• Plague of the Zombies, The (Nacht Des Grauens)

    Released by: Anolis Entertainment
    Released on: April 30, 2015
    Director: John Gilling
    Cast: Andre Morell, Diane Clare, Brook Williams, Jacqueline Pearce, John Carson, Alex Davion, Michael Ripper, Roy Royston
    Year: 1966
    Purchase From Diabolik DVD

    The Movie:

    Sir James Forbes receives a hastily written letter from a former pupil, Dr. Peter Thompson, requesting his help in curing a mysterious illness leaving the young men of his small Cornish village dead. Forbes, along with his daughter, Sylvia, travel to the village, where they learn that Peter’s wife, Alice, is also sick. They also discover that the graves of the dead lie empty, while a sinister squire and his young cronies terrorize the village’s inhabitants. Forbes suspects that a voodoo practitioner is work and that the dead are rising from their graves as zombies. He’s correct, of course, and his own daughter is marked as the voodoo cult’s next victim.

    The Plague of the Zombies is an oddity among Hammer films. It remains Hammer’s only foray into the zombie subgenre (unless one counts The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, but the primary monsters there are, as the title suggests, vampires), despite the fact that it was released on a fairly successful double bill with Christopher Lee’s return to the role that made him famous, Dracula—Prince of Darkness (1966). On the one hand, The Plague of the Zombies must have seemed old-fashioned in its day, perhaps as a result of Peter Bryan’s original script, which had been fashioned as a vehicle for release by Universal; on the other, it’s relatively high amount of gore, a result of the script having been rewritten for release by 20th Century Fox, is all too modern. Yet the film is far from a schizophrenic affair; Hammer molded the old and the new so perfectly that the final result is one of the studio’s finest efforts. Even more astounding, they get away with some obvious suggestions of necrophilia. The squire is turning men into zombies for work in his mines, once abandoned by local workers because they were dangerous, yet, after meeting the beautiful but married Alice, he decides to make her a zombie as well. When she’s decapitated by her husband’s former professor, the squire refuses to be foiled. He lays claim to Sylvia, clearly for purposes other than work in the mines. It’s a daring subject, particularly given that the squire will not be able to consummate his passion until after his victims are dead, buried, and risen as zombies.

    Originally shot back to back with The Reptile on the same Bray Studio/Oakley Court sets, The Plague of the Zombies is appealing on a number of levels, not the least of which is its strong performances and direction. One would expect nothing short of greatness from British thespian Andre Morell, who had previously essayed the role of James Watson for the studio’s only Sherlock Holmes outing, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). Morell’s is a commanding performance, one that towers over the rest of the cast, but this is as it should be, given that he plays a university professor to whom the others look for guidance and instruction. Jacqueline Pearce has also been praised for her heady turn as Peter’s wife, Alice. And while she is terrific, she’s no more powerful than Diane Clare, who has been criticized for her stuffiness from most film historians and critics. On the surface, it’s easy to see why; in comparison to Pearce, she seems stuffy and aloof. But strip away the class pretension and her portrayal is spot on. One gets the impression that Alice comes from a lower middle class background, while Sylvia is the product of an upper-class education of the type refused to everyone else. She may be rash to express her opinions, but she has a tendency to hide her feelings behind a veneer of respectability. Thus, when Squire Hamilton expresses an interest in her that may be lascivious, she ultimately falls for the bait, but she certainly doesn’t let her attraction show. And when Sylvia is attacked and nearly raped by a gang of upper class hoods, Clare’s expression is an appropriate and realistic mix of fear and anger, betraying resolution and strength. Because her character is intended to be strong and inhibited, it seems strange that she should be criticized for portraying Sylvia is such realistic turns.

    John Gilling’s direction is top-notch. His career as a director began in the late 1940s, but it was with Hammer that he really found his calling. Whether making swashbucklers (The Pirates of Blood River, 1962) or Gothic horror films (The Reptile, 1966), he brought a high degree of gravitas and respectability to his pictures. Though his career included such “classics” as The Shadow of the Cat (1961) and The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), The Plague of the Zombies ties with The Flesh and the Fiends (1959) as his best directorial work. (He also wrote innumerable scripts for films he did not direct, including The Gorgon, 1964, and Trog, 1970.) Clive Barker has long admitted the influence of Plague on his writing career, and the scene in which a hoard of zombies claw out of their graves has been often copied but never surpassed. The Plague of the Zombies was the third truly great zombie film (after White Zombie, 1932, and I Walked With a Zombie, 1943) and the last before the genre was torn down and rebuilt in the wake of George Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead (1968).


