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The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974)
17th May 04
George, a ‘hippy’ antiques dealer and Edna, a ‘ginger’ woman fight against provincial rural zombies and fascist police in the English countryside…
This beauty of a film has to be seen to be believed. It is obvious from quite early on in the film that this zombie movie is a cut above the rest. It is well shot, with inventive and brilliant use of sound. The story revolves around George and Edna (who meet each other when Edna accidentally knocks his motorcycle over at a petrol station George leaves his bike at the garage for repairs over the weekend. He says to the garage attendant, “See you Monday then. And don’t bugger me about.”).
George has business and pleasure with friends in the local town of Windermere, and Edna is on her way to visit her sister who is ill. Basically, nothing goes according to plan and Edna is the first to be attacked by ‘Guthrie’ the local drunk, who we find out later has been dead for days. George is falling heavily under suspicion of the local police Inspector for the mayhem being caused by the undead. The police inspector is played by Arthur Kennedy, and his character plays a prominent role in the film, mostly that of a Class ‘A’ bastard. His character is a bigoted, small-minded asshole, who is angry at the world. Interestingly, when Kennedy arrived for his few days shooting, Grau realised that this once popular actor was by that time “a man in descent”. Once a respectable Hollywood actor, he had fallen on harder times by 1974. He was the ‘international name’ in TLDATMM. Grau therefore imbued his character with a sense of anger and frustration that he never reached his aspirations or achieved his goals in life, which he felt corresponded to Kennedy’s own situation at the time, and he “took advantage of a certain amount of resentment”. And it works! As a viewer you have to loathe this Inspector. Not only is he police, but the worst kind of police - the type who hits his innocent suspects, who will not listen to alternatives different from his own opinions, who generalises about anyone with longer hair than him, and who says things like “Don’t get hysterical!”, right after he gets...hysterical. What an absolute shit.
The script is amusing much of the time. This is an Italian / Spanish production, set in England, and therefore the dubbed voice work is really funny in its attempt at sounding provincially English. Just check out the men who operate the pesticide machine saying things like, “Eyyyyyy….ye did it!”. George’s character has got to be the best in this respect – he’s a cockney smart arse, and a bit of a cad, so we are immediately drawn to him, not least when he talks: For example, “Yes….you look a little like an Edna”, or, “I’m going to fix that BLOODY MACHINE!”, or when he’s desperately trying to make the Inspector see sense: “It was the corpses! THE CORPSES! You…you bloody idiot!” (Slap! Fascist copper gets out of hand). We like George a lot, and we don’t want to see him being bullied by the oppressive copper. We want justice, and that’s exactly what we get in the end.
The music in TLDATMM is top drawer. In fact, the use of sound, in the broadest sense, is excellent. Grau wanted to give the film its own sonic landscape; this is significant in that the cause for the zombies rising up is that of sound, or ultrasonic radiation. He wanted “the sound of the dead” to permeate the atmosphere of the piece and tells of watching his father die, and hearing that last breath. He never forgot that and used a similar “aaaahhhh” sound, slowed down, as a major component for the soundtrack of this film. The viewer may also notice a very strange distorted frequency underwater sound in the background too, which is basically there to highlight the Guthrie zombie, who always appears in wet clothing, i.e. the way he was when he died (he drowned). In fact, all the zombies in this film appear in the state they were when they died, but most noticeably, Guthrie, the most menacing of the TLDATMM zombies, played with perfection by Fernando Hillbeck.
Which brings me onto the all-important component of the zombie film – THE ZOMBIES! Grau’s zombies are pretty damn good. They’re not the slowest shufflers, and the make-up department has generally avoided overdoing it. They look pale and pretty scary, and have enough rudimentary intelligence to work together to operate a battering-ram during the church scene. We have to understand here that this was shot in 1973, a mere 5 years after Night of the Living Dead. Grau did not have a lot to work off in terms of zombie films, therefore the fact that he made something this accomplished is nothing short of remarkable. During the hospital siege-finale we get what is one of the scariest zombie attacks ever. The doctor and Edna are running towards the elevator, then there is a POV shot from inside the elevator as it rises to their level, and it is from THIS rising perspective we see that behind them, about four zombies are walking extremely fast towards them, about to attack. It is just one of those classic horrifying moments not to be forgotten. This is a most effective ploy to use as a storyteller in horror films; letting the audience know that these characters are in mortal danger without the characters themselves knowing. Ah, the old ones are the best…
A quick word about gore content - the gore quota does not become ridiculously excessive anywhere, although there is enough to keep the enthusiasts happy. The carnage is there; we see it, but Grau does not linger on this aspect of the film, and instead is keen to push the plot forward with great flair. The point, I feel, with this film, is that Grau does not need to show us overabundant gore. This man is no Lucio Fulci – he has ideas and reasons for doing what he does, well thought-out approaches and ideologies that surpass the intelligence of Italian gore masters like Deoddato, Fulci, Mattei et al.
The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is a special film; one of a kind. It has clear intellect behind its concepts. Not only is it easily in the Top 10 zombie movies ever, it really has something else to offer in terms of locations, realistic storytelling techniques, innovational use of sound, and hateful coppers with nondescript Gaelic accents who get their comeuppance in the end. That really is the tip of the iceberg. To give too much away is oh, so tempting, but very wrong. Buy the Anchor Bay DVD for a real treat.
Versions Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue (1974)
Don't Open the Window (1974) (USA)
Fin de semana para los muertos (1974) (Spain) (working title)
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) (USA)
Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, The (1974) (UK)
No profanar el sueño de los muertos (1975) (Spain)
Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
Zombi 3 (Da dove vieni?) (1974) (Italy)