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Cinema Macabre Issue 5: Zombies!

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Tony Woolstencroft: Plague of the Zombies (1966)

Made on a shoestring budget in 1966, and sharing the same sets and some of the cast from The Reptile, Plague of the Zombies is one of Hammer Studios' finest films. Shamefully overlooked, this is one of the best examples of '60s horror, and a creditable entry in the zombie genre.

Sir James Forbes, distinguished professor of medicine, receives a letter from a former student who is now the local practitioner in a small Cornish village. Dr Thompson is baffled by a series of unexplainable deaths in the village, and would like his mentor’s opinion on what may be the cause. As Dr Thompson’s wife, Alice, is an old friend of Sir James’ daughter, she talks him into taking a minor holiday in Cornwall. On their arrival they discover things are stranger than they could have imagined, and their investigations uncover a nightmare scenario.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is its cast. The wonderful Andre Morell is outstanding in the role of Sir James, and John Carson does a nice line in sinister menace as the local squire. The rest of the cast do equally well, although apparently Diane Clare, who plays Sir James’ daughter Sylvia, had her voice dubbed. Smartly scripted by Peter Bryan, who previously adapted Hammer’s version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (which gave Morell one of his best known roles as Dr Watson to Peter Cushing’s Holmes), the film presents an intriguing story.

Directed, with a skill he was never to show again, by John Gilling, and oozing with creepy atmosphere, the set design is also top notch, especially the village graveyard. Once the zombies appear, they do not disappoint. Both threatening and tragic, they are extremely eerie. Although the film is fairly light on gore, what is there is very well done and effective.

This is one of my favourite zombie films, and one I continually revisit, because of the atmosphere and the magnificent performance from Andre Morell.

Chris Beaumont: Zombie aka Zombi 2 (1979)

In 1978, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead was released. It was the sequel to his granddaddy of the modern zombie film, Night of the Living Dead. It was an instant hit, and when it was released in Italy, producers there were eager to capitalize on its success. At about the same time, Lucio Fulci was gearing up for a film that could easily be tied to the Romero-verse. Since Dawn of the Dead was released as Zombi in Italy, they decided to call this new film Zombi 2 to capitalize on that name (in the process adding the opening and closing New York set scenes). It would then give rise to a series of Zombi(e) movies, each just using the title as a marketing ploy. Still, it is this first film (Zombi 2 in Italy, Zombie in the US) that has become a classic and cemented Fulci's place at the forefront of Italian horror.

Zombie is a rather languidly paced horror film that will not appeal to everyone, as it has that slow pace and is punctuated by the graphic set pieces. It took me a couple of viewings to warm up to it. When I first heard about how graphic it was and learned of its revered status among horror-philes I expected something a bit different. I was ill prepared to deal with that slow pace, but after a few tries I started to feel at home with it, and recognized just how good a zombie film it is.

The story begins when a derelict yacht sails into New York harbor. Upon investigation, a zombie is found to be on board. The creature is quickly dispatched by the investigating officers, but not before getting in a bite of his own. The fact-finding mission settles on Peter West (Ian McCulloch), a reporter who winds up teaming with Ann Bowles (Tisa Farrow), the daughter of the yacht's owner. Ann's father was a scientist working on some random island in the Caribbean, and he's missing. Together, Ann and Peter head off to the Caribbean in search of the missing doctor, tagging along with a vacationing couple, played by Al Cliver and Auretta Gay.

If you are looking for a strong plot, you are going to be sorely disappointed. The story is terribly thin; the point of this film was the atmosphere and the gore scenes. Fulci delivers on both counts. The slow pace keeps you on edge, wondering just when something is going to happen, and when it does finally happen the blood is plentiful as the film delivers some of the more iconic moments of zombie cinema.

So far as the story goes, suffice to say they wind up on an island that is suffering a zombie infestation that may be a virus, but could also be voodoo related. They find Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson) and a newly unearthed horde of walking dead. It is the sort of story where there will be virtually no possibility of a happy ending; once it hits the fan, nothing will be left alive.

The gore delivers some great moments, including Fulci's penchant for eye violence, some flesh eating, exploding heads, wormy eye sockets, and an unforgettable battle pitting a zombie against a shark (yes, a shark!). For the most part, the effects are well rendered and believable. Nothing done digitally can quite live up to the use of well crafted practical effects. There is nothing digital to be found in this film!

