The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue: 2-Disc Special Edition

The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue: 2-Disc Special Edition (1974)
Blue Underground
Cast: Ray Lovelock, Christine Galbo, Arthur Kennedy
Extras: Featurettes, Trailers, TV Spot, Radio Spots, Still Gallery

. . . or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Live Without My Motorcycle." That's right, Spanish director Jorge Grau's 1974 homage-cum-sequel to George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" works not only as an allegorical indictment of environmental pollution but also as a cautionary tale of the consequences men face when they lose their hierarchical power to the carelessness of women. I kid, of course, but it's always fun to see how much you can read into a zombie film, and this one is certainly inviting. "The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue," a low-budget, Spanish/Italian co-production, has developed a strong cult following throughout its fascinating history. Released around the world under a variety of titles (including both "Don't Open the Window" and "Let Sleeping Corpses Lie" in the United States), the film spooked audiences with its disquieting atmosphere and gory violence, and while it is not the groundbreaking work that Romero's masterpiece was, it benefits greatly from stylish direction and an earnestness not found in later attempts to exploit the subgenre.

The story is kicked off when George (Ray Lovelock), a London art dealer, drives out to the country for a weekend holiday. While parked at a gas station, his motorcycle is backed over by another motorist. Edna (Christine Galbo), the nervous driver, offers to pay for the damage and reluctantly agrees to drive him to his destination as his bike will be in the shop for the rest of the weekend. Eager to reach her sister's home before dark, she convinces him to drop her off first and then take her car to his country house. It isn't long before they have a bizarre encounter while stopped to ask directions. Waiting by the car, Edna is confronted by a strange man from the cemetery (whose stilted walk and red eyes immediately clue us in that he is a zombie). He is gone by the time George and the locals return, and they dismiss Edna's story.

The zombie turns up again, however, at the home of Edna's sister, Katie (Jeannine Mestre), a heroin addict who is being sent to a rehab center by her husband, Martin (Jose Ruiz Lifante). The zombie kills Martin, but once again disappears before George and Edna arrive. With no trace of the killer left, the police suspect Katie of the murder because of her addiction. The hardnosed police sergeant in charge of the case (Arthur Kennedy) is especially convinced that all three of the young protagonists were involved in the murder. As the zombie invasion increases and more people turn up dead, the sergeant keeps George and Edna on constant watch, believing that they are part of a satanic cult that is responsible for the killing spree.

Like Romero's zombie films, this one ties the resurrection of the dead to very pertinent sociopolitical issues. During the opening credits, as George makes his way out of the busy city, the camera observes pedestrians and cyclists as they cover their faces with handkerchiefs and scarves. A dead bird is shown lying in the street. Exhaust fumes are emitted from the bustle of cars and city buses. Jorge Grau draws immediate attention to the pollution that plagues contemporary society. Later, while Edna has her first zombie encounter, George is introduced to a new agricultural machine designed to destroy pests by sending radioactive waves into the ground. George eventually realizes that it is the radiation from this machine that is bringing the dead back to life, but his attempts to explain this are futile, especially since the police refuse to believe there are zombies in the first place.

Further political and social undertones are brought out in the generational gap between the police and the young heroes. With George's shaggy appearance and environmental concerns and Katie's drug habit, they embody everything that the older sergeant despises about the youth culture of the 1970s. It is not surprising, then, that the sergeant is depicted as the main villain, whose blindness to the reality around him and refusal to connect with the younger generation sustain the zombie invasion. Quick on the draw and violent in nature, he is the ultimate conservative square.

The relationship between George and Edna is an equally interesting, though more understated, element of the film. Initially brought together by her reckless driving (what is it about zombie movies and women driving?), the two grow closer and more intimate as they are consistently confronted by impending death. It is almost the reverse of a typical romantic comedy meet-cute. It is rather funny, though, how George becomes the subject of constant abuse and humiliation throughout the course of the film, and all because his motorcycle (an obvious phallic symbol) was totaled by Edna. I could go on about the Freudian implications, but this is really just to point out the unending levels to which zombie films can be interpreted and analyzed.

