Plague of the Zombies / Billion Dollar Brain–two movies that ought to be shown in every school

No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses. Movies are a river of dreams and a great textbook for the under-educated. Both of these films–one regarded as a classic, the other, as a dreadful misfire have valuable life-lessons to teach.

First let’s consider the classic. That would be John Gilling’s “Plague of the Zombies,” made for Hammer Films and released in America in 1966. The title is a bit of cheat. As Peter Bryan’s script unfolds there is no plague of zombies–but there is a plague of arrogance and run-away greed. The action takes place in a Cornish village in the late 1800s. The Hamilton tin mines had always been the principal employer of the male villagers, but when several accidents caused the mine to be declared unsafe, things began to look grim–until Old Squire Hamilton’s enterprising son Clive returned from abroad to inherit the failed operation. Clive it seems had spent some time in Haiti and he must have had a chat with Murder Legendre because both came up with the same enterprising solution–if the labor is too grueling or too dangerous for the living, employ the dead.

So there we have it. Hamilton is running the ultimate sweatshop–a dangerously decrepit mine being worked by men who fear nothing, having already died. Or course Hamilton still employs a cadre of thugs to lay a little of the stick about–apparently even corpses can be slackers. Hamilton is living the ultimate industrialist’s dream until a spoil-sport London doctor arrives in town, sent for by a former student, now the town doctor and baffled by the deaths of so many heretofore healthy villagers. Even the young doctor’s pretty wife falls victim to Hamilton’s needs–but not for laboring in his mine–while the professor’s daughter is almost raped by Hamilton’s senior bully-boy. The professor ultimately proves to be more deadly than a labor organizer and a federal regulator combined as he fires up Hamilton’s collection of tiny coffined voodoo dolls. The zombie laborers, now freed, stage the ultimate work-stoppage against Hamilton and his crew.

This movie teaches you that the boss is not your friend, and the manager/owner of the plant is even less your friend. If they could get you to work non-stop, for free, without even lunch- or potty-breaks, they would.

If John Gilling’s “Plague of the Zombies” teaches a lesson in economics, Ken Russell’s “Billion Dollar Brain” (1966) teaches a lesson in politics. The set-up here also occurs all too frequently in the so-called real world. We have an extremely wealthy, extremely crazy industrialist who likes playing war so much that he keeps his own private army on the grounds of his huge Texas ranch. Just as Joan of Arc felt called to free France from the clutches of the English, Gen. Midwinter (played with a fine glint of insanity by Ed Begley) feels called to liberate Latvia from the Soviet Union, which move, he believes, will set in motion the demise of the entire evil empire. To facilitate his scheme he has called upon the resources of his “billion dollar brain,” the massive computer that coordinates and controls the many divisions of Midwinter’s industrial empire. But even a billion dollar computer needs data to act upon, so Midwinter recruits an assistant, a sort of super-consultant, in the person of one Leo Newbigen an ex-CIA operative. Newbigen, as played by Karl Malden, is as slippery as an eel, but Midwinter has faith in his years of accumulated CIA expertise. Newbigen’s job is to set up a network of spies and saboteurs inside of Latvia to pave the way for Midwinter’s invasion force. What Newbigen actually does is to take the deluded billionaire’s cash, pocket most of it, and use the rest to subsidize a gang of black-marketeers headed by his equally devious cousin Basil. Their method of “intelligence-gathering” consists of waylaying Russian Army supply trucks, looting them, then photographing the IDs and cargo manifests of the luckless drivers. This information Leo, comfortably ensconced in a villa in Helsinki, massages into glowing reports of a groundswell of anti-Soviet sentiment among the people of Latvia. Midwinter expects his troops to be greeted with rose-petals and rice as they parade through the streets of Riga.

Unfortunately for the scheming Newbigen, he’s not quite as smart as one Col. Stok, the chief of Soviet intelligence in his neck of the woods. Stok has managed to place his top female agent as Newbigen’s mistress. Even more unfortunately for Newbigen, Midwinter’s brain divines that there is a traitor in the Helsinski office and issues orders to Newbigen to eliminate her. Unwilling to sacrifice the love of his middle-aged life, even though he now knows her to be one of Stok’s agents, he slickly decides to literally “stack the deck” of the general’s computer on his next visit to the home office. Caught in the act of replacing the punch cards ordering the assassination by one of Midwinter’s many surveillance cameras, the game is up for Leo who must flee for his life. Midwinter decides to proceed with his invasion, even though he now knows that all of Newbigen’s glowing reports were lies, and he and army perish when the Soviets drop a bomb on the ice over which his mechanized troops are travelling, causing the ice to crack and give way beneath them. It remains for the Stok to deliver Midwinter’s elegy, “a patriot, but a very stupid man.”

So what is the take-away from this gaudy Ken Russell extravaganza? Leaders want to hear what they want to hear, and ambitious underlings are always ready and willing to oblige them. All of the cash that Midwinter funneled into the Helsinki operation only bought him worthless massaged data and wishful fairy tales. The next time you hear about some far-off people yearning to be free, it may pay you to do a little research on your own. Read a few books on the subject rather than relying upon the opinions of the latest model Leo Newbigen.

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