Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
DVD - Image B Sound C+ Extras B
BD - Image B Sound B Extras B
starring Ray Lovelock, Christine Galbo, Arthur Kennedy
screenplay by Sandro Continenza & Marcello Coscia
directed by Jorge Grau
by Walter Chaw Without having to squint much, you could see the hero of Jorge Grau's The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, art-dealing Easy Rider hippie George (Ray Lovelock), trying to deliver the airplane propeller his spiritual brother, David Hemmings' mod-photog from Blowup, buys in tribute to form over function midway through Antonioni's counterculture classic. Instead, George is trying to deliver the sister of the fatal fertility juju from Arthur Penn's Night Moves through titular Manchester into the green countryside on the back of his too-cool motorcycle. He's thwarted initially by the bumper of maiden fair Edna (Cristina Galbo), then by the hungry undead stalking the countryside in search of meaty sociological metaphors, then by an ossified Scotland Yard dick (Arthur Kennedy). Luckily, there's plenty of allegorical beef for everyone, as Grau paints a vivid picture of Mod Madness in steady, deteriorating orbit around the entropy and hedonism of the time--sprinkling it liberally with a disdain for dictatorships Grau no doubt nursed whilst working under the heel of Francisco Franco's regime.
Doom hangs over the thing like a pall. Of course there's doom--by 1974, a healthy embrace of doom was the true and only path to wisdom, and Grau's picture most resembles in spirit-and-mouth feel Nicolas Roeg's early-'70s, likewise Mod-influenced output, from Performance to Walkabout to especially Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. A reach to call it a masterpiece, better to say that the picture has been unfairly underestimated as a relic when it's usefulness is precisely in its overall effectiveness as an artifact of the spirit of that age. To that end, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue reflects George Romero's influence not merely as the primogenitor of the zombie genre, but also as a social satirist using genre as a camouflage to his greater ambition as chronicler/commentator. It's fair to speculate that were Grau to make the film today, he'd make it in the YouTube, handheld esprit de l'age as Romero has his Diary of the Dead.
It's not long into the film before Edna is attacked by the reanimated corpse of a drowned hobo who is also, not incidentally, the town drunk. It's an important aside to make in a picture interested in taking a look at the prejudices that inform caste: institutions of traditional order on the one side, hippies, artists, druggies, antiques dealers, and other degenerates on the other. When a junkie's husband turns up disembowelled, who better to blame than his heroin-goofy widow? The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is the bitter revolutionary backhand offered to authoritarian myopia, though conversely, it's a pretty decent little gorefest with a generous helping of eye violence and entrails-devouring in its second half. Before that, the picture is surprisingly coherent and surprisingly thoughtful, long on talk and heavy with the implication that a local pest-exterminating outfit, experimenting with low-level sound/radiation waves that drive insects nuts, is most likely behind the sudden epidemic of living corpses.
This doesn't jibe exactly with a divinely sacrilegious scene later on when one of the zombies reanimates a couple of beefsticks by gently marking their eyelids with blood, but so be it: Grau's satirical shotgun has a wide spray pattern. More constructive than identifying such lapses as inconsistency is to agree that the picture isn't sure whether its boogeyman is the constabulary, the Church, or the industrial revolution happening around the Lake District locale--but it's for damn sure that the heroes are a hippie, a B-girl, and a heroin-addict with a heart of gold. Unlike Blowup and Easy Rider, however, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue thinks that the sixties were a great idea ruined not by their own quixotic hedonism, but by the iron fist of intolerant Man reasserting itself in spasms of stodgy order. Indeed, the film equates our hippies with Nature and babies.
Convinced that our longhairs (in their "faggot" clothes) are responsible for the perplexing orgy of cannibalism dotting the bucolic countryside, our good inspector tracks George and Edna to a hospital where the nursery ward has turned on its nurses and George discovers that the only way to slow the shambling undead is to set them on fire. Pretty lawless stuff, you'll agree, and the fact that the Inspector, forever nameless, blames those darn kids for the Apocalypse is absurd enough to reveal the madness bubbling up in the cracks of the generational rift. With its last image almost identical to the same in Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, the suggestion is likewise that the gulf between what is communicated and what is understood is wide and growing. If read as an ideological tract, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue could refer to the expanding gyre that separates distinct concepts of "authenticity"--hence the detective story in this ersatz Night of the Living Dead (commissioned to do a straight ripper of the Romero classic--which was completely without a detective figure--Grau inserts an element of Tiresian knowledge) that underscores the futility of investigation into areas that, by their nature, resist clarification. It's a film entirely of the seventies New American Cinema in that way--a noir-cycle picture that shares a good deal with its Yankee contemporary Chinatown (also 1974). It's a mystery film that doesn't solve the mystery, a Luddite film undermined by biological frailty; and it boasts a resolution so ambivalent that it surpasses spirituality to root itself in cold, hard nihilism.
