Saturday, June 9, 2012

Plague of the Zombies (The) (Blu-ray) (1966)

Press Release: Within a remote 18th century Cornish village, an evil presence lurks within the darkness of the witching hour, a mysterious plague relentlessly taking lives at an unstoppable rate. Unable to find the cause, Dr Peter Thompson enlists the help of Professor James Forbes. Desperate to find an antidote, what they find instead are empty coffins with the diseased corpses missing. Following a series of strange and frightening clues, Thompson and Forbes are lead to a deserted mine where they discover a world of black magic and a doomed legion of flesh eating slaves - the walking dead.

The Plague of the Zombies (1966) was filmed back-to-back with The Reptile and used many of the same sets, including the main Cornish village set, which was constructed on the back lot of Bray Studios, Berkshire, i.e. the production went nowhere near Cornwall! Interestingly, though filmed together, they weren't released together. The Plague of the Zombies was partnered in a double-bill with Dracula: Prince of Darkness, and The Reptile was released just 3 months later, on another double-bill, withRasputin: The Mad Monk. Wow, all these classic horror icons are bringing back memories of playing, and being fascinated by,Horror Top Trumps in the playground!

Rather than provide a full blown analysis of the film, as there are plenty on the net already and I'd urge you to just go watch this classic now, I'm going to simply list a few points which I found of particular interest:

- The fox hunters at the beginning of the film are painted in a rather negative way. It's certainly clear that our heroine, Sylvia Forbes (Diane Clare) is against the sport but I wonder whether it's also a reflection of the writer's opinion, or purely a plot point to make us hate them from the start. Given the developments in such a hot issue over more recent years, it's certainly food for thought here.

- The village set is very cramped and not like any Cornish village I know. The huge town house in particular seems out of place but perhaps that doesn't really matter as I doubt many viewers would really care.

- There's a great reveal of the 1st zombie about 30 minutes in. The shot is just fantastic and still scary now.

- It's a shame that there are few zombies in the film until the finale, with the exception of 1 small sequence which I won't spoil here!

- One of the zombies on fire in the finale has a zombie mask, rather than make-up, and so it looks like Michael Myers in Halloween!

- There are some wonderfully composed shots throughout the film, like the shot through the wheel at the tin mine. It certainly makes me want to seek out other Hammer productions, and those of Director John Gilling in particular.

- It's deliberately obvious who the villain is from the start – you're asleep if you think that's not the case - but the mystery here lies in why (and to a certain extent how) the zombies are being created. And, of course, can they be stopped!

- And bear in mind that this is all 2 years before Night of the Living Dead (although those zombies are something else!)

Studio Canal will release The Plague of the Zombies on 18 June 2012 as a Special Edition DVD and Blu-ray Double Play. I was only provided with a Blu-ray screener for this review but assume the DVD, if it is the same as on other Optimum/Studio Canal Double Play releases, will only include the film with an English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono soundtrack.

The film has been released with an AVC 1080p encode at an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 (which, as far as I can tell, is as per the original 35mm theatrical presentation) and has a running time of 89:54. The picture looks fantastic with only occasional shots showing any sign of print damage – see both the Raising the Dead documentary and the Restoration Comparison extras to truly appreciate the work which has gone into repairing the film.

There is just one audio track available on the Blu-ray: English LPCM 2.0 Mono. It does the job just fine with speech always clear. A surround sound remix would probably be pointless anyway, other than to enhance the fox hunt, voodoo cavern scenes and zombie attacks. Having said that, the score by composer James Bernard would sound great all around you. An isolated score would have made a great extra and it's a shame that one hasn't been included here.

There are also English HoH subtitles.

First up is a retrospective documentary entitled Raising the Dead (34:01). Its a nice little companion piece with some great anecdotes from those directly involved with the film: John Carson (Squire Clive Hamilton), Jacqueline Pearce (Alice Thompson) and Don Mingaye (Art Director). It also includes interviews with a number of other people who all have a great knowledge of the film and Hammer Horror in general: Marcus Hearn (Hammer Films Historian, Producer and Director of the documentary), Mark Gatiss (Actor and Writer), Jonathan Rigby (Author), David Huckvale (Author) and Wayne Kinsey (Author). Jon Mann (the Technical Restoration Manager at Pinewood Studios) is also interviewed and describes in detail how the film was restored. It's a real shame that this interview wasn't incorporated into the Restoration Comparison to produce a more rounded second featurette.

Like many of Studio Canal's Hammer Film releases, they have included an appropriate episode of the World of Hammer TV series, in this case we get Mummies, Werewolves and the Living Dead (24:49). This was included on a number of previous DVD releases of the film (see our comparison for which ones here) so will be nothing new if you already own one of those releases, or indeed have seen it elsewhere. It's narrated by Oliver Reed, himself a star of a number of Hammer productions includingThe Curse of the Werewolf and plays more like an extended advertisement than a meaningful documentary of the films it features:

- The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires AKA 7 Brothers of Dracula (1974)
- The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964)
- The Mummy's Shroud (1967)
- The Mummy (1959)
- Captain Clegg (1962)
- The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
- Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971)
- The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

Next up is a short Restoration Comparison (4:32). It contains numerous silent shots, some split screen, which are used to compare the film before and after the restoration. It really does highlight the extensive work which has gone into restoring an extremely dull, washed out and yellowed print with multiple occurrences of film damage.

And finally the extras are rounded off with the Theatrical Trailer (1:55).

I've never really appreciated Hammer Horror before, largely due to a lack of blood and guts compared the 80s slasher films that were my introduction to the genre, but now (as a more mature viewer and having watched this and Quatermass and the Pit) it's fair to say I'm keen to sample more. My only fear is that, when some of the interviewees in the documentary say this is one of the finest examples of Hammer Horror, I may end up setting my expectations too high and be bitterly disappointed!

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