Zombies. You either love them or you hate them. They have been in the cinema for almost as long as cinema has been around, but never at the level of popularity they have been enjoying these last few years. With the Walking Dead, in comics and television, and movies galore both good and bad, zombies are more popular than they have ever been. But before they were, they had a somewhat spotty history. Sometimes they would be used to good effect and others… it all depended on a budget let us say. So in 1966, along comes Hammer with the idea to do a zombie film with a somewhat modest amount of money to throw at it, because if you can keep the costs down then why not do it, and a script by Peter Bryan and what they ended up with was a better than average little chiller featuring the undead.
The film would detail the efforts of doctors Sir James Forbes and Peter Tompson as they try to learn just why it is people in this one small town who are dying at the rate of about one per month for the last year. It is a mystery disease that no one can figure out, and without access to the bodies, neither can Tompson or Forbes. After some further investigation, which means digging up graves, they find them empty and it sends them down a path that leads to voodoo rituals, the entitled upper-class, a corrupt Squire and zombies.
Casting for this film would involve the brilliant André Morell as Sir James Forbes. He is perfect as the concerned father, the revered mentor and the voice of reason in the film. Morell plays it cool and low-key for the most part and it could be simply because of his character’s standing and upbringing which would make sense, or rather it was just how Morrell wished to do it. Whichever of the two, it would lend some authenticity to the role and the film as seeing that Forbes believes in the undead, so to do you almost believe that it could be so. More often than not he was the scene-stealer, especially over people like Brook Williams who played Dr. Peter Tompson. Diane Clare would play Sylvia Forbes, Sir James’ daughter and do a fair job as the film’s damsel in distress. And rounding out the cast would be John Carson as Clive Hamilton, the Squire of the small community and the main villain of the piece. If anyone could match Morell’s talent in the film, it was Carson and they would play off of each other quite well.
While director John Gilling and director of photography, Arthur Grant set the mood and the tone of the film quite well, it would probably have done better as a black and white picture than it did in colour. The only reason for that statement is because of the special effects, or lack thereof. Here is where the budget part comes in as making a film about zombies all boils down to the makeup. Some of the zombies looked all right, some of them looked quite poor, and shooting the picture in black and white instead of colour would have covered up a lot of the failings that were present, one main instance being the makeup on Jacqueline Pearce who played Tompson’s wife. Black and white would also have increased those feelings the filmmakers were going for in the audience, like dread, suspense and horror. The effects were not a total loss as the dream sequence was done really well, nor were they completely terrible, but sometimes they would take you out of the picture just a little bit.
With only a slight negative, the film is definitely worth seeing for its entertaining and suspenseful story along with the strong performances put in by the cast. It is not the best zombie film ever made, but it is one of the better ones as it does not try to rely simply on cheap theatrics. There are some interesting scenes when the voodoo starts happening though André Morell is of course the highlight of the film and the main reason to tune in. This is one of Hammer’s better B pictures and perfect for a Saturday afternoon horror excursion.
4 out of 5