So, another summer, and another nice, refreshing Labor Day weekend have come and gone. It’s hard to imagine these days, but Labor Day started out as — you guessed it — a celebration of good old fashioned labor. According to the venerable Wikipedia:
Labor Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the first Monday in September (September 5 in 2011) that celebrates the economic and social contributions of workers. The first big Labor Day in the United States was observed on September 5, 1882, by the Central Labor Union of New York. It was first proposed by Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor in May 1882, after witnessing the annual labor festival held in Toronto, Canada. (Of course there’s more to it than that, but you get the drift.)
I don’t know about you, but I don’t often sit around on Labor Day thinking about the economic and social contributions of the virtuous, common worker (or even my own meager workplace contributions). Like most everyone else, I relax– I eat, I drink, I channel surf, and of course, watch a movie or two.
There’s not much to celebrate on the labor front anyway. Lately, the average working stiff’s contributions have been rewarded with shrinking paychecks, dwindling job opportunities, underwater mortgages, deflated 401k plans, steadily rising prices, and sundry other threats to his economic well-being. Come to think of it, maybe now’s the time to put the celebration of labor (or at least a grudging appreciation) back into Labor Day.
Despite being made way back in 1966, Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies is a cautionary (and morbidly entertaining) tale for our own times. Think you’ve got it bad now? Don’t think social security will be there for you when you retire? Thinking you’ll have to work until you drop? It could be worse. You could be like the villagers in The Plague, where even death doesn’t prevent soulless bosses from giving you maximum overtime for no pay.
Plague starts out with an eye-opening title sequence, in which creepy masked figures conduct some sort of occult ritual while primitive-looking types who look like they’ve stepped out of a Tarzan movie bang furiously on drums. Cut to a stately 19th century English country house, where Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell), distinguished Professor of Medicine, is discussing with his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare) an unusual letter he’s just received from an old pupil. The pupil, Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) has taken up practice in a very small, and very unhealthy Cornish village. It seems the locals have been dropping like flies from an unexplained illness, and the good doctor is completely overwhelmed. They decide to make the long trip to see Tompson and his wife Alice (Jacqueline Pearce), who was a schoolmate of Sylvia’s.
As their carriage rolls into town they’re immediately tipped off that things are not right in the village. Their carriage is held up by a funeral procession crossing a narrow bridge. A group of young men on horseback and wearing bright red hunting outfits (billed in the movie as the “young bloods”) comes galloping across the bridge, sideswiping the cart with the coffin. It crashes down an embankment. Sylvia gasps and covers her eyes at the sight of the broken coffin and its occupant, the greenish-grey corpse of a young man.
When they arrive at Tompson’s house, they get a second surprise. Sylvia’s old school chum Alice looks like death warmed over, and she seems put out by the arrival of visitors. She picks at a bandage on her wrist that is seeping blood. The concerned but gallant professor offers his assistance, but she demurs. Tompson himself, returning from some house calls, is relieved that his mentor has come, but is also depressed and perplexed. He tells Sir James that he can’t find any cause of the fatal illness that’s claimed so many– “it’s as if they lose the will to live.”
At this point, the shocks and nasty surprises quickly pile up:
- Sylvia is assaulted by the young bloods and hauled off to the opulent abode of the village’s wealthy squire, where they appear to be house guests. The squire, Clive Hamilton (John Carson), intercedes before something truly nasty happens and offers Sylvia his profuse apologies. Naturally, Sylvia doesn’t trust the slimy man.
- Stumbling home in the dark, Sylvia is stunned by the sight of what appears to be a walking corpse carrying her friend Alice in its arms– it shrieks and then throws the body to the ground. Alice appears quite dead.
- Meanwhile, Sir James and Doc Tompson, along with the village constables, discover that the coffins of the village’s recently deceased are mysteriously empty.
- Villagers who are supposed to be dead keep popping up all over the area, especially around the squire’s abandoned tin mine (which was shut down after the local workers got fed up with too many accidents and poor working conditions).
- Sylvia is maneuvered by the squire into cutting her hand on a piece of broken glass– he secretly pours some of her blood into a vial he conveniently carries with him. She soon seems to be under his spell…
Plague doesn’t bother to tease the viewer with a lot of mystery — it’s pretty obvious about a third of the way through what’s going on and who’s behind the village’s misery. In grand Hammer style, Plague is more about the spectacle of walking corpses with animal-like eyes and rotting teeth digging their way out of graves and hauling off nubile young women. Underlying the spectacle, however, is the interesting subtext of a wealthy landowner using the dark arts to recruit “unpaid laborers” for his mines.
Plague was ahead of its time in two respects. With its jaundiced, exaggerated social / economic subtext, it seems to have anticipated the simmering labor tensions in the UK that erupted into the bitter miners’ strikes of the ’70s and ’80s. On the entertainment side, it paved the way for George Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead two years later; like Romero, Plague’s creators weren’t just satisfied with a zombie here or there– even with their low budget, they wanted to unleash a whole army of them.
For years Plague has labored in the shadow of Hammer’s flashier Dracula and Frankenstein series. However, with its energy and highly competent direction, acting and cinematography, it ranks right up there with Hammer’s best. You don’t have to side with management or labor to enjoy this one.
- The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
- Hammer Film Productions
- Directed by: John Gilling
- Screenplay by: Peter Bryan
- Starring: Andre Morell (Sir James Forbes), Diane Clare (Sylvia Forbes), Brook Williams (Peter Tompson), Jacqueline Pearce (Alice Tompson), John Carson (Clive Hamilton)
- Check out: Anchor Bay’s gorgeous DVD print.
Backlot Backstory: Plague was filmed back to back with The Reptile at Bray Studios using many of the same crew members and sets. Jack Hunter, in his history of Hammer Films (House of Horror: The Complete Hammer Films Story, Creation Books, 2000), remarks that Plague and The Reptile “feature some of the most outlandish images in the Hammer catalogue; yet are also among the most pessimistic. Not only among Hammer’s most interesting, they probably represent the best directorial work by Gilling.”)
For more reviews of obscure but worthwhile B horror and sci-fi films, see my blog, Films From Beyond the Time Barrier.
See also Films From Beyond on YouTube.