Top positive review
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One of Hammer's very finest
on 1 March 2014
“This isn’t London, sir. This is a Cornish village inhabited by simple country people, riddled with superstition and all dominated by a squire. He acts as coroner and magistrate, judge and jury.”
Although not among their best known, The Plague of the Zombies is one of Hammer’s very best, and a very different take on the genre than that George A. Romero would usher in only two years later. For a start it’s a period piece and its zombies are more victims than flesh-eating fiends, the result of a curious plague that begins with lethargy and ends with living death that’s baffled local doctor Brook Williams and is threatening to take the life of both his wife and his mentor’s daughter.
You don’t have to look far for who’s responsible: back from foreign parts with a lot of money and the kind of friends Sir Hugo Baskerville would have hung out with before running into that large canine on the moors, John Carson’s dissolute squire has taken a leaf from Murder Legendre’s book of labour relations to deal with the local manpower shortage and is killing off and raising the locals from the dead to work in his dangerous abandoned tin mine. And what a quite splendid villain the silken-voiced Carson is. Coming across as James Mason’s (more) evil brother, he avoids pure melodrama in a part that would have seen many chewing the scenery by exuding aristocratic indifference from every pore whenever confronted by his many social inferiors who are barely worth his contempt, is proud of his non-conformity (“In order to be popular, one must conform. I find that too big a price to pay. I have my own standards. I conform to them.”) and it’s even heavily implied he’s had his wicked way with the heroine before he tries to kill her, which seems to be his preferred method of avoiding long-term entanglements.
If Richard Burton’s protégé Williams is a typically nice-but-bland Hammer hero chosen primarily for the ability to pass as coming from the right side of the tracks (not always a priority with Hammer starlets, who could always be – and often were – dubbed), there’s always the ever-excellent Andre Morell on the side of the angels as the distinguished specialist called in from London to diagnose the plague and Michael Ripper, the true face of Hammer, as the local police sergeant. There’s excellent direction from the ever-undervalued John Gilling, good performances, particularly from a superb Jacqueline Pearce (though Diane Clare is pretty bad and the actress dubbing her isn’t much better) and a terrific dream scene with hands clawing up towards the surface and zombies shaking the dirt of the grave from their faces while Roy Ashton’s unsettling zombie make-up makes you wonder if Dick Smith saw the film when deciding on Linda Blair’s demonic look in The Exorcist. Gilling and co-stars Jacqueline Pearce and Michael Ripper would go on to shoot The Reptile on the same sets the same year to less memorable effect, making for an interesting homemade double-bill, but for all the superficial similarities this retains its own unique identity and stands as one of the studio’s best and one of those rare films that seems to get better each time you see it.
Sadly the UK DVD offers no extras, losing it a star - Anchor Bay's US DVD included an episode of the World of Hammer clip show, trailer and 2 TV spots for its double-bill with Frankenstein Created Woman while StudioCanal's UK Blu-ray/DVD combo offers a splendid restoration with a new half hour documentary, episode of World of Hammer and UK trailer.
The UK region B-locked Blu-ray doesn't include the double-bill trailer pairing the film with Dracula, Prince of Darkness that's on the deleted US Anchor Bay DVD and which offers free Dracula fangs for the guys in the audience and zombie eyes for the gals, but it does have a truly excellent restoration (which uses the original UK title sequence, slightly different to the one on Anchor Bay's US DVD) and a very decent extras package - a new 34-minute documentary with Carson and Pearce (who recalls Morell's undisguised contempt for Diane Clare's amateurish performance), an episode of the World of Hammer clip show and trailer.