The Plague of the Zombies Blu-ray Review

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by Chris McEneany May 27, 2012 at 1:21 AM

  • Movies review


    The Plague of the Zombies Blu-ray Review
    SRP: £23.99


    Studiocanal have unearthed the original print of The Plague of the Zombies from Pinewood Studios, and restored it. What they have released on BD is a 2K transfer of the 4K scan of that original negative. Numerous scratches, flecks, pops, splotches and wavering vertical lines have been removed from the 1.66:1 image and the film now appears in high-definition courtesy of an AVC encode.

    The day-for-night sequences in this film rank as some of the worst that Hammer ever committed on celluloid and the jury is out on whether or not something should have been done to bring a better balance to these elements. Purists will argue most defiantly that they should stand as they are, and I agree with this in theory. But having seen how well the film was corrected in this respect for Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts, and how much better it then appeared, I would also like to make the point that Plague’s atmosphere does suffer as a result of these sun-shadow draped and ineptly timed sequences, and that some form of correction would have boosted the mood and the authenticity of them quite considerably. That’s my opinion, anyway.

    The more highly defined and more tightly resolved image now reveals lots of information that was previously masked. Closeups of faces, especially Morrell’s offer up lots more detail and a far crisper appearance. The makeup on the zombies, far from suffering as a result, actually seems a bit more grotesque than before, really grungy and horrible. Of course, in some cases, you can now see the seams a bit more clearly, and where the makeup ends and the actor’s skin begins, but this doesn’t lessen the effect as far as I am concerned. Hair separation is now more apparent, as is the gleam in the eyes. Pearce has the most gorgeous eyes, as I’ve already remarked upon, and this transfer really allows them to radiate with warmth and an ironic “life” even after she returns from the grave. That scene when she reawakens in her coffin is now even more stunning with the clarity displayed here.

    Along with all this good stuff on offer with the greater resolution, there are some rather more unfortunate things to consider too. That fire extinguisher is now far more glaring, as are some of the wobblier sets, and the telephone wires stretching across the fields near the start. Checking back to the DVD, these things were always there, but in the case of the wires, they were blurred into the murky SD image far more and, therefore, camouflaged. It is also much easier to spot the shadows of the camera and the crew following Morrell as he moves through the Squire’s study. I’m nitpicking, of course, but these elements also reveal how much cleaner and sharper and more detailed this picture is when compared to the versions we’ve become accustomed to.

    As far as contrast goes, the image is stable and consistent. There are a few fluctuations, with the odd scene transition struggling to return to the right level, but this is down to the source. The transfer maintains a fine degree of separation and is neither too high nor not high enough. The crimson jackets of the hound-less huntsmen really stand out, and the flames during the study-room inferno are proudly and boldly presented against the already warm wooden interior. The black levels are good too, with some strongly developed shadows in the sets. They could possibly be better still, but let’s not gripe. The problems in this area, as I commented earlier, tend to stem from the lousy day-for-night elements that routinely muck-up what should be properly defined and hugely atmospheric moments of ominously dark imagery. But one of the stand-out shots, when Alice slowly degrades and becomes a zombie as she lies there in her opened casket, now looks even more startling due to the depth and stability of the blacks and the midnight blues. This sequence is worth its weight in gold and the new print and restoration really gives it some added oomph!

    The Technicolor comes through with a firm degree of saturation. It is vivid when it needs to be, but Plague is not the most colourful of Hammer’s canon. A lot of the film is set in that curious and ill-looking fake night vista, and the palette cannot look good in that light. But blood is massively garish, as you would expect from Hammer, as are those hunting tunics, and the flames that leap around the burning study. The pasty faces of the zombies, all chalk and cornflakes, have a more exacting range of putrefaction now. They aren’t just white and grey, but there are greens and blues in there, too.

    Grain is consistent. It is not heavy and it does not devolve into noise. I wasn’t troubled by anything remotely indicative of black crushing. There was no smearing, or aliasing, or banding to contend with, and edges remain tight and distinct without any unnecessary enhancement. Some location shots, such as the view out across the fields as Sir James and Sylvia meet Denvers and the other hunters, are murky and indistinct, with some haloing – but this is how the photography in these section has always appeared. Although painstakingly restored, there are still some little elements of damage here and there, but The Plague of the Zombies looks very respectable and satisfying on BD.