While all of this lends the movie a welcome depth, Grau does not cheat the audience out of the expected zombie thrills. There is plenty of flesh-ripping, eyeball-munching, and disemboweling to satisfy gorehounds' cravings. Happily, Grau delivers the gore with a certain amount of restraint, never allowing the violence to overwhelm the film and building up a good amount of suspense between attacks. To be sure, some of the makeup effects are a bit dated now and can inspire some laughter rather than the intended screams, but there is enough of a gross factor to arouse the appropriate response from viewers. Perhaps the most impressive technical aspect of the film is the sound. The zombies give off a distinct wheezing that is interweaved throughout the film, even in the music, for a truly unnerving effect. Paired with the tranquil atmosphere of the English and Italian locations, the twisted effects acquire an even more disturbing nature.

"The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue" has previously been released on DVD under the title "Let Sleeping Corpses Lie" by both Anchor Bay and Blue Underground. Blue Underground has now delivered a 2-Disc Special Edition with a nice array of new supplements. According the blurb on the back of the package, the film has been "fully restored and remastered in high definition from the original camera negative." The transfer does indeed look great in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen. Mind you, the film was produced on a minimal budget, and the visual quality will never be slick, but this transfer is definitely impressive. Black levels are rich and deep, perfectly accentuating the night scenes. Colors pop brightly, particularly the red of the radiation machine (highly appropriate) and the zombie eyes. There is a smattering of flecks here and there, but the picture is surprisingly clean. Some grain is evident as well, but that is to be expected and is never distracting. The image is also a bit dark, once again owing to the low production values, but it actually works with the somewhat cold, English atmosphere.

Three audio tracks are available, starting with a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track. Naturally, the sound elements are limited, but this track does a nice job sending the bass to the rear channels while the majority of the sound is concentrated in front. The memorable wheezing sounds are given an eerie reverberation. A 2.0 stereo track is serviceable, but purists will be pleased that Blue Underground has also provided the original Mono soundtrack. All of these tracks are in English, by the way, as English actors dubbed over the mostly Spanish and Italian cast (not always effectively).

The first disc in this set contains a number of promotional features that are carried over from Anchor Bay's Limited Edition set from 2000. First, director Jorge Grau provides a very brief introduction before the film. We are also treated to an international trailer, as well as a U.S. trailer, TV spot, and radio spots (all advertising the film as "Don't Open the Window"). The radio spots are played over a montage of print ads using the same title. These are followed by a poster and still gallery, showcasing the film's various (and sometimes unbelievable) release titles.

The second disc houses all of the new features, starting with a 45-minute location featurette, "Back to the Morgue." Grau tours the locations of the film shoot with journalist Gian Luca Castoldi. All of the locations appear remarkably unchanged, but it is the ongoing conversation about the film between Grau and Castoldi that really drives this feature. Grau discusses many aspects, including the multiple titles, the mild uproar from Manchester villagers over suspected desecration of the local cemetery, and American actor Arthur Kennedy's drunken behavior.

Up next is "Zombie Fighter," a 16-minute interview with lead actor Ray Lovelock. He discusses his career in general in addition to his role in the film. He obviously has fond memories of the production, even though he apparently has a distaste for horror movies.

Makeup effects artist Giannetto De Rossi sits down for a 17-minute interview in "Zombie Maker." Best known for his work on Lucio Fulci's cult favorite "Zombi 2," De Rossi explains how the effects of this film were created. He also discusses his filmography, which includes such diverse works as Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" and David Lynch's "Dune."

The last feature on this disc is a 20-minute interview with Grau that was carried over from Anchor Bay's release. Once again, Grau provides some insightful information, particularly on the film's origins. All of the interviews on this DVD come with removable English subtitles.

"The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue" is quite a surprise, delivering on the gore we have come to expect from zombie movies and following in George Romero's tradition of using the undead as metaphors for social and political concerns. This is sophisticated storytelling from a director who understands how to suspend the tension without going overboard on blood and carnage. The cult reputation built up over the years is understandable, and more than anything, this is a smart and entertaining film that has everything we love about the living dead.