Eminent medical professor Sir James (Andre Morell) is enjoying a well-earned break when his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) reads aloud a letter sent by his old pupil, Peter (Brook Williams).
Peter is now a practicing doctor in a small Cornish village. He’s written to James with concerns of an illness afflicting the locals there, sending them to their graves with no explanation.
Sylvia eggs James to travel with her to stay with Peter. For her, it will also be a chance to catch up with her childhood friend, Peter’s wife Alice (Jacqueline Pearce).
Upon arrival at the village, James and Sylvia successfully spoil a fox-hunting party and disrupt the funeral of local bloke Tom’s (Marcus Hammond) brother – "the lord is punishing us for our sins", claims the vicar. Talk about making an entrance.
Still, at least Peter is pleased to see them. In the one year that he’s been practicing there, thirteen people have died in mysterious circumstances. He’s perplexed, and concerned too when James suggests that Alice appears to be suffering from the same symptoms – loss of appetite, a draining of skin colour, lacking in reflex responses.
James vows to help Peter find the cause of this strange epidemic, a quest that becomes all the more resolute when Alice is found dead a short while later. Things only get odder when James and Peter dig up the grave of the village’s last fatality in the hope of examining his fresh cadaver for clues – only to find his coffin empty.
With the village being overseen by the enigmatic and financially independent bachelor, Squire Hamilton (John Carson), the medical pair realise they’ll need to work on the quiet if they are too unravel this conundrum. Luckily, local police sergeant Jack (Michael Ripper) lost his son to the phantom illness, and so is happy to help them with their low-key investigations.
Meanwhile, sinister Hamilton divides his time between barking orders at his fox-hunting hangers-on, musing over the possibility of eternal life and laying the charm on thick for the benefit of Sylvia.
The sleuthing doctors and shady squire seem destined to cross paths, especially when the discovery of an old tin mine is made …
Shot back-to-back with THE REPTILE, both films were shot on location in Buckinghamshire and at Bray studios in 1965. The director was John Gilling, also known for THE MUMMY’S SHROUD and THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS.
Gilling’s direction is taut and no-nonsense here, taking Peter Bryan’s economic screenplay and propelling it through scene after scene of gripping drama, building up to some terrific terror set-pieces during the film’s latter half. Even if it takes some time for us to catch glimpse of a zombie (about 30 minutes into proceedings) and even if the zombies when they do come are hardly the sort we’re used to these days, this is an extremely well-told and traditionally satisfying tale of voodoo, medical experimentation and suspicion in a small country village.
Very properly spoken Englishmen, scenic rural photography, minor gore and melodramatic music – THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES has all the B-movie trappings of 1960s Hammer horror films, and emerges as tremendous entertainment as a result. There’s a great amount of atmosphere to it too, especially during Peter’s smoke-filled dreams of the dead attacking him in a graveyard.
What surprises most about the film is how well it has aged, either despite of or because of all of the above. Without wishing to give too much away, take the scene where a corpse rises from its coffin and approaches two flabbergasted onlookers, only to be stopped by decapitation by shovel. Crude, and yet thrilling. Whatever it may be, it’s impossible not to watch the film with a broad smile of appreciation throughout.
THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES comes in a 2-disc combo pack, offering both blu-ray and DVD versions of the film. It was the blu-ray disc that was made available for review.
PLAGUE is presented uncut in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The picture is enhanced for 16x9 television sets. The MPEG4-AVC file renders the film in 1080p HD, and it looks good to these eyes.
There are a couple of caveats here: firstly, I’m not the most familiar with this film. My prior experience of it is viewing it on British television; I’ve never owned the film on VHS or even DVD. Secondly, I’m watching this across my living room on a 50 inch Plasma screen – I’m not fortunate enough to own a projector and be watching the film on an 80-inch sheet, nor am I one of those fucking idiots who huddles over a laptop mere centimetres from the screen, scrutinising it for transfer flaws.
So, with those points in mind, I’d like to think my viewing would be akin to that of most viewers. And, honestly, I found this transfer to be satisfying. Colours are impressively vivid, flesh-tones are realistic and there’s a definite filmic texture to what I saw on the screen. Minor grain is evident throughout. DNR was clearly employed but fortunately the usual tell-tale signs are not too intrusive: there was little in the way of waxiness, and detail was strong on most occasions.
English audio is provided in a sturdy, consistent LPCM stereo mix. I did notice a couple of synching issues, most notably around the 10-minute mark. I realise that Clare’s voice was dubbed – it was the out-of-time Pearce and Morell who concerned me during this early scene. Optional English subtitles are well-written and easy to read.
Is it wrong of me to be getting a slight stiffy when the film’s main score came blaring atop a stylish green-tinted montage of clips for the disc’s exciting main menu page?
From there, pop-up menus include a scene-selection menu allowing access to the film via 12 chapters.
A fine set of extras kicks off with a 24-minute episode of the excellent "World of Hammer" TV series, narrated by the late Oliver Reed. The episode in question looks into, rather randomly, mummies, werewolves and the living dead. Cue great scenes from the likes of PLAGUE, THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, MARK OF THE WOLFMAN and BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB. Presented in its original windowboxed format.
A new 16x9 HD documentary entitled "Raising the Dead" clocks in at 34 minutes in length, and proffers a wonderfully revealing look back at the film, its making and Hammer’s motivations behind the picture. Contributors to this spiffing piece include Carson, Pearce, Hammer historian Marcus Hearn and actor/writer Mark Gattiss.
4 minutes of footage purporting to demonstrate the wonders of HD restoration is, methinks, a tad exaggerated. Unless, that is, you believe that the film elements before restoration really did look like they’d been steeped in a gallon of milk.
Finally we get the film’s enjoyably sensational theatrical trailer. It’s a heart-racing 2-minute affair, presented here in 16x9 standard definition.
THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES fares well on this blu-ray disc. No doubt the video quality will get mauled by some online commentators, but the average customer is likely to be happy with what’s on offer.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Studiocanal|
|see main review|