The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974)
Although the influence of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead is undeniable, the film didn't produce anywhere near the number of followers as its sequel, Dawn of the Dead. One of the few films that followed in Night of the Living Dead's zombified footsteps is Spanish filmmaker Jorge Grau's The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Inspired by Romero's unrelenting piece of work, Grau headed to the U.K. in order to make a film that his producers hoped would be little more than a colorized version of Night of the Living Dead. What the producers got instead was a film that stands on its own merits and now ranks among the subgenre's finest due to an intelligent screenplay, sharp cinematography, and shocking gore effects.
Before going into a plot synopsis, it seems important to note that the film's title is a bit of a misnomer. None of the undead action takes place in the city of Manchester, which may cause a bit of confusion, but like many genre pictures Grau's film was released to theaters, and later video, under a plethora of monikers. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is but one of its many titles. According to the Internet Movie Database the film's original title is Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti, which translates from Italian to English as Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead.
The story begins with George (Ray Lovelock), an antiques dealer from Manchester, becoming a traveling companion of a young woman named Edna (Cristina Galbo) who has damaged his motorbike at a service station. As the travelers set off for the peaceful confines of England's Lake District, a series of bizarre incidents lead them to realize they are trapped in the middle of a zombie outbreak. To make matters worse, a local police inspector (Arthur Kennedy) believes that George and Edna are the source of the incidents and begins a relentless persecution of the duo.
Although the screenplay by Sandro Continenza and Marcello Coscia borrows from Night of the Living Dead at times (the zombies' fear of fire) and features a few plot holes (the methods of reanimation), it is still an engaging story. Much like the narrative for Romero and John Russo's classic tale, Grau's film is also rich in subtext. This can be evidenced from the outset as George flees the city of Manchester beneath smog filled skies, surrounded by a population that has become numb to its daily existence. The living are portrayed as mindless zombies as they go about their day to day routines oblivious to their surroundings (at one point a woman running across the street naked is unnoticed) while the city suffocates beneath the weight of man's pollution. The screenwriters make their stance on pollution clear in this opening sequence, and will later use this stance to drive the film's narrative.
Once the story shifts to the Lake District two other plot strands take over: one involving scientific experimentation, the other the distrust of a generation which had been seeded by recent topical events. The scientific angle stems from a device the government's agricultural department has been using to control the local insect population in the fields surrounding the village of Windermere. This piece of machinery emits ultra-sonic radiation into the ground (i.e. pollution), which causes bothersome insects to turn on each other in a murderous frenzy thus decimating their numbers. The film's zombies represent the dangers presented by this reckless scientific experimentation as man's attempt to control nature takes an unforeseen turn for the worse.
The scientists behind these experiments fail to anticipate possible side effects, such as the dead returning to life, because in all honesty the mere thought sounds like pure science fiction. When George confronts the technicians in the field with the possibility of re-animation, they use the fact that they are unaffected to provide rationalization for their disbelief. "Do I look like I'm about to attack you... and I'm surrounded by radiation," one of them states, failing to grasp the implications of the situation.
The second plot strand concerns the inter-generational conflict between the Inspector and the two protagonists. This aspect of the film holds deeper significance when one considers the post-Manson world in which the film is set. Following the grisly Tate-LaBianca slayings of 1969, the peace and love counterculture, which was already reviled by many for what was considered to be low moralistic values had become reduced to a generation of drug addled thrill killers in the eyes of the general public. A majority of this public hysteria can be blamed on the sensationalistic, worldwide media coverage of the family's subsequent trial which created an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. This, in effect, made life for anyone fitting the "hippie" stereotype all the more difficult.
Grau's film does an excellent job of conveying this societal bigotry by casting Inspector McCormick as a narrow minded, right-wing fascist who displays a complete disdain for those of a younger generation. This is made clear through dialogue as he spouts lines such as "You're all the same the lot of you, with your long hair and f**got clothes, drugs, sex, and every sort of filth". His persecution of George and Edna (whom he is convinced are murderers) is unjustified and stems more from his disapproval of their leftist leanings than from any solid evidence proving their guilt. By focusing exclusively on George and Edna, McCormick blinds himself to the fact that the dead have risen until it's too late.
