The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974)

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*. Like a lot of Euro-horror from the ’70s, this is a movie that came out under a number of different titles. Indeed, it had more than most — as many as sixteen by one count. Probably the best known of these is the U.S. title Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, but none of them make much sense. Originally it was going to be called Weekend with the Dead, but then it was shot with the title The Valley of the Dead and, in Italy, Do Dove Vieni? (Where Do You Come From?). Another English title was Don’t Open the Window. I like The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue best. The reference to not opening a window escapes me and Let Sleeping Corpses Lie sounds too much like a satire.
*. In any event, only a quick opening montage here was shot in Manchester (though I think the hospital is located in that city’s suburbs). Most of the rest of the exteriors were done in Derbyshire, with the interiors shot mainly in Rome.
*. And what exteriors they are! Has England’s green and pleasant land ever looked so green and idyllic? Has there ever been a zombie movie with such beautiful natural scenery?

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*. I think it’s this quality, the colour of the film, that reminds me so much of Romero’s The Crazies (which only came out the year before). The tonal values are striking. There’s that lush greenness, and then the red of the blood and the radiation machine, and finally the men in their bright white suits.
*. Things get off to an odd start. There are some crazy titles followed by a montage of urban shots — including a totally superfluous streaker no one seems to notice — that’s meant to emphasize the city’s pollution (the cityscapes are juxtaposed with scenes of green countryside). But while director Jorge Grau is often criticized for being too obvious with the environmental theme, I’m of the opinion he doesn’t do enough with it. After the opening credits the message of not messing around with mother nature is pretty much dropped and the movie never develops into a true eco-horror film.
*. It’s odd how eco-horror disappeared as a genre after the first wave of the environmental movement ran its course. We have apocalyptic climate-change plots today, but it seems as though filmmakers don’t really want to tackle the environment as a political issue (see, for example, the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still).

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*. By some strange quirk of cinema synchronicity I re-watched this movie a week after seeing City for Conquest. Arthur Kennedy had a supporting role in that film as James Cagney’s brother. By the time of this film he had, evidently, fallen on hard times. Director Jorge Grau describes him as “a man in descent who also drank a lot.” He apparently showed up drunk, not wanting to work and not having read the script. But as with Lugosi in his declining years, attempts were made to accommodate him in his role as crusty police curmudgeon.
*. Though perhaps they went a little overboard with the curmudgeon. “You’re all the same, the lot of you with your long hair and your faggot clothes, drugs, sex, and every sort of filth.” Yikes!
*. Well, it was the ’70s. “Your talk about the dead walking, and cannibalism . . . It’s unscientific, man!” That “man” really clinches it.
*. Is it natural for our hero to walk around with his shirt unbuttoned so far? Or did that happen by accident and he just let it go?
*. Yes, they spelled “owl” wrong on the door window. You know you’re in a really cheap European production when no one knows how to spell “owl.”

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*. I’ve mentioned before how the siege motif, with survivors barricading their home against the zombie threat while hands and arms come crashing through the windows and doors, has been a staple of the genre at least since The Revolt of the Zombies. It’s so requisite that here it’s introduced in a way that barely makes sense. Why would George, Edna, and the cop run into that small building at the graveyard, only to find out (surely to no one’s surprise) that there’s no way out and they’re “trapped” inside?
*. Despite having super strength (they’ve got radioactive blood!), the zombies don’t move very quickly. Anyone could briskly walk away from them. But being a zombie film (and one that consciously set out to imitate Night of the Living Dead) there had to be at least one scene of siege. So up go the barricades.
*. The women are especially useless this time out. Katie does nothing but stand and look as a zombie strangles her husband (in her defense, she’s a drug addict and wasn’t getting along with him anyway). Then once Edna drags herself out of the pit she simply walks away with the cop, not even mentioning George but just leaving him to his fate, whatever that may be. Thanks!

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*. Slow zombies, slow food? It’s odd how bored the zombies appear when eating. There’s none of that American feeding-frenzy effect. They actually seem to be taking the time to enjoy their meal. Which is a very European touch.
*. Giannetto De Rossi is usually quite good, but I was disappointed by his effects in this movie. It looks like hunks of plaster are coming off the characters’ flesh. It was something new, however, to see this much blood in colour (Dawn of the Dead was yet to come). And how can you not love a guy who says “When you make a film with enthusiasm, love and passion, so much you can’t sleep — you have a chance that people who weren’t even born when it was made, when they see it — they will still feel the love and passion of the people who made it.” Now there’s a man who loves his work!
*. The soundtrack, with its prominent play of the death rattle, shouldn’t work, but it does. There’s something about really loud, creepy breathing that’s undeniably effective in horror films, no matter how over-the-top.
*. The idea that there are only two people who know what’s going is a remarkably strained premise to maintain throughout the entire movie, especially when what we’re talking about is a zombie outbreak. Nevertheless, whenever someone else finds out, they’re immediately killed. And the zombies are never discovered, despite the fact that they’re not really hiding.
*. Then there are all sorts of improbabilities, like how the characters keep getting from place to place so fast, why the zombies don’t show up on film (that one was really weird given the pseudo-scientific explanation for their awakening), how the zombies seem to raise each other from the dead, why a zombie whose cause of death was drowning continues to be wet for days after, and finally how on earth the zombie George manages to get into the Inspector’s hotel room at the end.
*. Glenn Kay, whose book Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide is a great reference to the subject, ranks this the 21st greatest zombie movie ever. I think it’s definitely a must-see for zombie movie fans. If you’re not a zombie movie fan it’s harder to think of why you’d want to bother.

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