Blue Underground upgrades Anchor Bay's DVD release of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (theirs titled Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) with a two-disc, slip-covered special edition that should remain definitive for the foreseeable future. Grau provides a brief, optional introduction to the picture, hoping it causes us "extreme suffering" and putting his finger, by that statement, on the exact reason a lot of us are drawn to exploitation flicks. I've had my thoughts about why we watch the things we watch sometimes (Miike's episode of Showtime's "Masters of Horror", for instance, made me wish I could un-watch it), but the urge to experience something like this to me finally washes out as equivalent to watching hardcore pornography. It's not about the story, it's about the money shot and, if we're honest with ourselves, it's about humiliation, maybe fear, certainly distaste--whatever's needed to round out our fantasies. I think the failure of "torture porn" to be a consistently profitable public endeavor is that the desire to watch torture is something--like porn--in which the faithful prefer to indulge in the privacy of their own cellars. Anyway. Disc One features a nice, solid, rain-streaked 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that shows the wear of its origins (a Spanish/Italian production on minimal funds and with time and subject limitations) yet acquits itself quite nicely and is arguably more lustrous than the Anchor Bay presentation. A prolonged sequence shot in the dark towards the beginning of the film--an attack lit just by the strobe of an automatic flash--is impressively detailed. The accompanying DD 5.1 remix, sourced from a four-channel master (the first of its kind for the horror genre, I read somewhere, though I'm having trouble confirming it), makes decent use of the split-surrounds, although most of the information is still relegated to the front channels. A couple of trailers for the flick and a long image gallery (and a campily animated title menu) finish off the first platter.
Disc Two opens with a 20-minute interview with Grau ported over from the Anchor Bay DVD. Therein, the director talks about how he was enlisted to make "Night of the Living Dead...but in colour!"--something they tried to do quite literally with Tom Savini's unfortunate 1990 redux. He also touches on the casting of the first zombie, describing the actor's features as "rectilinear" and "disjointed"--which, to me, is probably something like the very definition of a backhanded compliment. Generally, it's the standard walk through the past lightly. I didn't much appreciate his broad diagnosis of what horror audiences want, much less the assertion that there's one "horror audience"--and the talk that horror audiences aren't very critical speaks to me of a weird variety of apologia. Another session with Grau (45 mins.), this one exclusive (as are the next two featurettes) to this set, finds our man revisiting locales around rural England where he filmed the picture, offering along the way his recollections of the shoot such as they are. Again, not that interesting, but I was sort of shocked to see how much he'd aged in just eight years. Equally flaccid is a 16-minute interview with star Lovelock, who reveals that he stumbled into a leading man career, however brief, upon being thrust into the spotlight after the real star of some backwater Spaghetti Western bowed out due to illness. What it does serve to do, though, is remind of how interesting a "Bollywood" was Italy during this period: recycling the American western and American slasher side-by-side, sometimes within the same film, yielded a product that was all its own.
A final vignette with F/X man Giannetto De Rossi (17 mins.) sees the barrel-voiced artist remembering his family's legacy as motion-picture makeup people. He recalls (and we're shown) some of his ace work on Lucio Fulci's Zombie (1979), at which point the piece segues into his collaboration with David Lynch on Dune. (As you'll recall, the prosthetic effects in Dune are fucking great.) With good humour, he bemoans that the only things people seem to remember are his gags from cult pictures. It's almost more a remembrance of Zombie, really, than of Manchester Morgue (you're not hearing me complaining); most gratifying is the bit where he says that without the budget for latex applications on Grau's film, he sculpted terra cotta clay to fit the actors' faces and then painted that. Wow. Am I right? He goes on to refer to the baddies in Morgue as "pretty" zombies, encapsulating fairly well in the process the mindset of the F/X ace. Of all the extras, this is the most indispensable. Originally published: May 27, 2008.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Blue Underground brings The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p presentation that's frankly one of their lesser efforts. I don't know how it registered on DVD but the title card, for starters, has an obvious computer-generated appearance (the use of After Effects ain't fooling anyone), while the image itself is inconsistent, looking weathered but attractively grainy one moment, pristine but filtered the next. I realize these Euro-cult titles tend to be stitched together from various elements, but the fickle application of DVNR only accentuates the seams and is of course superfluous besides. Colour and contrast are both exemplary, though, and I should note that the keepcase claims this transfer came from the camera negative. The accompanying audio, in not-dissimilar 7.1 DTS-HD and 5.1 Dolby Digital EX configurations, mainly adds low-end to the original mono mix (also on board) and broadens its dynamic range so that the dubbed dialogue, for example, sounds less squelched. I guess the DTS track is a little more transparent, which does in turn make it the most atmospheric option. All of the extras from BU's 2-Disc SE resurface here in standard definition. Originally published: November 2, 2009.