Another key element of interest within this plot strand concerns the Inspector's accusations that George and Edna are Satanists, a timely use of topical anxieties on Grau's part. As religious values had fallen by the wayside during the free love era of the 1960s, Satanism had become an in vogue alternative to the confines of standard religious practices thanks in large part to its "Do what thou wilt" philosophies. This rise in popularity can be evidenced during the latter half of the decade as Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby was a hit at the box office, The Rolling Stones were singing of "Sympathy for the Devil," and Anton LaVey had formed the Church of Satan which led to the release of his book The Satanic Bible. By the time The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue went into production it appeared as if the devil was everywhere and Grau uses the societal anxiety arising from this new ubiquity effectively. For instance, the Inspector's suspicions of Satanism are aroused upon finding burned bodies and destroyed tombstones at the scene where a police officer has been found murdered. Later, his "Satanic panic" intensifies when he finds odd-looking statues in George's traveling bag during an interrogation. When faced with these allegations George responds, "Look, it's not my fault sergeant if Christ and saints are out of fashion, and it's not against the law yet, so why don't you get off my back," a line of dialogue which reflects the youth cultures interest in, if not necessarily worship of, alternative religious figures.
Aside from the benefits of an involving screenplay, the film also features the presence of veteran Spanish cinematographer Francesco Sempere. Sempere had worked on numerous feature films by the time Grau hired him to work on The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, and his talent is evident throughout. Whether he is shooting the lush green hills of the films Derbyshire, England locations or filming within the confines of a half-lit crypt, Sempere's photography is always crisp with vivid color details. He also displays a firm grasp of technique and angles which allows the film to have a fluid visual style, even during the films more frightening moments. For example, the first appearance of Guthrie, a zombified tramp, starts with a wide shot of a flowing stream and then shifts to a perspective view shown through the tramps eyes. The camera then zooms in on Edna's frightened facial reaction, only to shift back to a wide shot of the tramp stumbling through a field, which is followed by a close up of his blood red eyes.
The visuals provided by Sempere, in scenes such as the tramps arrival, are aided by a chilling score courtesy of Gulliano Sorgini. Although the soundtrack is short on musical arrangements, Sorgini creates a unsettling atmosphere through the use of minimalistic, experimental sounds. This bleak sound scape features recurring sounds such as whistling winds that signal the approaching danger presented by the undead, low guttural moans which accentuate the dead's shambling movements, and the hum of machinery signifying the use of the agricultural device. This use of dissonant sounds plays an important part in establishing the film's tension, and Sorgini delivers in remarkable style.
Any self-respecting fan of the sub-genre understands the importance of effects work, and this is another area where The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue does not disappoint. Master Italian makeup/effects artist Giannetto De Rossi (Zombi 2, The Beyond) provides the carnage which anticipates his country's infatuation with splatter that would reach its zenith in the early 1980s. Although the zombies here are of the recently deceased variety, lacking the usual decay associated with the undead, this by no means lessens the impact of De Rossi's work as organs are devoured and flesh is ripped, in a grisly, realistic fashion. His immense talents for visual trickery and latex appliances supply the film with ample amounts of grotesque imagery that will leave even the most ardent gore hound satisfied. The film's blood-soaked, climactic hospital scenes are perfect examples of the visceral undead mayhem that would become commonplace post-Night of the Living Dead.
Like Romero's groundbreaking debut, Jorge Grau's The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is much more than a simple yarn concerning the undead. Grau's film also serves as a cautionary tale that warns against the dangers of pollution, bigotry, and unchecked scientific progress that is just as relevant today as it was in 1974. This fact, combined with the talents of the films multinational crew are the primary reasons that The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is now considered one of zombie cinema's all-time classics.