December 28, 2009

The Plague of the Zombies (REVIEW)


The Plague of
the Zombies (1966)

Director: John Gilling


3.5 / 5 zedheads

The Plague of the Zombies was the last good voodoo zombie film released prior to George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead and the shift in the public perception of zombies from voodoo slaves to cannibalistic ghouls. It is a film deserving of the credit it has received as a hidden gem in the zombie genre and Hammer catalog, but its seems to me that the movie's budgetary restraints and narrative shortcomings do too much to limit the film's effectiveness.

I do admit that The Plague of the Zombies is a film that every zombie fan should watch. It has been praised as one of Hammer's better films of the '60s and a noteworthy pre-Romero zombie film in its own right. Primarily, the film succeeds on the back of its zombies and its notable Hammer-esque atmosphere. The zombies look quite accomplished given the film's date and budget. Clothed in dusty shrouds, the zombies are grey-faced and white-eyed with desecrated, dry rotting skin. Although they are not in the film long, their striking appearance -- especially during a dream sequence -- helps sell this movie as required viewing for zombie fans.

"Zombie" is his slave name.

While I want to recommend the film from the start, the rest of this review is going to focus on the film's flaws because much has already been written about the film's merits. I don't disagree with Brandt Sponseller of that The Plague of the Zombies is "minor masterpiece." I also find little to object to in David Rattigan's very insightful (if a bit exaggerated) analysis of the film's cinematic style over at Dictionary of Hammer. Like I said, you should go out and rent The Plague of the Zombies. It is worth a watch, especially if you love the Gothic Englishness of Hammer films. However, at the end of the day, my mind dwells more on the film's flaws than on its successes. Chiefly, the film is flawed in its pace, characters, and special effects.

 Dirt Nap: Jacqueline Pearce's slumber did little to help her complexion

 My real and unavoidable complaint about The Plague of the Zombies is that there is no mystery in the plot although the film's first-half attempts to follow the structure of an investigate mystery ala Sherlock Holmes. In the film, Sir James Forbes (AndrĂ© Morell) and his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) receive a distressing letter from their friend Dr. Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) who has set up practice in a small village in Cornwall. Thompson writes of a strange disease that is afflicting the villagers; people are dying at a suspicious rate with no clear medical cause. Thompson and his daughter travel to the insulated village to help Dr. Thompson investigate, but they run afoul of a group of imperious upper-class men who serve the interests of the village's wealthy and powerful squire, Clive Hamilton (John Carson). Hamilton, who uses his wealth to control all aspects of the town, has prevented Thompson from conducing autopsies on the dead. Forbes and Dr. Thompson, however, soon discover Hamilton's dark secret: Hamilton is using Haitian witchcraft to kill and reanimate the people of the village as zombie laborers for his lucrative tin mine.

Who is that masked man? Well, it's not difficult to figure out.

Early into the film, it is no secret that Hamilton is the villain of the piece. Although the film's main plot attempts to unravel the mystery as if his identity were still secret, Hamilton is clearly presented as the villain and, logically, the white witchdoctor we see in the opening credit sequence. We don't know exactly what he's up to, but anyone with a passing familiarity with prior voodoo zombie films can figure it out based on the title. The film's slow, mystery-unraveling pace seems at odds with the film's efforts to prematurely explain the mystery. Sometimes this works to unsettle the reader's expectations by putting the audience's understanding ahead of the characters who are normally relied on to explain the plot to the audience. For example, Sylvia witnesses the first zombie moments before her father and Dr. Thompson discover the graves in the cemetery are empty. Most of the time, however, the characters are figuring out facts that the audience already knows or can easily guess. In these moments that dominate the first half of the film, the movie drags considerably.

At the same time that the film drags, the screenplay does make excellent use of its entire roster of characters. A number of major and minor characters are introduced during the course of the film and each has a vital role to play in the film; none are wasted. Several scenes take place on the same sets and locations, but the complex yet natural development of the plot never makes the return to previously used sets and locations feel forced.

As with the plot (which is flawed at the same time it is inventive), the characters and special effects trudge a fine line between laughable and admirable.

For an example of a common problem with the film's characters, look to Morell as Sir James. Like most characters, he is a stereotype -- Morell plays James as the mumbling, grumpy, misogynistic, and elderly English patriarch and authority figure. Also like other characters, his performance often puts the "ham" in "Hammer," yet as the film's action picks up he becomes a very sober, creative, likable, and fairly believable investigator and man of action. Despite the exaggerated quality of each of the film's characters, each actor finds a sincerity that grounds the film. Although his character's reasoning for changing from the "rational man of science" to believer in the occult is tenuous at best, Morell (like all the actors in the film) plays his character with just enough depth of character to get by.

Finally, the film's clear budgetary and technical restrictions hold back the The Plague of the Zombies from being better than it is. While characters make a point of announcing that action is taking place at night, no part of the film is convincingly filmed at night. Night scenes are very clearly day-for-night shots with barely any shadow at all. It looks like a camera filter is used to darken the image but when the film is supposedly taking place at night the sky is clearly that of a bright day. Despite the fact that most of the zombie effects are notable, Some of the zombie effects also drop the ball. When Alice Thompson (Jacqueline Pearce) undergoes her zombie transformation, the sequence is a painfully slow and ineffective lapse-dissolve. There is also a series of shots that take place with zombies on fire, but the actor playing the lead zombie and who is always directly in front of the camera and zombie crowd is wearing an inexplicably smooth, almost paper mache, mask with no facial features -- only eye holes. He looks nothing like the other zombies, who are also on fire but are wearing the standards and decent-looking zombie makeup seen in the rest of the film. Flubs like these add just enough additional weight to help sink the film.

Although unoriginal in plot, The Plague of the Zombies has enough going for it to recommend. In fact, for its time, there are some fairly effective zombie effects and shocking moments (look for a decapitation and a scene uncomfortably evocative of gang-rape). However, the film is held down by an unavoidable flaw in its narrative structure, by characters who verge on the hammy, and by special effects that take the viewer out of the movie. The Plague of the Zombies could have been much better than it is, but what it is isn't bad.

The Plague of the Zombies is available to own or rent from Anchor Bay as an individual movie or on a double-bill DVD with The Mummy's Shroud (1967)

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