genuinely affecting. John Carson is fine as the stiffly formal squire Hamilton, his jaw firmly set in a permanent clench of outrage at the very idea that anyone might oppose his authority. The young leads are, it has to be said, rather uninspiring. But Jacqueline Pearce is superb as the ill-fated Alice, her long, straight black hair yet to be cropped to the severe crew cut she sports as Servalan in Blake’s 7. Her character suffers from a wound which will not heal, a very resonant piece of symbolism which forges a connection, conscious or otherwise, with a recurrent pattern of myth, that of the fisher king. This wound is linked to the desolation of the surrounding land, in this case the mysterious plague which is laying waste to the village population. Pearce imbues Alice with a deeply felt sadness, as well as the feeling that this was a person who had previously been full of vivacity and life. Pearce apparently suffered from claustrophobia at the time, which must have made her confinement to a coffin unbearable. Make-up artist Jack Asher does marvels with limited resources, creating a look of peeling decay for his zombies and dressing them in sackcloth which emphasises their abject nature. This cast off packing material suggests that they are valued less than the products of their labour, little more than ambulatory sacks of potatoes. John Gilling’s direction is fine, particularly in the celebrated fever dream in which the dead come to life, shot with disorientating angles and an expressionistic colour palette. In this scene he is immeasurably helped by the music of James Bernard, who reigns in his customarily forthright style to provide a musical accompaniment full of subtly disconcerting dissonances, all the more powerful for being muted and underplayed.
Zombie dreamPlague of Zombies was released as the lower half of a double-bill with Dracula Prince of Darkness, a classy pairing which would have satisfied any discerning patrons of their local ABC in Streatham or Sidcup or elsewhere in the provinces. This was a time when many small towns or suburbs still had small cinemas which tended to show less prestigious releases, usually in value for money double-bills. With the big studios concentrating on family musicals such as The Sound of Music and widescreen epics of the David Lean school, it’s arguable that smaller budgeted genre pictures appealing to a more everyday local audience give a more accurate insight into the contemporary zeitgeist. There is certainly an undisguised contempt for the upper class on display in Plague of Zombies, a whiff of revolution in the air, which would have been calculated to appeal to the prejudices of the more working class viewers who would have formed Hammer’s core audience. This reflects the shifting social attitudes, the erosion of deference, which characterised Wilson’s Britain. It is still left to Sir James Forbes, the customary Hammer figure of the learned scholar of moral authority and well-bred bearing, to provide the force of opposition, however. His honorific may have been earned rather than inherited, but he is still essentially an Establishment figure. James Carreras, son of Hammer founder Enrique, was on his way to a knighthood (an honour also recently bestowed upon Christopher Lee, of course) and the company would soon be awarded the Queen’s Award to Industry. Hammer was edging towards a certain level of respectability itself. You can only take things so far, after all. This is Britain, you know!
Reposted from From Out of the Shadows