The Plague of the Zombies
1966 / 1.66:1 / 91 Min. / Street Date – January 15, 2019
Starring André Morell, John Carson, Jacqueline Pearce
Cinematography by Arthur Grant
Directed by John Gilling
Propping up one of Hammer Studios’ more visceral double-bills, John Gilling’s The Plague of the Zombies was released alongside Terence Fisher’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness in January of 1966. Fisher’s film was a briskly bloody chapter in the vampire’s long career but Gilling’s melancholy thriller packed a considerably gloomier punch.
The London-born Gilling was a writer/director with a taste for provincial settings, class conflict and horror – social commentary with a gothic twist. That formula was put to the test in his distinctly odd bit of sci-fi agitprop, 1957’s The Gamma People, a cold-war fable about a sinister doctor and an army of mind-controlled juvenile delinquents.
In 1960 Gilling turned that story on its head with The Flesh and the Fiends, the tale of a kindly but conflicted physician played by a buttoned-down and brilliant Peter Cushing.
An unsparing look at the grim alliance between a tortured humanitarian and a pair of ghoulish alley rats (based on the grave robbers Burke and Hare), Gilling the ironic social critic reveled in the compelling intersection between the good doctor’s antiseptic domain and the squalid surroundings of his murderous associates.
The Plague of the Zombies, set in a remote village caught between a benevolent physician and a predatory warlock, borrows from each of those films. André Morell stars as Sir James Forbes, a retired surgeon come to the aid of Peter Tompson, an embattled protege currently fighting the long war between reason and superstition.
Tompson’s troubles are twofold – a mysterious malady decimating the countryside and the equally poisonous presence of Squire Hamilton – a silky but serpentine plutocrat with a supernatural secret – he’s uncovered a Solomon-sized treasure in a forgotten mine shaft and enlisted the recently dead to do his dirty work, transforming the hapless cadavers into literal working stiffs.
Hamilton has similar designs on Tompson’s wife Alice, a careworn beauty already infected by the two-faced regent.
Her predictable demise hands Gilling the key to two bravura spook house showcases – poor Alice’s ghastly beheading played out in a foggy cemetery and a dazzling nightmare sequence in which a squadron of zombies rise from their graves.
As the young woman who loses her head to André Morell’s athletic spade work, Jacqueline Pearce is the embodiment of the vamp, slithering out of her tomb with a come-hither look and blood-chilling smile. Apart from those ghoulish centerpieces Gilling plays it close to the vest leaving seasoned veterans Morell and John Carson as the venomous Hamilton to carry the day – the yin and yang of the ruling class in an aristocratic fight to the finish.
Though the forces of good prevail, an aura of doom hangs over the film like wet moss – the inevitable conflagration consumes both the Squire and the mine shaft but there is no light at the end of that tunnel or anywhere else.
Shout Factory’s new Blu ray release is a welcome treat – for years Gilling’s mournful shocker has endured a parade of dark, blurry and weirdly colored home video releases – the new Blu ray restores the film’s clarity and rich palette to their former states.
Shout has also included a number of supplements (most carried over from previous editions) that put the film in good perspective. Via Shout Factory’s site they are:
A new audio commentary With Filmmakers Constantine Nasr, Ted Newsom and film Historian Steve Haberman
A new audio commentary with author/film historian Troy Howarth
Newly restored audio
World Of Hammer – Mummies, Werewolves & The Living Dead
Raising The Dead: The Making Of The Plague Of The Zombies