There's something to be said about selecting the proper protagonist. One false move by the casting director can do a film irreparable harm (see: Kristin Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman, or rather don't). Conversely, a strong leading man or woman can keep the ship's course steady, even in the rough weather of poor filmmaking. The Plague of the Zombies is a study in what happens when a legendary studio (Hammer), crafts an interesting script, gives it to a veteran director (John Gilling), and then decides that their hero will be a sixty year old English gentleman-doctor. Obvious parallels to the Van Helsing archetype aside, this was a bold move that might not have worked, if not for the seriously genteel badassery of actor Andre Morell.
Hammer aficionados will recognize Morell from a number of the studio's pictures, including his portrayal of Doctor Watson opposite Peter Cushing in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), and his roles in She (1965) and The Mummy's Shroud (1967- beware the beat of the cloth-wrapped feet!). The latter two films were also directed by The Plague of the Zombies' director John Gilling. Morell's filmography is massive (123 films and shows in all), and it would defy my completionist nature to fail to mention the two Academy Award winning films (both for best picture) in which he had roles: Ben-Hur (1959) as Sextus, and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) as Colonel Green. And yet, today's Shock-O-Rama is not an Andre Morell biography; rather I found it critical in explaining just how exceptional of a horror film this is, that you understand the caliber of it's leading man.
The Plague of the Zombies finds itself, in retrospect, at the fascinating cross roads of the zombie genre. It released in 1966, a full two years before Romero would reinvent this movie monster into something unbreakably iconic. We wouldn't approach another such reinvention intersection until a combination of 28 Days Later 2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) would spawn the Olympic sprinting infected. In this time and place though, TPOTZ (great acronym) exercises incredible forward thinking in it's use of Haitian VooDoo zombies with a gothic, vampiric flavor. The result is a monster that lives in both the future and the past; it represents the horrors of White Zombie and Night of the Living Dead in equal measure. More importantly, it does so with that signature Hammer flair of style.
In a nondescript year of the 1800's, we follow the exploits of Sir James Forbes, professor of medicine and English gentleman, as he is called to the aid of friend and former pupil, Peter Thompson. Peter has taken up residence in a small Cornish village, which has recently been beset by many unexplainable deaths. Sir James brings along his daughter, Sylvia, who is a friend of Peter's wife, Alice. On their arrival to town, they're accosted by a group of local roughs, who allow their fox hunting excursion to smash through a funeral procession. The uncouth young men are staying in the luxurious home of Squire Clive Hamilton, who is the local sheriff, mayor, and judge all rolled into one. The good squire is played by John Carson, who was well known for his villainous roles on 60's TV shows like The Avengers and The Saint, somehow channelling unborn actor Guy Pierce. The resemblance is freakishly striking (Pierce was born the year after this film released).
Peter has been unable to determine the cause of these mysterious deaths, partially because they're supernatural in nature, but also because the superstitious villagers will not allow him to perform any autopsies. Sir James is flabbergasted at this, proposing what any gentleman would: secret illegal exhumation and examination. To their horror, the coffin is empty, as are all of the remaining plots. Who would steal the dead, and of what use could they possibly be? These are the questions that preoccupy the unflappable Sir James in his quest to uncover the truth, while remaining stiffly upper lipped.
The Plague of the Zombies is not without it's faults, however. It suffers from an incredibly abrupt ending, albeit an action packed one. All of the night scenes make absolutely no attempt to disguise themselves as having not been shot during the day; there's no blue filtering action, though they do avoid looking up at the sky. These minor detractions really don't take away one iota of awesome from this must see classic. This is a marvelously atmospheric flick, that is perfect Halloween season viewing. If you're setting up an October double feature, you can't top pairing this film with Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966); they were released together as part of a double bill.
Whatever you watch this month, make it spooky! See you at the movies.
Saturday Shock-O-Rama Streaming Suggestions
Want to watch something schlocky right now? Try on a few of these suggestions, available right now from the listed service (most of which are FREE!).
Netflix - The Burning - Slasher (1981)
Crackle - Happy Birthday to Me - Horror (1981)
YouTube - The Glass Tomb- Horror (1955)
Hulu - Blue Sunshine - Horror (1978) - This is the pick of the week. If you haven't seen this psychotic gem, watch it to cross off your list!
And if you simply can't get enough horror happenings here on Mania, might I humbly suggest checking out Tuesday Terrors? It's got all the shocking news to keep you current (and possibly help you survive until the credits roll).
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