Zombie
rightfully retains its status as a classic zombie film, right down to its apocalyptic ending. It may be plagued by a weak script and acting (both of which could be attributed to half the cast speaking English and the other half Italian — dubbing resolved the problem in the end), it delivers a creepy slow burn atmosphere, and the gore is first rate. Again, not for everybody, but definitely in the upper echelon of zombie horror.

Ian Woolstencroft: Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Remakes are usually pale shadows of the originals particularly in the horror genre, yet Hollywood never tires of churning them out. One of the few gems in the recent glut of remakes was Dawn of the Dead (2004) but that shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise; George Romero had shown back in 1990 that it was possible to update his classic zombie films for a modern audience with the Tom Savini-directed Night of the Living Dead.

The remake of Night is a good film in its own right but it works even better if you’ve seen the original. The film plays with the viewer’s expectations; you think you know what’s going to happen until it throws you a curve ball. The opening graveyard scene is the perfect example, making you jump by using what you expect to happen against you.

The most effective twist on the original is the character of Barbara. This isn’t the near catatonic woman we know from the original, this is an action heroine in the Sarah Conner/Ellen Ripley tradition. Patricia Tallman does such a good job of bringing Barbara to life that I wish this remake had spawned a sequel.

The original Night of the Living Dead has one of the bleakest and best endings ever put on film; this updated version may not be quite so bleak but it’s equally effective — “That's another one for the fire” indeed.

George Romero is the father of the modern zombie film and his screenplay shows how a remake should be done. If you stray too far it’s not really a remake, stick too close and you’d be better off watching the original (Psycho anyone?). While it doesn’t eclipse his original (hardly surprising as that film started its own sub-genre) it makes a nice companion piece to it and a film that any zombie aficionado should see.

Daniel Woolstencroft: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Horror comedies are a difficult thing to do well. Oh sure, it's easy enough to create a horror film with a few gags thrown in (even if they are likely to destroy any atmosphere you've created), and it's even easier to make a supposed spoof of the horror genre and go all out for funny (although whether anyone would conclude that the end result was indeed funny is another matter entirely). But a true horror comedy – a film that is a genuine hybrid of the two genres – is really difficult to make work.

Shaun of the Dead aces it. It's not just a great horror comedy, but it's a great entry into its chosen horror sub-genre: the zombie movie. So it covers all the bases: very, very funny; suitably scary; and ticks all the boxes for the zombie genre it's simultaneously spoofing and contributing to.

There's the helpless survivors, the lack of suitable weapons, the last stand in a barricaded refuge. And there's the armies of the undead; only a couple at first, but then inescapably numerous, and deadly.

It's a film so comfortable in its genre that Romero himself could have made it, yet so English, and so amusing that it's recognisably the work of the Spaced team – Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright. And it plays by the rules: if you get bitten, you become a zombie; there must only be one or two seemingly harmless zombies initially, but that must ramp up as the film nears its conclusion. The survivors must hole up in a position of strength, but by some flaw of humanity, some human weakness, must open themselves up to their inevitable fate. The body count should be significant, and characters should lose someone they care about.

There's a more important element to Shaun's success beyond the fact that it adheres so strictly to the rules that Romero invented, including the use of gore; beyond its string of hilarious sequences and quotable dialogue; and beyond the extremely clever references to other horror and zombie movies of the past. Shaun's greatest strength is that it features a set of characters you care about and can identify with. They're not SWAT team members, not cops, and not military personnel; they're you and me, the everyman and his mum, his girlfriend, and his friends.

It's that blend of real-life through the sitcom lens (a "reality" we're all familiar with) merged with the zombie apocalypse scenario that ensures that you never really know where Shaun is going, but care about its characters every step of the way.

Shaun of the Dead is as important an entry into the zombie canon as Romero's, Fulci's, and Boyle's offerings. It's magnificent in every sense, and the sort of film that doesn't come along very often. If by some miracle you've not already seen it, visit your local DVD emporium and pick it up immediately. And while you're there, get yourself a Cornetto.

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About Ian Woolstencroft

  • http://draven99.blogspot.com Chris Beaumont

    Cool films! I haven’t watched Plague of the Zombies for some time, I should revisit it….

    I almost went with Last Man on Earth, but may hold that until Fall, closer to I Am legend…

  • http://www.myspace.com/Wilburwhateley Lawrence McCallum

    Hello! I especially enjoyed Tony’s comments on PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, one of my faves from Hammer. I remember seeing this flick when it was double-billed with the studio’s DRACULA