Whilst the zombie phenomenon boasts an enormous global and cultural reach today, it should be fairly straightforward to identify the milestones in film history which have played a crucial role in shaping the mythology and boosting the popularity of our much adored shuffling, rotting corpses. Victor Halperin's fascinating and flawed excursion into zombie territory in 1932, White Zombie, is an important early entry into the subgenre, George A Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead commented on rampant consumerism woven into the lives of Americans yet still presented a sometimes touching and often tragic story of desperate human survival, and the crude Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci filmed the most gloriously putrefied and disgusting zombies ever committed to celluloid in his visceral 1979 underground classic (itself a shameless unofficial 'sequel' to Romero's earlier work) Zombi II (known to UK viewers as Zombie Flesh Eaters).
In terms of kudos, it seems to be Romero's earlier zombie blueprint which receives the most adulation and recognition in shaping the course of zombies within film, and with some justification. His seminal 1968 work, The Night of the Living Dead, is an undeniably stunning piece of filmmaking, and its brutal scenes of flesh eating (displayed in the black and white presentation of the film) shocked audiences (and reviewers), and upped the ante for other filmmakers to match.
In this context, it's rather curious to consider Hammer's more modest zombie offering, The Plague of the Zombies; indeed, the impressive John Gilling-directed film is curious on a number of levels. All things considered, it's incredibly strange that this well-crafted Hammer zombie film usually inhabits little more than a footnote in the history of zombie films; in fact, even in many analyses of Hammer history, this film is afforded little more than token attention. Stranger still is that this entry into the Hammer catalogue stands (or shuffles, maybe, with a dull groan) in lonely isolation as Hammer's only serious foray into the zombie genre. And most strange of all is that despite its relegated status in the zombie genre, despite its modesty amongst its other Hammer titles, and despite its position as Hammer's only zombie entry in a horror catalogue which spans all core, classic horror mythology, The Plague of the Zombies is actually one of Hammer's most accomplished, most chilling, and most enjoyable productions, and one which has been least affected by the considerable ravages of time.
Yet Gilling's dignified Cornish zombie outing shares little of the kudos of The Night of the Living Dead. Of course, Romero's 1968 film is considerably more subversive, substantially more shocking, and in some ways more culturally and historically compelling (the black lead of Duane Jones is in itself an act of brilliance and bravery by both the director and the actor) than its Hammer rival, and it would be disingenuous to attempt to argue otherwise. But there is still some merit in considering the historical context within which the films were made, as Hammer churned out the quintessentially British The Plague of the Zombies in 1966, two years before Romero would release his gritty shocker. I'm unaware of whether Romero had actually seen Gilling's film before making ...Living Dead, and it's perhaps fanciful to suggest that the film could have had some influence on the American director's production; yet one can't help but wonder.
Hammer's brief foray into zombieland resulted from their arrival at something of a crossroads in the studio's evolution. By the time this film was made in the mid-sixties, the well was running dry in terms of the staple Hammer output (much of which had been 'influenced' by the original horror output of Universal studios), and the successful studio - by now a heavyweight in the horror scene both in the UK and abroad (Hammer churned out six pictures in 1966) - were keen to remain at the forefront of horror film production. The Plague of the Zombies, with its decidedly stronger visuals, constituted some shrewd decision making by the studio, and resulted in the production of a number of films by Hammer which have become classics in their own right. When Hammer would experience their next creative wobble, their choice of route at the crossroads would not be so shrewd; Dracula AD 1972 was hovering on the horizon as the studio flapped towards 1972, and this particular product would typify the inexorable Hammer demise (albeit punctuated by the odd shard of creative brilliance) as the studio grossly misread the appetite of the modern audience with their incongruous clash of the gothic and modern.
An embryonic script of The Plague... was hatched by Peter Bryan in 1962, but later in that year he was joined by Anthony Hinds, who further developed the script into a harder-hitting product. By the time it reached 1964, the story was ready for use in a collection of four films being presented by Seven Arts/Fox/ABPC, and the prospective film was slotted in as a supporting feature for the heavyweight Dracula Prince of Darkness.
