Cornish, pasty

“Doesn’t this one have some kind of political subtext?” asked Fiona as I prompted a viewing of PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, Hammer’s sole walking-dead opus. And it sort of does. It might be due for a revival, actually, since Trump is supposedly bringing coal back.

I couldn’t remember if I’d seen this before. And possibly a year from now I won’t remember having seen it. But it’s not devoid of interest, the points of interest just didn’t come thick and fast enough to entirely satisfy.

I’d read about the film in the Gifford and had a strong memory of the image of a zombie, face contorted in a horrible mask-like grin, holding an unconscious — in fact, as I discovered, DEAD — girl. I hadn’t realized that the girl was the striking Jacqueline Pearce or that the zom was Ben Aris, best known as a comedy actor. He executes one of the great pratfalls of all time in ROYAL FLASH, having been hit with a champagne bottle at a locomotive christening ceremony. Of course, he was tall, which is why he was chosen here. Hammer nearly cast loveable CARRY ON film dope Bernard Bresslaw as the creature in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, you know. Had they done so, and then gone on to cast him as Dracula, probably none of us would be here today.

I also remembered reading Leslie Halliwell’s snarky remark, in an otherwise fairly positive review — why doesn’t the Cornish tin mine owner simply employ normal workers instead of reanimating the dead? Well, obviously a zombie labour force would have advantages, not needing food or rest, and being incapable of independent action and thence, industrial action. And in any case, the film tells us that the history of fatal accidents at the mine is what put off the living employees. Using animate corpses is Health & Safety Gone Mad!

As ever in Hammer, the unsympathetic portrait of the landed gentry is balanced by an unappealing depiction of the lumpenproletariat, with surly local yokels and a stupid, scowling policeman played by the inescapable Michael Ripper.

The B-list cast is helpful in some ways — André Morrell, a fine Dr. Watson, is here cast as staunch Dr. Forbes — the good guys, of course, are solidly middle-class. And the fact that he’s not Peter Cushing allows us to forget, some of the time, that he’s playing an absolute Peter Cushing role. John Carson, doing his very best James Mason voice, is a fair but un-sexy substitute for either Christopher Lee or, at a push, Charles Gray. When the good doctor starts talking about waiting for a recently deceased female to reanimate, we know we’re in terribly familiar terrain.

Famously, director John Gilling anticipates a lot of Romeroesque imagery and action with a dream sequence in which he goes hand-held and deutsch-tilted as the recently deceased haul themselves from their graves and surround the hero in billows of dry ice fog. It gives the film a boost, and makes you wish they had gone for more ad hoc cinematography more of the time, though a pursuit sequence with fox-hunters chasing a girl — borrowed from HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES — also benefits from a lot of panting wobble in the camera department. Throw in some full-blooded crash zooms and you have something a bit more modish in technique that Terence Fisher’s classical approach.

The lighting only gets seriously stylish in the mine interior, where the sulphurous coloured gels make for an almost Bavaesque look, and Gilling gets some nice compositions by posing some of his undead workmen close to the lens, staring sightlessly past us.

Miniature coffins are always creepy, but sadly the plasticine and ketchup approach to voodoo dolls is disappointing, and the female dolls all have big boobs, which looks silly.

Framegrabbing the climax, where the mouldy miners catch fire, we can see the flame-retardant masks worn by the stunt artists, and very scary they are too. Only Aris’s zombie makeup is very effective — the other stiffs, with their pancake pallor, seem slapdash — so the masks, which looks a lot like actual mummified bodies, could have been a good way to go. They also remind me of this mask, worn by the Reverend Alexander Peden when he was a fugitive in Scotland in the 17th century. The original Leatherface!

Halloween soon. Try making one of these. Your neighbours will shit themselves.

6 Responses to “Cornish, pasty”

  1. You would do well to read David Pirie’s A Heritage of Horror (the original 1973 edition, not the recent, poorly-edited “A ‘New’ Heritage of Horror”) if you haven’t already. Which I suppose you have.
    Pirie places Horror in the English Romantic/Literary Tradition in what amounts to a book-length scholarly essay. Much more thoughtful than Gifford’s populist coffee-table effort, entertaining as that is (and what a nice man, although he wouldn’t remember meeting me.)
    Pirie opened my eyes, back in ’73, to the socio-political and literary richness of British Horror, and I’m still very grateful to him nearly 50 years on.
    Plague/Zombies doesn’t stand up nearly as interestingly (and yes, the subtext is actually very clearly a *surtext*) as it does when taken in tandem with its companion piece The Reptile (with Jacqueline Pearce at her most haunted). These movies are not so much about class and oppressed peasants vs “landed gentry” as they are about the cruelties of Empire and Colonialism; the Empire strikes back, so to speak.

  2. I like the Pirie but for some reason don’t own a copy and so haven’t looked at it for a while. I recall being baffled by his fierce antipathy towards the Phibes films (maybe their tone blows a hole in his Grand Theory) but he’s sound on the films he admires.

    The Reptile is on my shelf in boxed form and should really get a viewing. Love Jacqueline Pearce, who was a great villainess in Blake’s Seven during my dim youth.

  3. Indeed, she was a lovely woman too (doubtless still is). And yes, the Phibes omission is peculiar.

  4. Oh, he doesn’t omit it, he rants on about how he hates it.

    I think Pearce is on a monkey sanctuary in Indonesia now. Something like that.

  5. When I knew her (we were working on a play at the Arts Theatre in London) she lived on a houseboat on the Chelsea Reach with a quite illegally handsome young man who came every night to drive her to their riparian home after the show. Oh, and Michael Ripper shows up in Reptile as a business-like, no-nonsense, slightly camp pub owner. He seems very pleased and excited to be playing a reasonably substantial role; quite endearing really.

  6. Just looking at it now, and Ripper is indeed the life and soul of the party!

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