Cinema Obscura: Plague Of The Zombies

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Cinema Obscura - a weekly trek through the darker and frequently more random and forgotten regions of Cult, Foreign and Obscure cinema and pretty much everything in between. Each week highlighting a film worth hunting down, for those who like to wander away from the more-traveled-roads of Mainstream cinema.

So since my last post I've been getting over a plague of my own, thanks to this darn flu which is currently going around these rain soaked British shores. So looking for some camp zombie fun and an excuse to make the first of what will no doubt be numerous delves into the back catalogue of the legendary British Horror studio “Hammer Horror" who were not only the studio of choice for Horror legends Christopher Lee and Peter Crushing, but also dominated British Horror from the mid 50's through to the late 70's before going into hibernation until their recent revival with the releases of “Wake Wood" (2011) and “The Resident" (2011) as well as the forthcoming “Woman In Black" (2012).

Released back in 1966 when the studio was looking for new horrors to unleash on their audience, especially with the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein having grown stale as the result of numerous sequels.Shot back to back with "The Reptile" (1966) which would use the same sets as well as pretty much the same cast and crew. “Plague of the Zombies" also marked another noticeable departure from the norm for Hammer, seeing how both Peter Crushing and Christopher Lee are noticeably absent having decided to take a break from the horror genre, though it is widely believed that it was more to do with looking for a larger pay check from Hammer while these films also marked the end of the more traditional horror films they had previously been making as they instead focused on making cave girl movies and selling the world on the idea that cave girls actually strutted around in fur bikini's as so memorable seen in “One Million Years B.C." (1966).

Set in an unnamed Cornish village during the 1800's were the local residents seem to be dying from a mysterious plague, which has the local doctor Peter Thompson (Brook Williams) stumped and leads him to calling in assistance from his friend Sir James Forbes (André Morell) who soon arrives at the village with his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) in tow. As part of their investigation the doctors dig up the corpses of the recent victims of the plague, only to find their coffins empty! It is also after encountering zombies at a deserted tin mine, that their investigation soon leads them to Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson) who has raised his own army of Zombies to work in his mine and carry out his bidding.

Opening with a truly wacky voodoo scene complete with howling tribal drummers dressed in stereotypical animal furs and bones, while the masked master carries out his zombie ritual, it is certainly a world away from more recent zombie movies and might prove a little alienating for zombie lovers more familiar with the gut chomping zombie classics of Fulci and George Romero, this film might come as a bit of a disappointment, as these zombies are far from the flesh eating hordes which they favored in their films, with these zombies instead baring more similarity to the first zombie movies such as “White Zombie" (1932) were zombies were used as slaveξlaborξto carry out their masters bidding and frequently used as a metaphor for slavery and outside of the end massacre which come as almost an after thought, these zombies are very much the same as their earlier counter parts, as they shuffle around the mine wearing monks robes, while actually proving pretty capable when it comes to works the mine, while also seemingly having maintained some of their human characteristics as seen by one of the zombie's manically laughing when first seen by Sylvia. Still a feverish dream sequence which seemingly hints at a zombie uprising, with the dead clawing their way out of their graves and shuffling slowly towards a panicked Peter now almost seems like premonition of the films which would follow in particular Night of The Living Dead's zombie approach and proving once again just how influential Hammer Films were, especially with this being their sole entry into the zombie genre.

Despite not having any of the big name Hammer actors, the cast are still mainly still Hammer mainstays and manage to pull out some great performances with Morell proving the highlight here as Sir James, who always maintains a cool demeanor in seemingly all situations, even as the events around him become more nightmarish.

The plot is fun enough as the two Doctors hunt down clues to uncover the mystery behind the plague and the missing bodies, though for a Zombie film the titular creatures seem like an afterthought here, to the point were you have to wonder if the film could have chosen something else, while meanwhile we have to contend with the bullying ways for the Squire and his young bloods, who seemingly hold the local community in the grip of fear, as to what repercussions await them should they revel what the squire is up to. Still having lived in Cornwall for 21 years before finally escaping to the bright city lights of Birmingham, I can safely say that the Cornwall shown in this film hasn't changed much from the Cornwall today, while also in another completely random piece of trivia while on the subject of Cornwall is the fact that my parents live near were they shot the bridge scene in “The Omen 3: The Final Conflict" (1981). Still I have to wonder why there isn't as much rural horror these days, especially with Cornwall and its aversion to change still making it a prime horror location. Still the minimalist location were needed seeing how scaled back the budget was for this film, compared to the earlier Hammer films and certainly works to the advantage of the film here.

Honestly I really struggled to get into this film, even entering into with the expectation of some cheesy zombie fun, but thanks to it's plodding pacing and under used zombies, it felt like it went on forever and really tested my patience at time, while it's lackluster finale which despite featuring zombies on fire, feels like it comes way to late and adds nothing to the film, apart from catching the viewer by surprise that the film has suddenly ended. The is no doubt that “Hammer" has in the past been responsible for some classic moments of horror and despite it's influence on the zombie genre, this is far from the studios best work and best certainly approached with caution.