The Plague of the Zombies

Dir: John Gilling
Star: André Morell, Diane Clare, Brook Williams, John Carson

Made in 1966, this must have been one of the last movies to use the traditional, voodoo-based concept of the zombie, before George A. Romero forever turned the field on its head, two years later. In this movie, medical professor Sir James Forbes (Morell) gets a rambling note from former pupil, Dr. Thompson (Williams), detailing a mysterious illness affecting the Cornish village where he practices, taking the lives of the young and healthy. Forbes goes to visit, accompanied by daughter Sylvia (Clare), since she was a friend of Thompson's wife, Alice. On arrival, they discover Alice, too, is fading away, and when the two doctors attempt to perform an impromptu exhumation of one of the victims, they discover the corpse missing from its coffin - and its brother swears he saw the deceased, walking on the moors. Is this, perhaps, connected to Squire Hamilton (Carson), and his time spent in the Caribbean? Oh, who am I trying to kid. Of course it is.

You could read a political subtext in here, and the film is riddled with class commentary e.g. the deference shown to Forbes in the village pub by the locals, it appears purely because he is a "proper gent." Meanwhile, they are simultaneously being exploited, in the most heinous fashion, by the Squire for commercial ends, and neither side treat the women involved as much more than clothes-horses (nor, to be honest, does the script-writer). It's an interesting tension of ideas. The film is also famous, rightly so, for a nightmarish sequence in a graveyard which includes both a surprisingly-graphic (for the time) decapitation, and memorable images of the undead clawing their way out of the ground, their skin "the color of television, tuned to a dead channel," to borrow a line from William Gibson. Morell also turns in a fine performance as the lead, unwilling to stop niceties get in the way of finding the truth [in a similar vein, I note he was also Watson in Hammer's Hound of the Baskervilles]

However, these aspects are overshadowed to a significant degree by more practical considerations. How did the Squire bring in the native drummers who accompany his ceremonies, and what do they do the rest of theim? Does he make all the zombies' matching shrouds himself? The logistics of the central idea are so poorly thought-out, they threaten to derail proceedings entirely. And who moved Cornwall North of the Arctic Circle? I mention the last because, it never seems to get dark in this movie at all, even when people are supposedly creeping around in the dead of night. The cinematic technique on view here, needs to be known as "day for night mid-afternoon." While there's a bonus in the presence of Jacqueline Pearce as Alice - she'd go on to be uber-bitch Servalan in 80's "classic" Blake's 7 - but this feels closer to the zombie films of the 1940's, than the genre apocalypse Romero was about to unleash.

[November 2010]

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