    Anolis Entertainment offers up Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies with an AVC encode in 1080p, in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is the same used for both the British and Australian releases, which means that it looks good, really good! General and fine detail are both super-sharp; just look at the highly detailed wallpaper of various interiors and the stucco walls of various exteriors. For Blu-ray fans with an inherent dislike of film grain, it’s fairly subdued here, underlying the image in a very natural, pleasing way rather than overtaking and obscuring detail. Colors are bright and rich (note the scene in which the fox hunters’ red jackets float through a panorama of lush green), and day-for-night shots look like nighttime, though nights in which a bright, full moon has illuminated everything. Black levels are deep, and there’s no crush to speak of. Nor are there any issues with compression, despite the single disc being crammed full of amazing extras (each of which is discussed in detail below). The image has been restored to its original glory, with the overwhelming number of defects found in the original print material carefully removed. (Slight scratches can be found in only a couple of brief sequences.) For ease of access, the film has been broken into twenty chapter.

    Anolis has seen fit to release the film with multiple tracks. The first is the film’s German track in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, while the second is the film’s original English track, also in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Both tracks are crisp and clean, with no issues to report. There’s no hiss as can sometimes be heard on films of this vintage, and while the directional sound is limited by 2.0, dialogue is clear and the score strong. It’s surprising how close the German dubbing matches the movement of the actors’ lips. Anolis has also included removable German subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired. As with the soundtracks, the studio has also provided commentary tracks in German and English. When The Curse of the Werewolf was released to Blu by Anolis, the biggest complaint among English-speaking buyers was that the German commentary was not subtitled; here, Anolis has rectified that by having Dr. Rolfe Giesen and Uwe Sommerland provide their commentary twice, in German and in English. And what an excellent commentary it is, too. The two commentators provide brief histories for Hammer as well as for The Plague of the Zombies and the zombie subgenre in general. In fact, they go all the way back to the origins of the horror film with a discussion of Nosferatu (1922). Their accents are a little thick, but most viewers will acclimate to them quickly and should enjoy the commentary. There are no silent spaces, and the two men work well together. This is not one of those commentaries where the participants are watching the film and making it up as they go along; they clearly went into the recording with an outline in hand, and they bounce ideas off each other effectively. The end result is that the commentary is both entertaining and informative. Anolis should be lauded for listening to fans abroad and supplying an English track of it!

    The Blu-ray has been packed with extras, some of which can be found on other Hammer BD releases from around the world. First up is “Raising the Dead: The Making of The Plague of the Zombies,” which was produced and directed by Marcus Hearn. Interviewed are actors John Carson and Jacqueline Pearce, as well as film historians Mark Gatiss, Jonathan Rigby, Wayne Kinsey, and David Huckvale, art director Don Mingaye, and technical restoration manager Jon Mann. The documentary is presented in high definition and runs a little over 35 minutes in length. “André Morell: Best of British” is a 20-minute featurette that focuses on the great British actor. Interviewed is André’s son Jason Morell as well as film historians Denis Meikle, David Miller, and Jonathan Rigby. As with the previous program, it was produced and directed by Marcus Hearn and is presented in high definition. There’s also an “Interview with James Bernard,” conducted by Stephen Laws at the Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester in 1994. Bernard discusses his education and history and how he came to work for Hammer, as well as individual scores he composed for the studio. The featurette is full frame, in standard definition, and runs approximately 20 minutes.

    Up next is the international title sequences, which runs 3:45, followed by various trailers: the American double-feature trailer with Dracula—Prince of Darkness (3:07; standard definition), the German trailer (2:10; high definition), the British trailer (1:54; high definition but from a raw scan), and the international trailer (2:19; standard definition). A digital scan of the comic adaptation, first found in issue 13 of The House of Hammer magazine, follows, replete with musical cues and lines sampled from the film. Various press books and promotional materials are also included via multiple photo galleries. Note: The German subtitles on these extras are removable.

    And finally, the extra for which all true Hammer films will want to purchase this disc, even if they already own the film on BD from Great Britain or Australia: the Super-8 mm version. This version of the film is a real gem, recalling the days of yore when the only way the average horror fan had to view his or her favorite film was on 8 or Super-8 millimeter. The image is full frame, and the colors have faded to practical nonexistence, but that only enhances the nostalgia. The film has been whittled down from its original 90-minute length to a mere 25 minutes, with the crasser moments removed for the general viewing public. Gone is Sylvia’s near-rape by aristocratic ruffians, as well as Peter’s graphic dream sequence. Yet, surprisingly, the film is coherent and easy to follow, with few of the plot holes one would expect given that over an hour is missing. This is how most fans could view these films in the 1970s (apart from syndicated television airings, of course), and for Anolis to scan such a version and include it as an extra is a real treat.

    The Final Word:

    The Plague of the Zombies is one of Hammer’s best films; that it should be so neglected by modern horror fans is somewhat inexplicable. It deserves greater due, and Anolis has done its part to bring the film to the attention of today’s horror lovers by giving it the special edition treatment on Blu-ray. Even better, while the release is intended primarily for a German audience, Anolis has gone out of its way to make the disc as English-friendly as possible. The film features both German and English tracks, as well as commentary that is in German and English. The studio has also provided a ton of extras, one of which is so amazing that it’s worth the price of the disc alone, and anyone who has bought the film on BD from Great Britain or Australia should consider purchasing this release as well.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!