Producing a batch of four films slotted in nicely with the studio's modus operandi; Hammer horror films are often held with great affection or dismissive derision thanks to their evident budget production values, but what was especially impressive about the film studio and their output was their ability to work in a brutally efficient manner and produce results which punched far above their weight. In typical Hammer fashion, the Cornish village set, a couple of the actors, and the director were all to be shared with The Reptile, which was itself to be the supporting piece for Rasputin, the Mad Monk. Far from impacting upon the resultant quality of the output, it almost feels as if the forced efficiency, and the familiarity generated by the shared resources, lends the film a sense of consistency and continuity which pays rich dividends. Director John Gilling provides a pacing for the film which is pitched perfectly. Opening with James Bernard's thrilling cacophony of voodoo drums and an obligatory voodoo ritual, Gilling slows the pace to a controlled and considered speed which introduces the requisite level of creeping threat and overarching doom with some precision. It's some time before we begin to experience the true horror of this picture, and when we first face a zombie standing ugly and dishevelled on the hillside with a woman's corpse strewn across his arms, it's genuinely chilling as he emits a laughing screech and tosses the body down the hill. Gilling slowly guides the story towards Peter's exhilarating zombie dream sequence, a decapitation, and the mandatory showdown as the truth of the story begins to unravel.
Where other notable entries in zombie cinematic history have provided commentary on society and its nuances and ills, John Gilling's film is no exception, and the angle he takes is an intriguing one. The film portrays a visit to Cornwall by Sylvia (played by a somewhat distracted Diane Clare) with her father, a prominent doctor called Sir James (performed in wonderfully dignified fashion by Andre Morell, who was by this time an established actor, having featured in the BBC version of Quatermass... and as Dr Watson in Hammer's own The Hound of the Baskervilles). The pair visit Sylvia's friend Alice (the delightful Jacqueline Pearce, who also starred in The Reptile, and played Servalan in Blake's 7) and her husband Peter, the local doctor. The villagers are being robbed of their friends and family by a curious and undefined malady, and Sir James sets about the grim work of unravelling the root cause of the illness. Soon after their arrival, Sylvia and Sir James encounter a despicable group of red coat-adorned hunters, and after an unfortunate incident at a villager's funeral, a stark boundary appears between the down-to-earth villagers and the moneyed elite.
The class theme endures throughout the film, and Gilling handles this subject with a careful and accomplished hand. In the early stages of the film, there's a genuinely warming moment where Sir James sends the two girls to bed, whilst he speaks with Peter as the two men wash the dishes. This early sequence makes a subtle statement; regardless of the fact that Sir James may reside in a similar social strata to the superior and arrogant hunters, he actively defines himself against them by engaging in menial labour voluntarily, demonstrating that such a chore is not beneath him. The film drives further separation between the sets of characters as an implied and intended violation of Sylvia at the hands of the rich men is narrowly averted; the men speak with sculpted tones and accents, yet their behaviour is base and their nature exploitative.
This scene in particular caused much concern at the BBFC, and with an impressive decapitation scene to boot, it's a testament to the Hammer studio that they managed to position the film in such a way to the sensitive censorship board that it was finally able to be passed. It's perhaps a measure of how far we've come that at the point of release for this film, a twelve year old will be able to watch The Plague of the Zombies.
For such a well-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable piece of work, it's a true shame that Hammer limited their zombie output to this solitary entry. Yet this solitary status elevates the film to lofty territory amongst its numerous Hammer counterparts, and with its comparatively early imagining of zombie infestation and some commentary on the exploitation of one class by another, John Gilling's 1966 shocker remains essential and rewarding viewing for fans of zombie and Hammer spheres alike.
Studiocanal release this glorious Hammer zombie classic on double play DVD and Blu-ray format on the same day as their release of The Reptile, the film which was made in the same location, shared the same director, and also featured a couple of the same cast members. The discs are encoded for region 2 and B respectively, and some of you may find it interesting to note that the BBFC deemed The Plague of the Zombies suitable for individuals aged 12 and upwards, whereas The Reptile receives a '15' certificate. Whilst The Plague... does feature a beheading and some fairly chilling zombie visuals, it's still pretty tame stuff by today's standards, and I suppose one could wheel out the inevitable Harry Potter comparisons which abound in such discussions nowadays. Whichever way, the film is on firm ground, morally speaking, and has proven itself worthy of avoiding the ire of our beloved censorship board.
Studiocanal suffered substantial criticism after the Blu-ray release of Dracula Prince of Darkness, mainly due to some synchronisation issues with the audio, and some overzealous processing of the image. To their credit, they addressed these concerns and sent out replacement discs, and whilst I haven't seen their release of that film, I can report that this Blu-ray version of John Gilling's zombie classic doesn't suffer from the same issues. Transferred from the original negatives and presented in the native 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the work that has been done to remove the film damage, flecks, and scratches is impressive indeed, with the resulting image proving stable and clear. I did spot a couple of minor instances of extraneous material present on the image on occasion (a small black mark on the image during the opening sequence, for example), but the trade-off to balance the authenticity of the film's age and the quality of the image for a modern viewer shows a shrewd sense of balance. The accuracy of the 1080p image presents detail in the film which I thought impossible for a film which has existed for over forty years; check the early shots of Alice's face as she sleeps, and the level of detail captured is incredible.
