‘A Very British Invasion’ – 2008 by Wendy McCredie
The second of three full length reviews written for Montage Films and published during May 2008.
When the classics of the zombie sub-genre come to mind, they invariably come with a distinctly American accent. Whether we think of Bruce Campbell’s chainsaw arm in the Evil Dead (Raimi, 1987) films, or the survivors taking pot shots at the zombies from the top of the mall in Day of the Dead, iconic imagery of zombies and those that battle them are, in spite some sterling work by the makers of Shaun of the Dead (Wright, 2004), nearly all from across the pond. However, Simon Pegg’s cricket bat and pool cue wielding loser is not the first to take a thoroughly British shot at dealing with a zombie invasion. Made in the mid-sixties but set in the Edwardian era in a tiny Cornish village, The Plague of the Zombies (Gilling, 1966) is classic Hammer horror B-movie fare. Originally intended as an accompaniment to Christopher Lee’s iconic scenery chewing turn as Dracula, the tiny budget doesn’t get in the way of it being a creepy, subtext laden little film.
George A Romero’s continuing efforts to hold a distorting mirror up to American society are not alone in featuring shambling figures whose unending quest for brains may have a more than cannibalistic bent. With the growing entrenchment of the superpowers and the constant threat that the cold war might suddenly disintegrate into nuclear holocaust or something subtler yet somehow worse, the politicisation of the young audience that has traditionally been the target of horror cinema was almost inevitable. Even the films without overt political emphasis were assigned significance by their already politicised audience, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel, 1956) managed to be considered as both an indictment of McCarthyism and a parable of the loss of the self within the soviet state. For, though neither meaning was intended by the creators, it still manages to act as a political allegory when read in context, becoming, almost against its will, what its audience needed it to be. Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968 ) makes the most contemporary comparison to Plague of Zombies. As Night reflects the racial tensions of sixties America, so Plague embodies the issues of class and colonial disintegration facing British society at the time.
Much of the gothic literature of the nineteenth century plays on the fear of death and the dead that was prevalent within western society at the time. Although recorded cases of people being mistakenly buried alive were relatively rare, there were enough cases of supposedly dead people awakening in coffins pre-burial to feed rumour. The period setting that allows for the full exploitation of the gothic nuances of the story also has its uses as a distancing tool. By portraying the issues as those of the past, the audience is freed to deal with these ideas with hindsight from a safe distance. Many British horror films during the fifties and sixties, notably those produced by Hammer, use their period settings to provide an escape from contemporary context to deal with various societal issues. In particular post-war crises in terms of gender identity with social upheaval drawn in characters of extremes, the men either weak and crippled or cold, sexless scientists, while the women alternate from weak swooning damsels to powerful and/or sexual predators. Issues of class have a tendency to dominate in spite of this, the characters inhabiting a thoroughly bourgeoisie status quo whose closed minds and class snobbery often hamper them in successfully dealing with the monster. Although these films were conceived and viewed within the same political and military global situation as many better-known American horror and science fiction invasion films the invasion metaphor is used to different effect. Their use of the metaphor and positioning within the wider social, political and cinematic context gives a distinct ‘British-ness’ to them. There is something robustly physical and no-nonsense about the character’s response to the situation, (an aspect often credited to the professional nature of the actors involved and their ability to treat thoroughly weird situations with complete seriousness) the fight between good and evil is resolutely grounded in the real world even when witchcraft gets involved there is very little of the ethereal about it. The defining difference between the monsters of science fiction and those of horror is that science fictions monsters tend to come from without, from the unknown, whereas the monsters of horror come from within, are all too familiar. In confirming his suspicions the good Doctor makes use of the local minister’s library of Christian arcana, immersing himself in demons and witchcraft so that he can be sure of what he’s up against. For all that his younger colleague protests incredulously about such conclusions from a ‘man of science’, Forbes does in fact deal with the situation in a thoroughly scientific manner. He sees things that he does not fully understand; he researches them, forms a hypothesis, and proves by experiment (in this case standing vigil over recently dead Alice Thomson’s grave waiting for her to rise) that his theory is true, before confronting the perpetrator. There is something of Heart of Darkness about the whole situation, Squire Hamilton having returned from his travels in the West Indies with a selection of Haitian voodoo practices. Notably he has not brought a voodoo witchdoctor back with him for his own dubious ends, but has become one himself.
While at first glance the local population of ‘commoners’ seems to get a better deal than is normal for gothic horrors, the patriarchal protectionism of the protagonists ensures that they remain ignorant of the truth about the events transpiring. The attitude that they must be protected by men of learning from what they do not understand prevails. The real ideological battle lies not between the baying mob and the mad scientist in his tower as is often the case – with the monster left to take the, oft literal, fall for its creator’s crimes – but between the two opposing stereotypes of upper class power. (Though it could also be argued that fate of the Zombies and their masters, battling each other in the burning tin mine represents the cyclical and futile nature of class conflict.) Sir James Forbes, a man of education and medicine representing the philanthropist using money and knowledge to improve the lot of those below him, while Squire Clive Hamilton plays the role of exploitive industrialist focused solely on power and profit caring only for getting his own way regardless of the consequences. This duality can also effectively carry across into the differing views on British colonialism as the country made the painful, though undoubtedly necessary, transition to the post-colonial era. Therefore it is also possible to read Squire Hamilton’s actions as representative of the section of society unable to cope with the inevitable break up of the British Empire. The overtly sexual overtones to the pursuit of Sylvia Forbes by the Squire and his cohort in the woods has a certain significance in the aftermath of the symbolic castration that was the Suez crisis. Their failed attempts to first dominate then delude her into submission a demonstration of the ineffectual nature of their posturing and exploitation.
How a society responds to the fears of its members tells us more about the society itself than the individual members. Horror cinema is arguably a very British genre of film. To the extent that some even argue that horror cinema is to the British Isles what the Western is to America, encapsulating all those things that the British are apparently renowned for being. Repression being a vital part of this, central as it is to both external images of the British and to horror itself. The opportunity to exorcise demons, whether fantastical or psychological, is often seized with an almost unseemly passion. As British society changes, old certainties change and identity becomes something mutable and threatened. Admittedly this is an unusual attitude for a society where historically uncertainty and rupture are the only real form of stability. Perhaps this is simply a refusal to accept that endurance is dependant upon change. This is the fear of regressing backwards at the expense of moving forwards. The problem with overcoming repression, that favourite term of psychoanalytic interpretations of film, is that it requires an acceptance of the idea of there being pleasure in change and in revolution.
The zombies here, though playing the ‘monster’, are treated with far greater sympathy than is normal in the circumstances. They are viewed by the film’s ‘hero’ as benighted victims of a dastardly plot, forced to toil in the tin mine instead of lying at peace in their graves. The main thrust of the plot being not to destroy these monsters but to free them from their enslavement and return them to their rightful place.
British horror cinema is regarded with some distain by a large section of the critical corpus, as though they are ashamed of its continuing popularity. But from the Hammer re-imaginings of the Universal classics to the gut-consuming zombies and soldier munching werewolves, home-grown horror in this country continues to draw large audiences with only a low budget, a creative attitude to Foley and home made special effects. By speaking in a language of ‘known’ cinematic tropes the audience know what to expect from horror and are allowed to relax and be ‘scared’ in a safe environment.