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Plague of the Zombies
introduction to screening, Carnglaze Cavern, Friday 13 October 2006

As a prelude to the Cornwall Film Festival 2006, a special screening of Hammer's Plague of the Zombies was organised for Friday 13th October 2006, in the unusual setting of the former slate mine at Carnglaze Cavern. Fans were encouraged to dress as zombie tin miners for the evening, for which they'd be rewarded with a free pint. After the screening Marcus Hearn and Robert Simpson took questions from the floor about the film and Hammer generally (the original plan had been for Robert to interview Marcus, followed by an audience Q&A, this was changed at the last minute in consultation with the organisers). To the best of our knowledge the q&a was not recorded.
Here we reproduce the text for the introduction to the screening which was given by Robert Simpson...

Good evening. Its a pleasure to have been invited to this unique viewing experience, in this fantastic setting in the former slate mines here at Carnglaze. As we've already heard this evening, this is the first time that the cavern has been used for a film screening and I am delighted that Hammer's 1966 horror Plague of the Zombies has been chosen for the honour. I can't think of a more appropriate film, or indeed a more appropriate venue because Plague of the Zombies takes place in and around a Cornish tin mine. The screen shows the industrial workings of the mine towering sinisterly as the zombie plague spreads out. The shafts and caverns of the mine resonate with the beating of the voodoo drums as this space will tonight.

Of course this being Hammer, I'm sorry to have to tell you that its not actually Cornwall on screen, but rather a convincing substitute in the form of a set on the backlot of Hammer's Bray Studios near Windsor. Beyond the walls of the graveyard lies the Thames, not the Neot.

Hammer horrors were in their time something of a taboo. The critics despised them, the censors viewed them as nasty exploitation pictures. On reading the script for Plague of the Zombies the censor declared it "insane rubbish" (but don't let that prejudice you). Despite the condemnation Hammer's horror films had an audience. They appealed to the young, and at least at this point in Hammer's history, were morality plays dressed up with ghoulish effects.

In Hammer Horror good will (nearly) always triumph over evil - and it is evil that is presented. The age old concept of good and evil is equated with a battle of almost Biblical proportions. Frankenstein fails always because he is tampering with God's right alone to give life. Dracula himself is equated with the devil - Dracula: Prince of Darkness was in fact the title of the picture which headed the original theatrical double bill with tonight's (in my opinion superior) film.

* * *

Today Hammer, despite it being many years since their last film production, is back in vogue. Perhaps part of the ongoing nostalgia boom. The films are largely available on dvd, you can wear an image of Christopher Lee as Dracula on your t-shirt, dress up as Countess Dracula or the Werewolf for Halloween - I'm sporting a rather nice Hammer tie which you can purchase shortly - and the company is even studied in university courses as a model of the British film industry. As British as Bond or the Carry Ons.

Just this morning I was asked once again about how I ended up interested in these films from an age before I was born. Just as many grew up on Universal and Hammer horror via tv in the 70's, I came to Hammer and Plague of the Zombies itself via the late-night screenings on BBC1 and Ch4 of the early 1990's. Sitting up into the wee hours on a Friday night I got sucked in by the exciting narrative storytelling, the leading performances of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, beautiful aesthetics in camerawork, sets and costumes, the economy of the special effects. Substance over style unlike much of contemporary horror cinema.

The Hammer film company started life as a small theatrical distributor and sometime production company in the 30's, building themselves a success by adapting BBC radio thrillers and comedies for film. IN the 1950's they introduced colour to horror with The Curse of Frankenstein, making household names out of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and director Terence Fisher in the process. After that the Hammer name would become synonymous with horror, as it remains today.

Plague of the Zombies would be one of the last films made by Hammer at Bray Studios and would coincide with a turning point in the direction and style of Hammer horror. The horror in Plague of the Zombies is brought out of Eastern Europe closer to home (although Cornwall to a Londoner probably still seemed fairly exotic). Rather than the old Hammer staple of vampires and mad scientists inherited from the Universal horrors, the film harkened back to a relatively obscure 1932 Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie.

From the Lugosi picture Hammer took the idea of zombies as an unwitting slave workforce, under the control of one master. The social commentary perhaps builds on a latent racism, a 1960's fear of the unknown as personified in the immigrant. The voodoo beliefs and Haitian influences are here something to be feared, a device similarly picked up contemporaneously in other films such as Amicus' Dr Terror's House of Horrors and more recently in the superb London Voodoo.

* * *

John Gilling here proves a worthy substitute for Terence Fisher in the director's chair, providing a fast-paced, thrilling and dramatic production, aided by James Bernard's pounding voodoo score and a strong performance from André Morelle - who had been chilling in the BBC's controversial version of Nineteen Eighty-Four and had played a superb Watson in Hammer's Hound of the Baskervilles.

Also in the cast is a young Jacqueline Pearce as the doomed Alice - Pearce is perhaps best known for her role as Servalan in Blake's 7, and lived in Cornwall herself for many years until recently.

The sets show great sense of economy with designer Bernard Robinson working his magic once again on the tiny space at Bray, transforming the moat for the Dracula picture into a sunken graveyard and village - which itself would be reused in The Reptile, the second of Hammer's Cornish horrors.

I don't want to say too much about the film for fear of spoiling the excellent picture for those who haven't seen it before but I feel duty bound to draw your attention to Plague of the Zombies' influence on an entire horror subgenre of the 1970's. Roy Ashton's zombie make-up - and particularly it in combination with the visuals during the justly famous graveyard dream sequence would be a major contributing influence on George A Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead trilogy, now quadrology, which began the following year.

* * *

Ladies, Gentlemen... Zombie Tin Miners!.... all that remains for me now is to ask you to sit back and let the rythymn of the drums take you into Hammer's world, and brace yourselves for... The Plague of the Zombies!

text © RJE Simpson 2006
Page posted 17th October 2006

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