Thursday, 18 April 2013

A to Z - The Plague of the Zombies

I used to be a fan of zombies until they went mainstream, but I have to admit, I will always have a fondness for the old school 'voodoo' zombies. After all, it's where the sub genre started - long before viruses and radiation from space got blamed, cinema was using voodoo to explain its fascination with the undead. First came White Zombie in 1932, then I Walked With A Zombie in 1943, and then the idea went quiet for a bit, until Hammer decided to have a crack at it in 1966 with The Plague of the Zombies. By this point, Hammer had exhausted its own versions of the 1930s Universal classics, and were trying out new ideas to see what might stick in order to create a new movie monster. They'd had a go in 1964 with The Gorgon, a rare attempt at a female monster, and had another crack at things with the zombie.

The Plague of the Zombies is set in rural Cornwall, where Sir James Forbes (André Morell) and his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) go to visit one of James's old schoolfriends, Peter (Brook Williams). Things are badly amiss in Peter's village - young men are dying in their prime, and the people are under the thrall of Squire Hamilton (John Carson). When Peter's wife Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) dies, James sets about uncovering what's really going on. I'm not going to spoil it by telling you that voodoo is to blame, and the young men are disappearing to provide cheap labour.

I was half expecting this to be terrible before I watched it, but I was pleasantly surprised. It's a well-paced little horror film, but I think part of its success lies in its reliance on voodoo as the cause. I don't know how plausible it is but it can't be any worse than a virus caused by monkeys being exposed to violent imagery. There has been a lot written about the mindless zombie horde as being a representation of fears surrounding the working class, but I can't help seeing that as being somewhat derogatory. True, the idea of a sole individual wielding power over a subjugated mass is essentially feudalism, but I think I prefer the concept of that sole individual since they become a very human antagonist to foil the protagonist. With a zombie horde, the protagonists are essentially just running about trying to survive. The conflict is simply "get eaten/don't get eaten". With a voodoo priest, you have someone to defeat. I'm aware that raises questions around a closed or open narrative, as well as the so-called 'secure' or 'paranoid' horror, but that's beyond the scope of this post.

What I like about it is the fact that Hammer took their tried and tested period Gothic setting and tried to inject a different form of horror. Zombies weren't fashionable, and I'm still unsure whose idea the film was, but it's almost an entirely new type of film for Hammer. It's not a remake of a Universal classic, nor is it one of the interminable Dracula or Frankenstein sequels. True, some of their 'stabs in the dark' really don't work (like The Witches) but this one really did - and it's such a shame that they turned their back on the idea, and never did zombies again. Instead, the idea was taken up two years later by an American filmmaker named George Romero...

Anyway, I'll leave you with this particular clip, in which Sir James and Peter go to check on the grave of young Alice...

5 comments:

David Cranmer said...

Good thing that shovel was handy, eh?

Magaly Guerrero said...

First the vampires, and then the zombies... totally get you.

Tony Noland said...

Like mummies, the slow zombies are scary because of the inexorable nature of them. You have to stop and sleep eventually... they don't. They WILL get you. If not now, then in a day, a week or a year.

Creepy.

John Wiswell said...

I prefer my zombies to not try to explain themselves too much. If you tell me it's voodoo-zombie time, I'm in. In some ways they're more palatable than disease serving as an energy drink.

Beverly Fox said...

I've never even heard of this one! I'll have to check it out!

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