Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974)

Grau's zombies show a little gumption

I've been a fan of zombie films ever since I first saw the original Night of the Living Dead years and years ago.  Since then I've watched too many to count.  Especially in the last few years since 28 Days Later the big and small screen have been so flooded with zombies that even an aficionado like myself can't keep up.  But I keep trying.  The sub-genre, at its best, can provide some of the best thrills that horror film has to offer, so I'm perfectly willing to wade through the swill to find the good stuff.  And let me tell you, friends, I found the good stuff tonight.  The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (AKA Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) is, in my not particularly humble opinion, the best zombie film not directed by George Romero or Lucio Fulci.

Ray Lovelock (Murder Rock) plays George, a Manchester hippie heading out to the countryside for a few days of peace and quiet.  When he stops for gas his motorcycle is rear-ended by Edna (the beautiful Cristina Galbó, star of one of my all-time favorite giallos What Have You Done to Solange?)  His bike out of commission until a new wheel can be sent in from Glasgow, he decides that Edna owes him a ride the rest of the way, and so off they go.

Cristina Galbó as Edna

Along the way they come across...the machine.  As far as explanations for zombieism go, this has to be one of the kookiest.  The Ministry of Agriculture is testing out a new form of alternative pest control which uses ultra-sonic radiation to induce insects to kill each other (so far so good, in fact given recent news, vaguely plausible as far as horror film tech goes.)  But while this was shown in testing to work only on primitive nervous systems, it seems that humans nervous systems are primitive enough to be affected when they're recently deceased (or when...well, I don't want to spoil that surprise.)  So yeah, that's kind of silly, but if you're watching zombie films for their scientific plausibility I don't know what to tell you.

Such an ecological theme is hardly novel in zombie movies, or horror films more generally, even in 1974 when this film was made.  But whereas often the theme is a gimmick that receives mere lip service in the pursuit of easy thrills, Grau treats it with a grave solemnity that provides thematic resonance to the atmosphere of dread which pervades the film.  Long before the first zombie shambles to life, the opening scenes depict Manchester as a diseased and dying town, chocking in its own exhaust.

Director Jorge Grau adds an exciting wrinkle to the standard issue zombie plot.  At this point in the zombie apocalypse the stumbling dead are few enough in number that they're only causing localized chaos.  That means that when the police find George and Edna near the body of the first victim, they're understandably unimpressed with tales of cannibalistic monsters and jump to the more reasonable conclusion that they've found a pair of drug-addicted loons.  Consequently, our heroes find themselves on the run from both the dead and the cops.

Throughout the movie Grau combines terrific atmosphere and remarkable gore effects with stunning results.  The green rolling hills of the British (ok, technically Italian) countryside are not the obvious choice for setting a zombie movie, but in addition to being picturesque they create a palpable sense of isolation.  Moreover, Grau makes wonderful use of darkness and fog with some pretty great cinematography.  But the gore effects are really something special.  Even nearly forty years after the fact, this jaded horror fan was shocked by some of the scenes in this movie -- the effects are better than anything Romero and Savini pulled off in Dawn of the Dead four years later.  Indeed this was one of the UK's infamous "Video Nasties" and didn't receive an uncut video release in that country until 2002.

Grau makes great use of churches and cemeteries for Gothic atmosphere

The acting is mostly quite good, well above average for this kind of film.  Arthur Kennedy, as the inspector is particularly good.  The political undertones of Grau's film are embodied in the difference between young hip George and the brutal, conservative inspector.  It's interesting to note that such a character could have been the hero of any number of poliziotteschi films (take no prisoner "tough cop" movies inspired by Dirty Harry, which were all the vogue in Italy in the 1970's), whereas here the same characteristics glorified in those movies make Kennedy's inspector the antagonist of this film.  I don't know whether Grau intended the role as a commentary on those films, or on the Franco regime in his home country of Spain, but in either case Kennedy takes what could have been a one-note screeching villain and creates a fully realized character.  The Inspector is bigoted and quick to violence, but in Kennedy's hands it is clear that he is a human being motivated by principles, however misguided.  Grau notes, in an interview published in Jay Slater's essential volume Eaten Alive: Italian Cannibal and Zombie Movies, that "[he] took the job for purely professional reasons, almost mercenary...But when he met me he realised that it wasn't any old film, that for me every scene was important, and that awoke in him the reflexes of a man of the theater, a man full of love for his profession."
Zombie films have gotten bigger and flashier in the intervening years, but they've rarely been better.  Even fewer have captured the overwhelming atmosphere of dread -- the utter implacability of fate.  As horror fans we end up sitting through so much dreck that it's easy to forget why we bother.  But this...this is why.

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