June 6, 2010

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (Review)

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The Living Dead at
Manchester Morgue (1974)

aka: Don't Open the Window
        Let Sleeping Corpses Lie

Director: Jorge Grau

4.5 / 5 zedheads

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is a zombie movie curiously ahead of its time. Released four years before George A. Romero's influential Dawn of the Dead, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue seems to peer 10 or 20 years into the future of zombie movies and beat Romero and Lucio Fulci to the punch with a zombie film that is as gory as it is critical of society. A Spanish/Italian co-production with British dubbing, you'd expect the film to be a floppy mess, but in actuality it is a carefully crafted, beautifully designed, and highly effective zombie film that is unfortunately obscured by the shadow of Dawn of the Dead's success. As much as I love Dawn of the Dead, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue has better zombie makeup, better cinematography, and better sound design. It is, indeed, one of the best zombie movies ever made.

 For zombies, all food is finger food. Especially the fingers!

The film begins in London where young and scruffy George (Ray Lovelock), an antiques dealer, closes up shop for the holiday and rides his motorcycle into the lush country to meet friends in the village of Windermere (which is of course actually filmed in Italy). While stopping over at a gas station, Edna (Christine Galbo), who's on the way to visit her sister's cottage, backs over George's motorcycle. Without a ride, George pressures her into giving him a lift to Windermere -- but he's driving. It's not long before George and Edna encounter the walking dead, which are being reanimated by experiments in ecological science. But no one will believe them, especially not the local Inspector (Arthur Kennedy) who seems fixed on collaring George and Edna for a recent spate of murders.

Are riding goggles really necessary inside a car?

From the beginning, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue has a very anti-authority ecological message (a zombie film with a message four years before Dawn of the Dead? You don't say!). In the opening credit montage in which George rides out of London, we see shots of urban decay and filthy industry in the grey, black, and grimy depictions of smoke stacks, litter, and dead birds on the street. We also see quick glances of bored, cramped, and disaffected Londoners popping pills, wearing surgical face masks while walking the streets and crammed into bus stops and traffic jams. Even when a naked woman with an Afro runs out into the street with her fingers raised in a V, no one even seems to care. As part of this montage, only briefly do we see quick cuts to shots of pristine, lush green country hillsides where  the film eventually will take place. These quick glimpses of nature in contrast to the dreary urban centers seems to say, "Look at what we've lost!" (anyone reminded of the opening montage of sad, dreary Londoners in Shaun of the Dead?)

In fact, the film is full of anti-establishment sentiment, especially anti-scientific sentiment. George is openly contemptuous of humanity's so-called "progress." When he hears a commenter on the radio describe scientific efforts to address "exaggerated" ecological problems, George remarks, "When we all die, only the scientists will survive" (remind anyone of Romero's Day of the Dead?). This lack of faith in science is at the core of the film: a new form of pesticide, which uses ultrasonic radiation to kill pests by making them attack each other, is having unforeseen effects on the dead and even newborn children! Yes, this movie briefly features homicidal, aggressive newborns (take that zombie babies from Zombi 3 and Dawn of the Dead remake!)

And George has good-reason to mistrust the rule of law. The Inspector he encounters is the worst kind of authority figure. Narrow-minded, contemptuous of change and the young, and given to fascist tendencies, the Inspector truly earns his place on my list of the 5 MOST MEMORABLE ZOMBIE MOVIE ASSHOLES.

Speaking of the characters, George and Edna make an odd couple. Unfortunately, Edna is your typical female lead in a horror film. She screams and falls down a lot, but she's also central to the plot because she's the only one at first to believe the dead are returning to life. Not even George believes her. And George is a bit of an asshole. He's pushy and condescending, yet somehow still likable. As would become popular in Romero's later films starting off with Dawn of the Dead (which would inspire countless other zombie films) George and Edna are protagonists who manage to get over their initial antagonism. Yet they find themselves surrounded by characters who seal their own doom.

In social message and character conventions, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue seems to beat Romero out of the gate, and the same goes for the zombie gore. This film, being a Spanish / Italian production, is quite gory. The zombies are flesh eaters. While they will also strangle and throttle you, the end goal is to rip open your soft underbelly and get at all those squishy entrails. We have several scenes of zombies feasting on their victims' innards, and we get one key scene in particular where the zombies tear open a poor woman at a hospital.

I don't remember Bangers and Mash tasting this disgusting.

The attacks are gory, but the zombies are more subdued in their design. They're not particularly decomposed (although there is one iconic zombie with a bandaged head and autopsy stitches running down his chest), but they move in a wonderfully stiff yet menacing walk. Unlike Romero's unfortunate blue/grey-faced zombies in Dawn, the zombies here are carefully made up to appear pale, ashen, and corpse-like. Uniquely, the eyes of the lead zombie (Fernando Hilbeck) are a fiery red (an effect we won't see used again to any great effect until 28 Days Later).

They were all out of Zombie Visine

Beyond the purly visual elements that inspire a Gothic sense of suspense and dread, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue also boasts interesting sound design. Because the zombies are reanimated by pulses of ultrasonic radiation, the sound design features a really disturbing thematic trademark: a throbbing, undulating electronic howl often entwined with the wheezing of the zombies or a disembodied shrill scream. The sound design is just another element of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue that puts it a cut above the rest.

From beginning to end, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is a fantastic zombie film. There are moments when the story is muddled and characters seem to move from place to place illogically, but these are minor bumps on a very carefully laid road. Even down to the subversion of Catholic tradition -- the zombies appear to anoint or baptize dead bodies with the blood of their victims to reanimate them as zombies -- The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue feels ahead of its time when compared with the zombie films that preceded it in Europe and North America.

In the book Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide, author Glenn Kay says that the producers of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue wanted director Jorge Grau to turn in a colour imitation of Night of the Living Dead. Thankfully, what we got was a film that stands as a great zombie film in its own right but also a film that is exceedingly well-made. In fact, for a film that producers wanted to be a rip-off of Romero's Night, Grau managed to produce a movie that predicted where Romero and many of the zombie films after him would eventually go.

If you consider yourself a zombie fan, then The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue deserves a place at home on your shelf.