THE UNLOVED DEAD: VOODOO ZOMBIES, Part Two: Plague of the Zombies - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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THE UNLOVED DEAD: VOODOO ZOMBIES, Part Two: Plague of the Zombies

Gordon Hopkins ventures down a Cornish mine.
In 1965, venerable British horror studio, Hammer Films, began working on a quartet of chillers. Hammer's biggest star, Christopher Lee, was tapped to appear in a pair of vehicles, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, his first return to the role since Horror of Dracula, and Rasputin: The Mad Monk. The movies were filmed back to back on the same sets and locations. Lee would perish at the end of each film on the same ice floe.

These were intended to be Hammer's “A” movies for 1966. The studio would require a couple of “B” movies for double feature pairings. Director John Gilling headed to the Cornwall countryside and followed the same approach, filming both movies back-to-back, using the same sets, locales and even some of the same cast. The resulting “Cornish horrors,” Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, have developed a reputation far surpassing their “A” side counterparts.
Having brought the classic ghouls like Dracula, the Mummy and Frankenstein's monster to vivid technicolor life for a new generation, it was only natural Hammer would eventually give zombies the Hammer treatment.

In Plague of the Zombies, the pompous but good-hearted Sir James Forbes arrives in a small Cornish village, his young daughter in tow, to investigate an unidentified illness that has claimed the lives of several townsfolk. He soon learns those same deceased townsfolk are no longer lying in their coffins.

The high mucky-muck in town is a young and mysterious squire who seems to have oodles of money despite the fact that no one is willing to work in his family's horribly dangerous tin mine (hint, hint). Said squire had spent his youth in Haiti, as if you hadn't guessed. Yes, the squire is using zombies as cheap labor. Yes, Sir James' lovely daughter is threatened with zombification by a lecherous Voodoo master.
Unlike the previous endeavor (White Zombie, 1932), the acting in this flick is top-notch all around. Especially of note are the aforementioned Morell as well as the great Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan from Blake's 7), plus the estimable, melancholy-eyed Michael Ripper, perhaps the only actor more associated with Hammer than Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing.

The look is also fabulous. I often think zombies do better in grainy black and white, rather than color, but the crusty, florescent blueish/greenish zombie makeup give a surreal air to what is already a weird ambiance. Even Hammer's infamous day-for-night shooting only adds to the creepy atmosphere.

I have to give the film props for one scene in particular. When a young zombie lady crawls out of her grave and approaches our hero with an evil smile and menacing intent, Andre Morell deftly lops off her head with a shovel. I have almost never seen a decapitation scene in a movie that actually works, be it a low-budget independent or a multi-million dollar Hollywood production. This one I buy, mostly thanks to Pearce, who does a swift and bizarre move with her head that really makes you think it is no longer attached to her body (now that's acting) and also thanks to the director who doesn't try too hard, a lesson most modern filmmakers desperately need to learn.

Plague of the Zombies has the same inconsistent explanation for the undead as White Zombie. Sir James insists it is “perfectly scientific.” Yet, Jacqueline Pearce's character gets up and walks after having been autopsied, so she clearly wasn't merely in a trance or a deep sleep.
Set in the Cornish countryside, the film might have avoided the racist connotations that make most Voodoo themed stories uncomfortable for modern audiences, except for three black actors in “native” dress, playing what I guess are supposed to be Voodoo drums down in the mine. There is no explanation for their presence. What are they doing there? Did they come all the way from Haiti? If so, presumably the squire brought them to Cornwall, but for what purpose? Why did they follow him. Or are they locals who have decided to join in on the Voodoo shenanigans? As far as I can tell, they are there to play the drums and that's it.

Plague of the Zombies and White Zombie both highlight an aspect of the Voodoo zombie that make it a less appealing monster for the contemporary filmmaker. The modern zombie is a relentless killing machine. There our no bad feelings about mowing them down with firearms or piercing their brains with spikes. The zombies in Voodoo movies are being exploited. These zombies are the victims. When the inevitable Hammer-style conflagration happens, Voodoo dolls used to control the zombies catch fire. Down in the mine, the zombies start smoldering as well, and the audience can't help but feel a bit sorry for them.

So can these movies perhaps be seen as a treatise on white imperialism? Or perhaps capitalism? Maybe. Does such a reading make me sound like a pretentious woke guy, trying to take the fun out of old horror movies? Probably.

Tomorrow...It ain't Gilligan's Island

Gordon Hopkins is an award winning reporter and columnist for The Fairbury Journal-News, a 130-year-old newspaper in Jefferson County, Nebraska (He hasn't been working there that entire time.) He has also written a couple of crime novels (“Fraudsters” and the best-selling “Broken”) and edited a few non-fiction books.

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