The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974)
When a series of violent murders take place in a quiet English town, the local police detective believes it to be the work of Satanists and narrows his investigation towards a pair of young newcomers to the town. But in reality, the murders are being committed by zombies, brought to life by an experimental pesticide which uses ultrasonic radiation.
Potentially one of the most underrated zombie films of all time and predating the gruesome and colourful flesh-ripping antics of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead by a good four years, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue surely wins the award for the hands-down strangest title concocted. Like many a foreign horror flick (this one being a Spanish production) the film has as many ridiculous aliases as it has running minutes but you’ll either see it as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie or the title I saw it under for this review. Owing a great deal to Night of the Living Dead, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is possibly one of the first zombie films to show the potential carnage of being ripped apart from undead ghouls in glorious Technicolour. It was one of the films on the UK's 'Video Nasty' list of the 80s and though not being outright banned from release, it was still listed as a Section 2 title, meaning the police could seize copies of it. As I've said in a few reviews of these Video Nasties, it was rereleased completely uncut in the UK in 2002 - a marked sign of how far we've come to tolerate horror films.
The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue starts off slowly, not really hinting at any real reason why it should have been on the list. It takes just under the first half to get going, opting to go down the standard mystery-thriller route which you could see on any TV detective drama. The odd zombie pops up here and there to remind us that it is a horror film after all but its not until the main characters realise that there are zombies on the prowl that the film finally picks up pace. The gear shift is sudden and the characters soon find themselves doing what all great human characters do in the midst of a zombie onslaught – barricade themselves in somewhere, this time a church. They’re not for long before they head off to the morgue of the title for another showdown and it all moves quickly from here onwards.
Whilst I'm usually critical of slow-burners, I'm usually critical because the slow-burn is because the script is weak and there's nothing to do until the action kicks in. That isn't the case here, as The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue does what many a zombie film fails to do and that is build strong, believable characters that the audience can sympathise with. There are anti-authoritarian and anti-political overtones emanating from the script as the two young newcomers George and Edna, hippy-like in appearance, are blamed for everything by the brash local detective who hates all of their ‘kind.’ Both Ray Lovelock and Christine Galbo are great in their respective roles with Arthur Kennedy being brilliant foil as the arrogant and aggressive detective, stealing the film with lines like “I wish the dead could come back to life, you bastard, so then I could kill you again.” Through Kennedy’s harsh treatment of the duo, and lest we forget the zombies, the duo are put through the ringer in the film and we’re on their side every step on the way. But we're with them because we've grown attached to them in the first half of the film.
As well as developing the main characters, The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue also takes time to build a brilliantly unnerving atmosphere lurking just under the surface, in no small part due to the fantastic cinematography in the gloomy British countryside. There is something unsettling about everything and the way in which Frau manipulates the camera to trick you into thinking that things are lurking in the background or just off-screen is the stuff of nightmares. Sound is also used to great effect too, with the radiation machines emitting a weird noise and the zombies themselves shuffling along with a unique heavy wheezing and breathing. These are the tools of how to make an effective horror film and they’re used well to craft the mood and build suspense. Grau makes sure that all of his pieces are in place ready to kick on.
Like all good films, there's no point in putting in all of this effort if there is no pay-off so thankfully The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue really kicks on in the second half once the zombies start wreaking havoc. They're not your traditional ones here, instead they are are smart and hard to kill. They hide when needed, use various objects to smash through doors and don’t die from the usual bullet to the head routine. There's no more than a handful on-screen at any time; quality is the key to their fear factor here rather than sheer numbers. Some of the set pieces are intensely claustrophobic; one inside a crypt emphasises the horror of the situation rather the carnage on show. The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue isn’t all about the gore but for 1974, there is some horrific stuff in here, particularly the scene in which an unlucky nurse is literally ripped apart by three zombies who burst in on her. It’s something that the Godfather of Gore, Lucio Fulci, would have been proud of let alone Tom Savini. The fact that it’s all in graphic colour a lot earlier than Dawn of the Dead should have cemented this film's place as one of the great zombie films of its generation.
The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue takes a while to get going and lacks the scope of the apocalyptic feel that Romero's classics have. But there is a real moody atmosphere to it and the film is downright creepy at times, not to mention gory. This is great old school horror film making which gets right underneath your skin before delivering its knockout blows.
The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue
Also Known As: Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
Director(s): Jorge Grau
Writer(s): Sandro Continenza, Marcello Coscia
Actor(s): Cristina Galbó, Ray Lovelock, Arthur Kennedy, Aldo Massasso, Giorgio Trestini, Roberto Posse, José Lifante
Duration: 95 mins