JANUARY 29, 2016
Hammer knew their strengths (or at least, knew the box office) and thus didn't step outside their comfort zone too much when it came to horror sub-genres. Their first real ghost movie, for example, was 2012's The Woman in Black - nearly fifty years after their heyday. And if I can trust what I've read online, The Plague of the Zombies is their only zombie movie, which shocks me since it was so influential on Night of the Living Dead, you'd think that, during their waning era in the '70s, they'd want to cash in on the trend that they helped pave the way for by trying it again. Whether it would have made any difference in the downturn that led to their 30+ year absence from the horror genre, I'm not sure - but they certainly proved here that they could pull off zombies as well as vampires or mad scientists.
Indeed, the film has a vague Frankenstein-esque feel at time, particularly Frankenstein Created Woman, as it also has a scene where a girl is terrorized by local thugs and shares that film's teacher/student relationship between the two male leads. However it should be noted this one came first, so maybe they were just borrowing elements for Frankenstein instead of Plague using familiar/successful material to fall back on as they waded into new territory with the undead. And it's not like they had a lot of movies to draw from in that area - in the 34 years since White Zombie, there had only been a couple dozen other zombie films, many of them not likely to have influenced anyone on anything, ever (Voodoo Island or Voodoo Man, anyone?) and several of them only technically falling under the description, like the sci-fi/action serial Zombies of the Stratosphere, which had drone-like aliens but no walking undead.
All that is a long-winded way of explaining why I can forgive them for the movie's only real blunder, but it's kind of an obnoxious one - the half-assed attempts at a mystery for the villain. We know who it is - he's the only suspect, the zombies are usually seen around his house, he takes the heroine's blood after she cuts herself on a wine glass... but for some reason he wears this tribal mask even during scenes where only his own men are around, so there's no need to be hiding his identity. And even when it's taken off during the climax the director drags it out for another few seconds, obscuring his face (via POV of a woozy character) before finally revealing that it's... the guy you knew was the bad guy as soon as he was mentioned. So why hide it? I mean, I'm sure there was some history of the mask being used in these voodoo rituals, but the way it's used in the film it feels like they're trying to conceal a mystery. Plus, the guy playing the villain, John Carson, is a delight and I wish the movie included him more - he's in relatively few scenes overall, in fact, mask or not.
Instead it's mostly André Morell's show, as the well-to-do doctor who travels to this little town (along with his daughter) to help out one of his former students, Peter, who is the town's doctor. The area has had a number of mysterious deaths and Carson's character, the local squire, won't let their bodies be autopsied, so Morell and Peter investigate together, and you can probably figure out what's going on just from what I've already explained (and the title). This first hour or so works best; there are more exteriors than in most Hammer movies, giving it an even richer atmosphere than their brand is already known for, and the zombie scenes are actually kind of terrifying if you remember that this was a relatively foreign idea back then. Peter's wife is one of the victims and we get to see her rise from her grave after reanimating - this had to be one of the first examples of such a scene that wasn't a vampire, so the lack of fangs (and vague romanticism that comes with vampire territory) gives it a much creepier vibe. I also enjoyed the bit where Morell sticks up for Peter at the pub, as he's being harassed by the surviving family members of "plague" victims for not doing his job properly, at which point Morell strolls in, explains that he was his best student, then buys all the jerks a round (there's one extra who's WAY over enthusiastic about his sudden reevaluating of the other man's worth) to take the high road.
But the climax isn't as engaging, sadly. There's a fire, because of course there is, and we get Carson and his guys trying to outrun the zombies, while Morell, his daughter, and Peter make their escape from the inferno - you know exactly how it will play out, and there are no other stakes in play, so once Carson is finally unmasked (removing the last bit of hope that maybe they were going to pull a twist on us and reveal Peter was the villain all along or something) there's really nothing left to latch on to beyond "Will it cut to credits as soon as they escape the fire, or will director John Gilling give them a reaction shot or two first?" Well, I wouldn't dare spoil that for you, so you'll just have to see for yourself - just don't be surprised if you start missing the earlier tone of the movie, where you were kind of sure what was going on but enjoying the process of Morell figuring it out. There's a great bit where him and Peter are digging up a grave only for a constable to interrupt and try to arrest them for grave-robbing, then back down when he sees that the grave is empty (turns out his son died from it earlier in the year, so now he's on their side and wants to get to the bottom of what's happening). I'm used to the police always being a hindrance to our well-meaning (but occasionally shady) heroes in these things, so it was nice to see a uniformed officer as an ally for a change. Also, it's funny, because I'm finally used to pre-Romero zombies having a certain look to them, and the ones here are closer in appearance to post-Romero zombies (almost like the Fulci ones, really), throwing me off yet again.
Speaking of what I'm used to in these movies - I could have sworn I actually saw it back in 1998 when I grabbed a few of the Hammer VHS films (one of which, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, I finally watched for this site - 15 years after buying the damn tape), but absolutely nothing rang a bell. In fact the only strong memory I had involved two males next to a river, and there's nothing like that here. So either I watched something else (besides Dracula, the others - per my memory - were Quatermass and the Pit, Rasputin, and this) or dreamed up my own movie after dozing off during it, which is sadly likely. But I still vividly remember seeing their plastic clamshell cases in the little dorm room bookshelf I had next to my bed, next to my (also clamshell) copy of Casablanca that I picked up around the same time. This was when DVD was starting to really explode (and before I had a player), so VHS copies were on sale a little more often as the stores wanted to clear space, and I was bulking up my collection. Then I ended up getting a DVD player that spring and so a lot of these impulse buys never got watched. I definitely watched Casablanca in that dorm room though. Good movie.
I wish I kept the VHS so I'd know for sure, and also because it might actually look better. As this was one of those old Anchor Bay DVDs that's no longer in print (kinda surprised Netflix still had it - maybe I'll just keep it forever), the transfer kind of blows, as it occasionally looks like it has that motion smoothing garbage on or something. And the extras aren't anything worth having - just an episode of "World of Hammer" or whatever it's called (the clip show narrated by Oliver Reed) and the typically overblown/hilarious trailer ("DRUMS!") that gives away most of the scares and part of the ending. Again, if someone could put together a boxed set with a lot of the Hammer one-offs like this (meaning: not the Frankenstein/Dracula films - they should get their own dedicated and COMPLETE sets), I'd pay handsomely for it. I want a library of Hammer films for my own entertainment and also for my son when he's older (they're perfect for when he's old enough for some minor bloodshed but not ready for splatterfests), but these out of print discs with transfers that weren't even good enough for their original retail cost aren't going to cut it. This would be a great entry point for him, in fact - it's close enough to the now-standard version of a zombie movie (meaning, Romero-esque) but without excess gore or even a nihilistic tone - a zombie movie where all of the heroes survive! The only one older than this that I'd really want him to see sooner than later is The Earth Dies Screaming (and maybe White Zombie, if he's OK with the more important black & white films i.e. the Universal Monsters). But either way, I just want more worthy releases for these films - I have only a few scattered movies and that number doesn't even include most of my favorites. Let's get whatever rights issues solved before 2021, 2022, please?
What say you?