Friday, October 23, 2009

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue: One Scary Trip to the Country

Any horror movie that turns placid natural surroundings into a garden of fetid, horrific menace earns major props from this corner. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue manages that rare hat trick, and much more.

It first surfaced in theaters in 1974 under about a dozen different alternate titles--Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Don't Open the Window, Breakfast at Manchester Morgue, and a few others. Such chronic retitling usually signals a stinker, but The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue couldn't be further from it.

In this Spanish-Italian co-production, antiques dealer George (Ray Lovelock) hops on his motorcycle and departs the tumult of bustling London for some relaxation in the country. En route, his bike's totalled by Edna (Christine Galbo), a young woman likewise heading to the remote countryside to visit her sister. George insinuates his way into her car and insists on her taking him to his new house in the tiny English hamlet of Windemere. They stop near a small cemetery, and when George leaves the car to ask for directions, a creepy old derelict attempts to attack Edna. Said vagrant turns out to be a presumed-dead suicide, and soon it's clear (to the heroes, at least) that corpses are rising from the grave and devouring the living.

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue's producers just wanted a horror movie patterned after George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, but like Romero, Spaniard Jorge Grau (Morgue's director) managed to sneak in a ton of subtext and nuance with the chills.

Morgue superficially follows the Romero template--the vagrant's out-of-nowhere attack on Edna echoes Barbara's victimization in Night, and both movies share decidedly un-cheery endings--but Grau forges his own sensibility early on. Morgue is largely shot in the relaxing verdant green of the English countryside, and the film moves at a languid, dreamlike stride that's distinctive from Romero's staccato EC comic of a chiller (Morgue's minimalist soundtrack, with its ambient synths and malevolently-whispering wind gusts, adds to the fever-dream feel). The topicality implied in NOTLD gets explicitly spelled out here: experimental radiation causes these flesheaters to rise from the English earth; and dividing lines are sharply etched between the young, liberal George and Edna and bitter local cop Arthur Kennedy, an Irish redneck who derides their dress and hairstyles and accuses them of being drug-addled hippies.

Don't let all this subtext scare you into thinking that The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is just a post-Flower-Power-era polemic, though. Grau doesn't skimp on the gutmunching. And the final reel, in which George winds up falsely accused of murder and on the run from the law amidst a zombie infestation, is every bit as nerve-rattling as anything in Romero's zombie classics.

Blue Underground's US DVD release of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue packs a ton of extras onto its second disc, including interviews with leading man Lovelock (who reveals that character actor Kennedy was likely channeling some real-life anger into his role), Grau, and special effects man Giannetto De Rossi. There's also a fascinating featurette called "Back to the Morgue", in which the director gives viewers a guided tour of the movie's rural English locations. Just more evidence that a great director can make anyplace--no matter how restful or peaceful--scary as hell.


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