1966, UK, Directed by John Gilling
Colour, Running Time: 86 minutes
Review Source: DVD, R2, Optimum; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DD Mono
Receiving a confused letter from Tompson, a distressed former medical student who’s now practising in a Cornish village, eminent professor Sir Forbes and his enthusiastic daughter Sylvia head south to stay with Tompson and his wife Alice for a few days to provide moral support. On arrival there is evident hostility from both the Squire’s arrogant, aggressive underlings, and the uneducated villagers who are angry that people are inexplicably dying with Tompson powerless to explain or stop it. Lacking scientific understanding the villagers refuse to allow autopsies, so Forbes persuades Tompson to help him exhume the body of a recently deceased, permission or not: they find the coffin empty. Investigating further they soon find that all of the coffins in the local cemetery are uninhabited. One night, Sylvia follows a seemingly entranced Alice across the moors. Discovering an old mine she finds Alice murdered in the hands of a monster that looks uncannily like the body of a man she had earlier witnessed knocked from his coffin during a funeral by the Squire’s contemptuous men. Before Alice’s cadaver is properly inhumed, Forbes, still anxious to perform an autopsy, and the grieving Tompson head back to the cemetery where they witness the fresh corpse climb out of its open grave…
Considered a B-movie by Hammer this was shot with The Reptile, the intention being to release it on a double bill with Dracula Prince of Darkness. It’s since proved one of their most popular movies and is certainly one of their best. Prior to Romero’s rewrite of the rules with the seminal Night of the Living Dead, zombie films generally utilised voodoo as the driving force behind the awakening of the dead. Plague… is no different but it is one of the best of its kind, certainly up until 1968. It contains a rare dream sequence that actually works (something that woke me right up when I sleepily watched for the first time in the middle of the night around 1991), plus the script is literate and engrossing. Some of the walking dead look admittedly odd, some are quite eerie. It does lose way a little for the final act but the atmospheric sixty minutes preceding that can be considered one of Hammer’s finest hours.
Aside from perhaps requiring a contrast and colour boost (i.e. a proper remaster) the enhanced 1.85:1 image is pleasing enough. Having seen this for years on pan & scan VHS tape it was cool to finally view it in its proper ratio. As well as a standalone trailer on the DVD there’s a welcome but cheesy advertisement for the aforementioned Plague/Dracula… double bill. The US AB disc featured a World of Hammer episode also, so its absence here makes the UK disc inferior extras-wise though personally I think it’s not a great loss as the TV series wasn’t exactly enthralling. Overall, a relevant film well worth picking up.