Whilst this impressive level of accuracy means the film looks better than ever before, the transfer still shows a good deal of respect to the film's age; a level of grain is permitted to exist, and the temptation to over-process with noise reduction is eschewed. The main issue that stands out is not the colour per se, which is strong and representative, but rather the subtle inconsistency of the colour. The film - shot on the usual Hammer budget, after all - does present its scenes in a number of subtle but confusing shades. This is a Hammer problem which we have seen on multiple occasions, but it does mildly distract your viewing as the changing of the shades occurs out of sync with the flow of time in the film. The sequence where Sylvia walks out into the night, for example, shows an alarming lack of continuity, but for all of that, the transfer displays this inconsistency with transparent judgement, and the issue cannot be realistically blamed on this high quality transfer.
There are subtitles for hard of hearing.
Have no fear about synchronisation issues; the audio delivery on this release is sharp and accurate. Presented in LPCM 2.0 mono, the soundtrack is clear and precise throughout, and James Bernard's stunning musical onslaught of racing voodoo drums is delivered with precision and without distortion. Naturally, you shouldn't anticipate too much in the way of bass resonance or nuance of treble, but my only criticism is that the limitations of the recording source - not the fault of the team responsible for the transfer - result in a strong middle which borders on the harsh, and with such a blistering musical assault from Bernard's drums, you may find yourself adjusting the volume between the scenes with the drums, and the scenes with quieter dialogue.
Studiocanal have provided a clutch of extras which prove compelling enough viewing, but it's a disappointment to report that there are no commentary tracks to accompany this little Hammer zombie gem.
First up is a World of Hammer Episode, this particular 25 minute instalment focusing on Mummies, Werewolves, and the Living Dead, with the latter, of course, being the applicable supernatural subject here. The late Oliver Reid presents the piece, and stars in some of the footage, and despite its advanced years, this does present a rather compelling little piece. There's oodles of grainy Hammer footage neatly tied together with Reid's deep tones, and this forms an affectionate reminder of just how impressive some of the Hammer output would prove to be. The Curse of the Werewolf and The Mummy - perhaps predictably, given the subtitle - make an appearance, and it's great to see The Plague of the Zombies receive some analysis at the close. But the most enjoyable segment of all is the truly bizarre and brilliant The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a film made as Hammer were waning tragically (remember, this was two years after Dracula AD 1972), and a film that should have been doomed in every possible respect, yet it somehow manages to provide enduring appeal thanks to its ridiculous cultural East/West collision.
The 34 minute Raising the Dead is the standout segment here, with a number of notable commentators providing input into the film's cultural and historical placement. We're treated to Jacqueline Pearce (who played the unfortunate Alice in the film), who is refreshingly candid in her recollection of the film and its making, and John Carson also recalls his part in proceedings playing the Squire. There is also warmly welcomed commentary from British horror expert Jonathan Rigby, and further comments from Mark Gattis, both of whom deliver typically engaging and informed conversation. There is a brief interview with the team responsible for remastering the film, and I was especially interested by their comments on the level of work and processing that should be applied. As they point out, the film is of a specific era, and to some extent should look of a specific era, something which I strongly believe lends films their charm and faithfully reflects their historical placement. The only drawback here is that this part of the piece simply isn't sufficiently in-depth, and we're left wanting much more.
Speaking of which, the Restoration Comparison (4:32) is a slickly delivered and fascinating display of the source material in direct comparison to the output provided in this new release. The format uses a split screen to play a number of clips, with the left of the screen displaying the original material, and the right presenting the newly remastered output. The segment demonstrates what an incredible job the team have done on the film, with significant negative damage, dirt, and flecks all having been removed, whilst still maintaining the authentic look of the film.
We round up the tidy collection of extras with the obligatory Trailer, and the opportunity to hear that glorious cacophony of voodoo drums once again.
Studiocanal release a respectful Blu-ray of John Gilling's underrated zombie classic, with an excellent transfer from the original source material. Hammer fans will enjoy the reasonable enough collection of extras, and The Plague of the Zombies will prove rewarding viewing for fans of Hammer and zombies alike.
Studiocanal release a smart DVD and Blu-ray double of John Gilling's much underrated zombie classic, with decapitations and bizarre zombie dream sequences captured in super hi-def glory.