When Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (Fin de semana para los muertos, aka Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) was first released in 1974, ripping off George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) was not yet a cottage industry in the horror genre. In fact, at the time there had been only a handful of zombie films that owed a debt to Romero’s gritty, low-budget masterpiece, including the shoddy Garden of the Dead and Bob Clark’s semi-spoof Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, both of which were released in 1972.
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue was a Spanish-Italian coproduction made specifically to cash in on the success of Romero’s film in Spain, where censorship standards had recently been loosened despite the fascistic Franco regime still being in control. Spain had already turned out a couple of zombie movies as part of a larger shift in genre film production, which saw the released of some 150 horror films between 1968 and 1975—nearly a third of all Spanish film production during those years. Specifically, Amando de Ossorio had helmed three films in his Blind Dead series: Tombs of the Blind Dead (La noche del terror ciego, 1971), Return of the Evil Dead (El ataque de los muertos sin ojos, 1973), and The Ghost Galleon (El buque maldito, 1974).
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue was one of the best European horror films of this period, and its success can be directly attributed to Grau’s sense of realism and his ability to create interesting characters in addition to frightening living-dead hordes. Grau had originally worked in theatre before making art films in the 1960s, from which he transitioned to horror with The Legend of Blood Castle (Ceremonia sangrienta, 1973), a riff on the Countess of Bathory Legend that mixed dramatic art film conventions with horror overtones. For The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, he takes a more straightforward approach, using Romero’s film as a template (in one interview, he said, he “analysed The Night of the Living Dead frame by frame in order to work out how it was made”).
The story takes place in the picturesque English countryside where a new piece of farm equipment is being introduced by the British Ministry of Agriculture. This new device, which looks at first glance like an ordinary tractor, emits ultrasonic radiation that affects the nervous system of simple organisms, namely insects, causing them to go haywire and attack each other. It is the perfect form of agricultural pest control, and according to the government agents who are testing it, it is perfectly safe. And that is true—sort of. While it doesn’t affect humans directly, it does have the unfortunate side effect of reanimating the nervous systems of the recently deceased. Thus, the living dead that eventually rise up are a direct result of governmental science tampering with nature, a political subtext that is remains front and center even amid all the blood and guts that follow.
The two main characters are Edna (Cristina Galbó) and George (Ray Lovelock), who are thrown together quite by accident when Edna backs into George’s motorcycle at a gas station. They first encounter the living dead when they arrive at the farm owned by Edna’s sister, a recovering heroin addict, and her husband. The husband is killed by a zombie, who had previously attacked Edna but then disappeared. When the police arrive, they are sure that Edna’s hysterical sister is the culprit because the man she claims committed the murder is (again) nowhere to be found. George is credulous, as well, and he refuses initially to believe that the dead are coming back to life (“The dead don’t walk around except in very bad paperback novels,” he says at one point).
This initiates a long-running series of incidents in which the police, led by the angry and repressive Sergeant McCormick (Arthur Kennedy), are kept unaware of the zombies. Instead, McCormick fixates his attention on George because he has long hair, rides a motorcycle, and wears “faggot” clothes. In other words, in McCormick’s narrow eyes, George is simply a no-good hippie out looking for social subversion. Of course, by focusing on George, McCormick blinds himself to the truth of what is actually going on. (If the evil government-tampering-with-nature subplot wasn’t enough, the fascist idiocy of McCormick and the general ineptness of the police solidifies the film’s anti-establishment stance.)
But, those are merely side plots that enhance the real purpose of the film. After all, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is a tense and suspenseful zombie gut-churner, a film that helped raise the bar of graphic gore in the horror cinema. There is nothing here that hadn’t been seen in earlier movies (Herschell Gordon Lewis had torn up the human body in just about every conceivable manner by the late 1960s), but Grau tackles the visceral nature of the horror with an intensity that is actually enhanced by his relative restraint. Make no mistake, this is a gory film that involves on-screen disembowelments, axes in skulls, and one poor woman who has her breast literally ripped off. The gore is gruesome, yet Grau doesn’t rub your nose in it like Lucio Fulci (Zombie) does (interestingly, Giannetto de Rossi, who created the gruesome make-up effects, worked on several of Fulci’s late-’70s and early-’80s films). Grau holds the camera long enough to make you squirm, but not so long that the gore becomes repetitive and thus monotonous.
Grau also ups the ante by giving his zombies a more palpable sense of life. While Romero’s living dead were scary in their sheer relentlessness, Grau’s are scary because they seem to think. Not only do they use physical objects to their advantage (such as pulling up gravestones to use as battering rams), but they seem to hold over some emotions from their previous lives, which opens the possibility for premeditated revenge. Thus, they become the literal extension of Grau’s ecological theme, which he summarized as humanity being “poisoned by progress that is unconcerned about its consequences.”
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue gets a bit slow in its midsection, but it picks up quickly near the end, offering an ironic ending that still offers a cathartic release for those who find Sergeant McCormick disgusting (how could an anti-establishment zombie flick let him get away unscathed in the end?). The script by Sandra Continenza and Marcello Coscia is well-written, with a number of good, tense setpieces that allow Grau to build suspense without graphic bloodletting (in particular, a scene in which Edna and George are trapped in a crypt with several recently reanimated corpses). The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue works well on both a technical level—the sound design and effects are especially impressive, this being one of the first horror films to utilize stereo sound—and an emotional level. When characters are killed, you actually feel bad for them, and if the performances are better than you might expect, it is because Grau started his career as an actor, studied acting at several institutes, and wrote a book in 1962, El actor y el cine, that analyzed different acting styles. And, while it is by no means as good as Romero’s best zombie films, it is still significantly better than the vast majority of copycats that were already proliferating.
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Overall Rating: (3)
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