Ed. note- The counterculture is alive and well, and undead as well! in THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE. Enjoy this review as part of Monday at the Morgue.- P.F.
The counterculture has an important role in film history. From the gangster flicks of the 1930s, up through EASY RIDER and HEATHERS, movies have offered audiences a glimpse of those who don’t quite fit in society. The audience can sympathize with the anti-hero, because his howl in the night, leveled at those in charge, is justified. it’s an intriguing concept: Authority harms those it is supposed to protect. Left in a world so far flung from sanity, he who rages against the machine is the only sane one. Such is the case in Jorge Grau’s THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE, which could have been another throwaway monster movie, but had ambitions to become so much more.
The movie starts in London, as hippie George is headed out of his antique shop for a holiday in the country. Instantly, Grau sets up a world of contrast. He cuts back and forth between scenes of a crowded London street to the pastoral country, rolling hills with green trees and lush grass. Intercut between these are at least a dozen shots of fog and smoke, pouring from all corners of London and everywhere in between. A dead bird lies in a gutter. Clearly we are looking at two contrasting worlds here. George is abandoning one for the other, on his motorcycle, the perfect vehicle to symbolize the counterculture. As a representative of the counterculture, he wants to return to the natural world, and escape the burdens of the industrial world.
When George stops at a gas station, Edna backs over his motorcycle. When he finds out he won’t get his ride back until Monday, he commandeers Edna’s car. The two travel to Southgate, which takes George far out of his way. While stopped to ask for directions, George discovers a new agricultural machine, sent by the government, that works on the nervous systems of insects and parasites, forcing them to kill each other. While he’s away, a soaked vagrant attacks Edna in her car. When they arrive at Edna’s sister’s house, they find that the same vagrant, who died a week ago, has attacked and killed Edna’s brother-in-law. Thus begins a confrontation with the police, and even worse, the one the title refers to.
Along the way, Grau creates a terrifying atmosphere. The music is a funereal mix of synthesizer strains and odd breathing sounds, that awares the audience of danger even when none would seem to exist. His use of set pieces furthers the dark tone: a night attack on Edna’s sister’s house, illuminated by a flash bulb; the quiet, sterile hospital played against the living dead and their cannibalistic habits; even the mortuary truck, which is no mere hearse, but a full sized delivery truck into which the coffins slide like cans of soda in a dispenser. The best setting is definitely the rustic mausoleum. Entombing George and Edna with a half dozen zombies would seem typical for a horror movie, but Grau brings great scares to the scene. The claustrophobic tomb, low lit by candles, is a terrifying place. The zombies themselves are frightening, with their blood red eyes and wheezing breath. They follow the Romero paradigm, but Grau manages to give them some interesting twists.
Also like Romero’s Dead series, the flick delivers on the gore. Though it predates DAWN OF THE DEAD by a few years, it sports plenty of organ tearing, gut munching and blood soaking. The effects are powerful, making use of an autopsied body sewn up the middle of its torso, water logged Guthrie and all those corpses in the mausoleum. All of it looks realistic, and it could go toe-for-toe with Tom Savini’s work in DAWN.
Grau also creates great conflict between George and Sergeant McCormick, and Ray Lovelock and Arthur Kennedy do a great job of torquing up the tension. George is kind of a dick throughout the movie, but not without reason. He shouldn’t be here, but now he’s forced to face the horrors that lie ahead. McCormick, however, is truly mean spirited and unbending. In the face of every evidence, McCormick refuses to believe any theory other than the one that he has created: that George, Edna and her sister Katie have killed Katie’s husband. He’s from the old school, and will never believe that the leather bound, long haired George, a clear cut member of the counterculture, could be anything but a threat to the old fashioned values he holds so dear. Ironically, his misuse of authority will bring death and undeath to those he is supposed to protect. McCormick’s adherence to cultural norms make the zombie a fitting choice of monster for the film. Because when you look at them, zombies are a perfect example of the counterculture. Cultural norms dictate that, as George of all people states, the dead stay dead. The very existence of the zombie strikes against society and its rules.
If there’s one strike against the flick, it’s the dubbing. Ray Lovelock puts on a great performance as the outsider with heart, but his voice is awful. Same goes for Cristina Galbo. It can get distracting at times, but it doesn’t really damage the flick so much as take me out of it if I pay too much attention. Fortunately, Arthur Kennedy’s voice is left as is. There’s also a plot point about how the zombies don’t show up on film, which is a neat idea, but it’s dropped pretty quickly. I’d have liked to see more of this plot thread.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the film also goes under the title LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE; which is not only a terribly inferior name, but also makes Grau’s film a member of the Horror Movie Relocation Program.
With THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE, Grau created a masterpiece that, sadly, not many horror fans I talk with have seen. Somewhere between Romero and Fulci, it fell into the cracks. If you like zombie flicks, I advise you to check it out. It’s a great flick, my favorite among those not made on U.S. soil, and it deserves to be seen.