George Romero reinvented the zombie film in 1968 with Night Of The Living Dead, replacing gothic atmosphere and voodoo elements with science, shocking violence and dark commentary on the human condition. Ten years later he’d revisit the genre with Dawn Of The Dead, expanding the scope, commentary and the intensity of the gruesomeness. Lucio Fulci would key in on the hopelessness of the former and grue of the latter with Zombie, sparking a series of post-Dawn zombie flicks that would set the subgenre’s tone on an international scale at least until 28 Days Later.
But what happened during that decade between the Night and the Dawn? Students of zombie horror know that plenty happened. There are many memorable films that carved out their own corners of the Romero zombie sandbox, including Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, Messiah Of Evil, Sugar Hill and Shock Waves.
That said, the key zombie film to emerge from this era was a Spanish/Italian co-production called The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue. It played internationally under many alternate titles, including Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and Don’t Open The Window. In retrospect, it’s the most fascinating of the films of that “between Night and Dawn” period because it takes the template Romero provided with Night Of The Living Dead and builds in its own interests and innovations to create something that sets the tone for the post-Dawn wave of splattery, doomy zombie flicks.
The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue begins with antiques dealer George (Ray Lovelock) fleeing the polluted, overcrowded city for a weekend in the country. His plans are immediately derailed when his motorcycle is damaged by errant motorist Edna (Cristina Galbo), who has gone to the country to see her troubled sister Katie (Jeannine Mestre). George is reluctantly drawn into Edna’s situation only to find further trouble when Katie’s husband is brutally killed by a mystery assailant.
Edna and George become persons of interest for the power-tripping local inspector (Arthur Kennedy). George quickly realizes he’ll need to find the mystery killer himself. While evading the cops, he discovers that local experiments with a sonic-powered instrument to kill parasites are causing disturbances that affect newborn infants in the local hospital. There are also mysterious happenings going on near the local graveyard, suggesting that the dead might be becoming undead…
A knowledgeable horror fan can easily track the similarities between The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue and Night Of The Living Dead: a male hero who struggles against ignorance, a female hero who descends into catatonia, undead attackers driven by cannibalistic urges, a scientific explanation for the zombies and an ending that is as ironic as it is bleak.
However, The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue avoids feeling like a Romero clone because it adds its own unique elements. The plotting opens up the action to encompass multiple locations: zombie attacks happen near a waterfall, at a church and in a hospital. It also plays up the scientific end of its premise, aligning it with the “revenge of nature” cycle of ’70s sci-fi/horror and allowing it to weave in a theme of how reckless scientific experimentation is another, more dangerous form of pollution.
Similarly, The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue adds in a new theme of its own about law enforcement having a repressive, reactionary approach towards rebels and other outsiders. The Inspector immediately treats George and Edna as though they were innocent until proven guilty, pushing ridiculous theories of drug addiction and Satanism as he seethes with animosity towards the irreverent George. His need for dominance of the unknown blinds him to the real horrors developing around him, making him a perfect non-supernatural villain for a ’70s horror.
The film also differentiates itself from Night Of The Living Dead with a distinctly European style that brings back some of the gothic touches that its American counterpart jettisons. Grau goes for atmosphere rather than visual theatrics, using the lush English countryside as an ironic backdrop for his creeping horrors and building an ominous mood through effective manipulation of sound design, blending everything from electronic white noise to tape-manipulated voices to avant-garde rock scoring into an ever-pulsating soundscape that curdles alongside the storyline. His zombies have a very European mood, creepy in a methodical way, and he throws in the occasional unique bit like a zombie reviving other corpses by daubing fresh blood on their eyelids.
Grau also shows a pioneering touch in how he handles the zombie carnage. He gradually builds to his shocks, most of them happening in the second half, but they pack a punch when they arrive. He takes the cannibalistic attacks first shown in Night Of The Living Dead and reinterprets them in full Euro-gothic color, taking the viciousness and the anatomically graphic element to a new height that predicts the work of Fulci and his celluloid followers. It’s worth noting the film has two direct connections to Fulci – the wince-inducing makeup FX were created by Gianetto De Rossi and the film’s sharp editing was handled by Vincenzo Tomassi, both of whom would be key collaborators to Fulci during his 1979-1982 shock-horror renaissance.
It’s also worth noting that the performances are really strong here. Lovelock enjoys what is perhaps the most interesting character of his career as George: he begins the film as an acerbic loner but gradually reconnects with his humanity as the world falls apart around him. Lovelock handles both the wit and the drama with aplomb, creating a complex hero who we come to care about. Galbo makes an interesting counterpart to his work, playing a likeable woman under pressure whose sanity is dismantled by the never-ending horrors she faces. Anyone who has seen Galbo in the classic The House That Screamed knows she could convey psychological trauma with vivid skill and that ability gets a workout here.
Finally, Kennedy steals many a scene as the grizzled, mean-spirited main cop of the film. He did a lot of poliziotteschi around this time and this character as interesting funhouse mirror version of the by-the-book, socially conscious chief he played in The Tough Ones. Kennedy gets to be the “might makes right” type here and he brings a lived-in nastiness to this petty, arrogant character.
In short, The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue is much more than another zombie flick. It represents a fascinating middle point between the subgenre’s Romero-driven reinvention and the grim, brutal afterlife it experienced after Dawn Of The Dead. It delivers the shocks and atmosphere that genre fans expect but also has an artistry and unique attributes that make it worth repeat viewings. As such, it’s required viewing for students of the zombie film.
Blu-Ray Notes: This title has had a long life on digital-era home video, including releases from Anchor Bay and Blue Underground, but it has most recently been distributed by Synapse. It was initially released as a steelbook edition, complete with bonus DVD and soundtrack CD, and is now available in a standard edition release with just the blu-ray. In either edition, it boasts a fantastic new remaster, including both original mono and new 5.1 stereo mixes, and looks and sounds dazzling. Keep an eye out for a review of the standard edition blu-ray here at Schlockmania soon.