    The Plague of the Zombies Picture


    First and foremost, folks, there were no audio glitches or synch-problems with this transfer … unlike the first release of Dracula Prince of Darkness.

    We have the film presented with a very effective LPCM 2-channel mono mix that doesn’t really carry much in the way of subtlety, but certainly has some fun with the more dynamic elements of the sound design. James Bernard’s paroxysm-inducing score gets mileage out of a deep and thrilling presentation. The voodoo drums get a great workout and the typically raucous brass and searing string-work have enough clarity and precision to remind you just why Bernard was a supreme maestro of the musically macabre.

    There are no problems with the dialogue. It is all clean and clear. Those zombie mouths working overtime during the nightmare sequence? You’re not supposed to hear what they may be uttering. In fact, that’s what makes the approach of Ben Aris, in particular, so downright eerie and frightening. It looks like he is mouthing some terrible obscenities – and I’ll bet that on the day, he probably was underneath all that makeup! The whip-cracks that we hear down in the mine as the bully-boys urge their zombie-slaves into action are nice and sharp. I wish we had the proper weight of the clunking stone blocks that are later being deposited on villains’ heads, though.

    One of the things I love about the sound design of the Hammer films apart from their devilish music is their distinctive use of footsteps. You could blindfold me and just play the sound of Victorian feet pitter-pattering and click-clacking across marbled, tiled or polished wooden floors and I would know that it had to be either a Hammer gothic chiller or a Bond film from the sixties. Both seemed to have that uniquely crisp and precise shoe-cadence. The footsteps here are just as adroitly delivered. I notice that when Sir James makes his Raffles-like infiltration of Squire Hamilton’s manor, his leather shoes suddenly seem nice and muffled when his footsteps only a short time earlier, across the same floor clattered like bones scattered on a voodoo drum.

    Screaming, bodily impacts, the thundering of horses’ hooves, the creaking of doors, the shovelling of earth and the breaking of glass all have the necessary priority in the mix. So, all in all, this is a sturdy presentation of a typically ripe old Hammer track. Obviously you have to understand the limitations of the mix and, with this in mind, this gets a good 7 out of 10 for doing all it should ... and doing it well.

    The Plague of the Zombies Sound


    Although my PR check disc is all by its lonesome, the full release edition comes with a DVD copy of the restored film.

    Sadly we don’t get a commentary track, which is something that I would have loved. Both Jacqueline Pearce and John Carson are still with us, and both eagerly contribute to the great making-of documentary, and they could so easily have been teamed-up with one or two of the Hammer historians to give a fun and comprehensive chat. I go on about these things quite a bit because commentaries are a tremendous avenue into the film and I love the way that you feel like you’re sitting there with these people to watch a movie that you’re particularly fond of. Ahhh, well.

    To make up for this, we have what must now be considered the template for Studiocanal’s Hammer series.

    There is a theatrical trailer for Plague, a little piece of the restoration of the film, a fabulous retrospective making-of and an episode of TV’s World of Hammer, narrated as always by Oliver Reed.

    Whilst the Hammer episode, entitled Mummies, Werewolves and the Living Dead, is typically useless to anyone who knows the Studio and their films well, it does serve as a copious highlights show built around a rather tenuous theme. The quality is poor, the clips extensive and swiftly tedious when seen in such length and out of context, but Reed does occasionally supply an amusing comment. This is just filler, though.

    The real meat on the zombie’s bones is the 35-minute documentary, which is superb. Called Raising the Dead, this brings in comments from Hammer-boffins Marcus Hearn, Jonathan Rigby and Mark Gatiss, as well as allowing us to catch up with John Carson and Jacqueline Pearce who obligingly reminisce of their time with the undead at Bray, and composer/film score historian Prof. David Huckvale, who discusses James Bernard’s thunderous music, and the often unsung Don Mingaye, who worked on the film’s excellent art design. I’m not sure if he was the one who placed that fire-extinguisher in the corner of the Squire’s study, though.

