The Plague of the Zombies
In our continuing series of articles 'The bloke down the pub' tells us all about his favourite Hammer Horror films. In his fourteenth review he's finding a rather British metaphor among the hordes of walking dead in 1966's The Plague of the Zombies.
It’s not just the Yanks who can put a bit of social commentary in their zombie films you know. Take The Plague of the Zombies; now, that’s got just a little bit of juicy allegory in there, much more than your usual Hammer movie. I mean, granted it’s just Hammer’s take on the Zombie genre, with the dead rising from the grave because of good old black magic as opposed to vicious and unexplained divine punishment. But in between the women in buttoned up dresses running through ferny woods under a suspiciously blue night sky, troubled young people’s older and wiser friends being summoned by letter to even more troubled villages, tired and puzzled doctors pulling their smart jackets back on, fights in pubs, and Michael Ripper… there’s a few nice digs at that old English problem - class.
I mean we’re talking about a village that isn’t terrorised by bats, wolves or creatures of the night but by a gang of posh foxhunters on horseback - they seem to be the upper class equivalent of Hell’s Angels, riding into town and causing a right old ruckus. Although you suspect that even Hell’s Angels would consider going right through a funeral and knocking the coffin into the river a bit far, even for nihilistic mayhem. But not for this rabble of red-jacketed yahoos. And that, in turns out, is what is destroying the villager’s lives. It’s not the mysterious disease they’re dying off from, it’s not their own ignorance in preventing the doctor from performing a proper autopsy, it’s not even that, like many villagers in Hammer films, their abject terror manifests itself in paralysing inaction, petty squabbling and a homicidal fear of strangers. Nope, what’s got hold of this lot is what’s had hold of them for years - the indifference of the rich to the poor’s humanity.
It’s quite fun watching it all unfold in the usual Hammer way - wise old man comes to town determined to get to the bottom of a probably supernatural mystery with eligible daughter in tow, meets resistance from the locals but plows on in the name of science and, damn it, good bloody sense. But then you find out that all this - the plague, the zombies, the black magic, the deaths, are all in the name of commerce. How does a rich man who has recently inherited a reputedly haunted tin mine turn a profit? Well, you turn the local workers who refuse to set foot in your mine into zombies, actual bleeding non-metaphorical zombies. As allegories go, it’s quite something to see zombies being whipped as they work by the psychotic Lord of the Manor. And even though it doesn’t take much to see these grey-faced zombies toiling in this thankless task as nothing more than a slightly exaggerated version of what they and their ancestors have put up with for generations (and that even in death the poor blighters don’t get any peace, a fate I’m sure a fair few Lords in their time have wished upon the idle ingrates clogging up their factories); in the end, I think it’s about entitlement more than anything. The Lord of the Manor feels he is entitled to have the locals work his mine, the red-jacketed hunting psychos feel entitled to whatever they fancy, including a bit of how’s your father with the terrified daughter in a genuinely unsettling scene, and as far as the Lord as Voodoo priest is concerned the villagers aren’t entitled to anything the moment they allow themselves to be tricked into becoming zombies. It’s interesting the way he tricks people into giving him the blood he needs for his magic. If it was all remote and far away spell-casting, then maybe they wouldn’t be people to him, just Harry Lime’s specks. But in meeting them, getting close to them, and finally tricking them he gets to see their humanity before he takes it from them. And if they’re dumb enough to let themselves get tricked, well that’s not his fault is it? A by the numbers application of individual responsibility that any Republican would be proud of.
Fortunately, there’s Andre Morell to step in and right the balance between the helpless and the red-jacketed jackals that hunt them for money and sport. Because the poor sods in this village need a Hammer hero more than most. There’s always a slight feeling in some Hammer films of the villagers being complicit in their own fate by refusing to do anything about the evil in their midst. But here, they have no choice. Their not knowing what’s happening is what drives them round the twist, not some top-hatted idiot in a purple cloak from the big city upsetting the delicate apple cart they’ve set up that sells apples they feel they can afford to get bitten into by the legendary monster that haunts them. Not saying those poor blighters aren’t in their own sort of bind mind you, just that the villagers in The Plague of the Zombies only want to know what the bloody hell is happening to them. And that’s what Andre Morell gets to be in this one, not the nosy destroyer of the morally compromised status quo, but a proper saviour. A man who folk songs will get sung about in that village pub for some years to come. The nice old doctor who came to the village one day, and burned the Lord of the Manor alive. Did we mention that the posh, greedy, black magic wielding bastard deserved it? Or something like that anyway. I’ve never been very good with songs. I’m sure they bought him a drink anyway. One of my favourite man in a pub scenes is in this movie actually; when Andre wanders into the middle of a heated argument between a group of irate, scared villagers and the local doctor who is doing nothing about the disease that’s killing them all and calms the whole situation down by virtue of being elderly and polite. And buying them all a drink of course.
Speaking of which…