Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: DOUBLE FEATURE - The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile

Hammer makes a fine movie. Anyone who knows the doctor knows that he is as much a Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Freddie Francis junkie as the next horror host. So it may be hard to reckon why I was bored to buckets of tears with Plague of the Zombies. It’s called Plague of the fucking Zombies… who couldn’t love this picture.

What’s not to love about this one? It’s got frickin’ voodoo, Cornish villages, Haiti, amazing poster art and classic depictions of zombies. The story is the classic “Who’s in the Grave???... NOBODY!” zombie gag. When a disease befalls a small village and the local doctor can’t seem to find out who’s killing the natives leave it to the aristocrats to pull up dead bodies like so many weeds only discover that the bodies are actually gone. Enter every plot device you may be familiar with in the zombie/voodoo genre and add water. Rinse. Wash. Repeat. Maybe I’m jaded by years of zombie/voodoo plots. This was cutting edge for the time, but it doesn’t stand up in the face of Romero which will rise from the film canister in only a few years.

The zombies look as though they could be the precursor for Peter Cushing’s character Grimsdyke from the Amicus release of Tales from the Crypt some years later. Hard pounded make up with lifeless eyes (like a dolls eyes) and violent grimaces. They have the look of a child having played with plaster of Paris, smacking strips of newspaper on the faces of underpaid extras. It totally works. It’s a shame the rest doesn’t.

Unfortunately the lack of star power can’t bring this Bray Studio/Hammer production back to life. Melodramatic, unenthusiastic dialogue fills the windy gaps between Hollywood inspired chase scenes. It comes off very much like the early days of film only it takes on the all the attributes of a Harold Lloyd slapstick rather than a convincing horror picture. Wonder what it would have been like for Max Schreck to run around with his arms extended with mouth agape? It’d make you laugh right? That’s exactly what you get with this excellent zombie make up meets horrible character direction.

I’m sure it was influential in its day. The name is perfect for the genre and has been much imitated especially in the current zed-word revival. Everything has an “of the” in it when it comes to zombie pictures these days. Most have similar uninspired plots and dialogue that begs for the days of silent film or at least the delivery of said dialogue makes you beg for the days of silent film… the actual dialogue makes you wish you were playing a game of charades.

After watching this one during Turner Classic Movies Hammer Horror marathons I was left disappointed. Maybe it was just missing the Cushing/Lee punch. Most of the actors are virtual unknowns and their names aren’t as legendary as some. Apparently this film was shot back to back with The Reptile which we will get into shortly, as you will come to read, has exceptional acting and all the powers of a thrilling Hammer horror… So why am I about to praise the Reptile if it’s made by the same studio and same director?

Without further adieu, straight from the cold-blooded, shell laying side of Hammer…

The Reptile, unlike our previously reviewed film, is extremely effective. You’ve got great poster art, some classic acting (although no big names just as in Plague of the Zombies). The story revolves around a plague or Black Death that is killing off a Cornish village… wait… that sounds almost too familiar. The doctors can’t seem to figure out the cause of the disease killing the locals, but one of the recent deceased’s brothers swoops into town (the heir apparent) to solve the case. He finds himself shell deep in a rather large cult of snake worshipers who are to blame for the recent deaths alongside their “mascot”, a humanoid snake creature.

I hate to be the one to bring this up, but these two stories… shot on the same location, back to back… are awfully similar. You’d have to wonder whether writer, Anthony Hinds aka John Elder was also known as Peter Bryan. It probably has more to do with John Gillig in the director’s chair and Hammer’s need for a few smackers.

It’s a more effective movie than Plague of the Zombies with similarly bad acting, plot and dialogue. The thing that separates this film from its dizygotic zombie picture sibling is that it involves a plot device that did not blossom and spread like deadly nightshade through the next three decades. How many movies feature exceptionally large, humanoid reptilian creatures running amok in the English country side? Or anywhere for that matter (why should Britain be so exclusive)? Sure we have a few, but most movies involving giant reptiles seem to play on giants of species rather than hybrid animals brought about by strange cult groups (although would-be film makers take note of this up and coming genre could capitalize on face recognition with The Reptile alone).

The makeup is not overly believable, but it makes for great flash/poster art. It’s almost feline or insect in nature… maybe even a touch of rodent. I’d go as far as to say that this reminds me of something later spawned from the G.I. Joe cartoons of the early 80’s. Cobra Commander borrows quite a bit from the villain of The Reptile.

What you have here is good timing. It’s good because it’s unique and doesn’t seem to rely on the movies of the 1940’s to hold up its lore. We haven’t seen Bela Lugosi play a Giant Lizard, but we did see him play an evil doctor of Voodoo in White Zombie. We didn’t see Boris Karloff jump into a rubber suit and stomp across the Universal lot (we did see him in The Man They Could Not Hang, The Ghoul and of course, The Mummy). There are fewer noble/classic works of popular cinema to play The Reptile against. Plague of the Zombies is immediately shown up by Night of the Living Dead just three years later (probably two from the release date of Plague of the Zombies) and has quite a bit to live up to.

You don’t need to take these two pictures as a series of movies like the good doctor has done. They don’t need to be played up side by side having been made in consecutive years by the same director. If you don’t like Plague of the Zombies with the exception of the art work and zombie styling as I did not then at least you can still try your hand at a Gillig picture such as The Reptile and still get your bucket of popcorn’s worth. This may not be the one to double feature (and yes I’m using “to double feature” as a verb).

-Slitherin’ and Stiff… Dr. Jimmy “Don’t Call Me Dead Yet” Terror

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