    Pearce talks about fake heads and decapitations. Carson remarks upon that James Mason soundie-like quality of his, and the trouble that it occasionally got him into. Hearn gives potted trivia and factual production history in that standard mirthless style of his, whilst Rigby offers opinion, critique and insight with that rather more charming fashion of his. Gatiss, however, is always the loose wheel on these things. Yes, the guy has done tremendous TV shows looking back at the history of horror, but he is always more rambling, unfocussed and less informative on these little making-ofs. But what he lacks in acute information or valuable opinion, he makes up for with sheer merriment and enthusiasm.

    We also hear from Wayne Kinsey, who discusses the actual shoot and the sets and locations used at Bray and its lush environs. Gilling is remarked upon, as are the relative acting qualities (or lack of) brought to the project by Diane Clare and Brooke Williams. Everyone is in admiration of Morrell, though. A very interesting segment deals with the restoration of the original negative, and we see various nicks and scratches and splotches being removed. We hear about the dilemma over how far to go with such clean-up jobs, and the issue over the lousy day-for-night scenes and whether or not something should have been to correct them. In the end, nothing was done … but seeing how Jason and the Argonauts was improved by adhering to the correct sheen and hue, there is a definite argument in the case of these Hammer films for something to be done.

    Excellent stuff. I wish it could have gone on for much longer.

    We also get one of those restoration-comparison montages with wipes and split-screens used to show us the before and after appearance of the film. As with Dracula Prince of Darkness, there is absolutely no way on Earth that the unrestored film looked the way they depict it here. Who are they trying to kid? That ultra-high contrast, woefully faded, almost bleached-out “before” material is most definitely not how the film has ever looked.

    Great making of. Could’ve done with a commentary, though.

    The Plague of the Zombies Extras


    The Plague of the Zombiesmay have myriad faults and errors, but this is still a simply fantastic film, and its influence upon the broader and still ongoing zombie genre cannot be overstated. Without Alice’s shocking rise from the grave and lecherous advance, along with the mass return that follows, you would not have had Night of the Living Dead from Romero and Russo – Matheson’s I Am Legend or not – and the picturesque English countryside would not have been further ravaged by grotty dead-heads in Jorge Grau’s excellent The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue. And, folks, it is these two gut-munching epics that bleed copiously into the trend that we have all loved ever since.

    Andre Morell is typically wonderful as the Holmsian Van Helsing of the affair, commanding every scene that he is in with gruff authority, utter conviction and a cleverly modified disdain for some of his fellow performers that translates enormously well to the staunchly opinionated Victorian aristocrat. John Carson brings a genuinely macabre determination to the Anglicised voodoo master, and Jacqueline Pearce is incredibly beautiful and tragic at the same time as the doomed Alice … and yet she also makes for one of the most iconic of ghouls to open its eyes after death and go for a walk. And let’s not forget the great Michael Ripper as the dependable village copper. You know you’re in safe hands whenever he’s in a film, even if he ends up clobbered by a Mummy or chewed-up by a werewolf.

    With James Bernard’s extraordinarily powerful score, enjoyably hoky zombie makeup and a two of the most haunting and shocking scenes that Hammer ever produced, Plague breaks the mould and brings voodoo to Cornwall. It conjures up many wacky ideas and it certainly pushes back a few taboos, and it holds up remarkably well today as an attack on class war and an acknowledgement of feminism and men’s fear of it. The finale may be a bit too rushed but this is an undisputed classic, just the same.

    Studiocanal’s BD provides a very good restoration with a solid transfer. Could the film have looked better? Yes, I believe it could do, but this takes nothing away from a detailed image that preserves the Technicolor, the glorious period detail (a fire-extinguisher?) and doesn’t meddle with the infamous day-for-night photography. A very good making of could have been bolstered by a commentary track … but they never asked me!

    One of Hammer’s most rewarding films and a true genre gem all round.

    Highly recommended.

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £23.99

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