Preceding the Technicolor comic-book splatter of George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” by a full four years, as well as beating the series of violent and surreal zombie bloodbaths orchestrated by Lucio Fulci in the early eighties to the screen by nearly a decade, the Spanish-Italian 1974 co-production “The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue” (only the better known of a plethora of various English, Spanish and Italian language titles under which the film has gone over the years) remains one of the very best zombie films of all time. Plying an unashamedly derivative cavalcade of gore drenched zombie fare, mostly ripped from Romero’s 1969 classic “Night of the Living Dead”, Spanish director Jorge Grau was nevertheless no hack, and sets about the task first offered him by Italian producer Edmondo Amati, with more thoughtful enthusiasm and film-making intelligence than an illogical script cobbled together by a committee of competing Spanish and Italian screenwriters, would seem to require.
The end result, although relatively tame when looked at today, is one of the first zombie flicks to highlight and foreground the elements of grue and gore which we now take so much for granted in genre movies: bodies are ripped open and gutted, eyeballs and internal organs are torn and eaten with relish, heads and bodies sliced at with an axe -- all in vivid colour for the first time. When Grau focused his camera on the blouse of a hospital receptionist as it was ripped open and one of her breasts dislodged and then lustily ripped off by a drooling, bandaged assemblage of zombies, re-animated from the hospital mortuary below, the impetus for the ‘video nasty’ panic which was to sweep through the UK in the eighties was born. TLDATMM was one of only a small group of films of its type from this era to be this extraordinarily well-made, most of its scariness and rancid atmosphere deriving from the technical skill and thoughtfulness that seemed to permeate every aspect of the production: this only made the bloodiness of its key set-pieces all the more shocking at the time.
Another thing that makes this movie stand out in the genre is the exceptional use of some fantastic English countryside locations. It was not uncommon for European genre movies to be shot in the UK, but the way in which the picturesque Castleton area of the Peak District becomes a major contributor to the strange and eerie atmosphere of the movie is unparalleled: this film feels more English than many home-produced movies of the time, despite the cast being almost entirely made up of Spanish and Italian actors. Jorge Grau shot the lush greenery and looming tree-spotted hills; the quaint villages and brooding decaying old church graveyards of Castleton, with an outsider’s eye that brings these locations more vividly to life upon the screen than is often found in the more prosaic treatment of British cinema. It’s a fitting landscape for the rise of the undead, and the (perhaps unintentional) illogicalities of the plot only add to the sense of unease and a lingering sense of dread engendered by the quiet calm and apparent beauty of these bucolic surroundings. Interiors were mostly shot in Madrid and Rome, yet the join is impossible to spot; and the farmyard cottages, village corner shops, petrol stations and quaint churchyards; the dank crypts, church warden’s shed, and the narrow corridors of the quaint cottage hospital -- all of them look impeccably English and local.
Grau starts the film with a fittingly pounding prog-rock theme courtesy of composer Giuliano Sorgini, as that handsome stalwart of Italian genre flicks, Ray Lovelock, shuts up his art and antiques shop and hurtles away from a fumy, traffic-crammed Manchester high-street on his motorbike, motoring towards the windswept countryside calm of the Lake District (although, as we’ve noted, the film was actually shot in the Peak District). Lovelock gives one of his greatest genre performances here as the no-nonsense, leather-jacketed and bearded ‘hippy’ antiques dealer George. Soon he’s paired with the gorgeous Christina Galbo (“What Have You Done To Solange?”) as the improbably named Edna Simon (the most unlikely looking ‘Edna’ in all creation) after she accidentally backs her mini copper into his bike at a remote petrol station stop-off on the way to Windermere. The two travel on together and stop at a small farm to ask directions to Edna’s sister Katie’s cottage.
At the farm, George finds some officials from the Department of Agriculture are busy testing a new machine for killing pests that works by using ultra-sonic ‘radiation’ to take control of insects’ primitive nervous systems and forces them to destroy each other. While George is remonstrating with the Government officials, Edna is attacked by a strange bearded man who staggers towards her, soaking wet and pallid-looking, and who then attempts to molest here. He disappears without a trace though, just as George and the man who owns the farm come back to the roadside. Edna’s description of her attacker bears an uncanny resemblance to a local tramp called Gutherie who recently drowned in a nearby stream while drunk. The two head off to join Katie (Jeannine Mestre) and her photographer husband Martin (Jose Ruiz Lifante) at their cottage, but find Katie hysterical and Martin dead with his throat torn out! Katie gives a description of her attacker which is identical to that of the man who earlier menaced her sister but the police, led by intolerant and floridly irascible Sergeant McCormick (Arthur Kennedy) are convinced that Katie is the killer because she is a heroin addict who was being kept in this remote location against her will while her husband attempted to wean her off the drug.
This Spanish-Italian movie takes a noticeably anti-police stance which is extremely unusual in British genre flicks at this time. Kennedy is given some wonderful dialogue where he gets to fulminate against ‘long hair and faggot clothes’ (Lovelock actually looks petty hip for a 1974 film!) , decrying the permissive society’s tolerance of ‘drugs, sex [and] … every sort of filth’. Naturally enough, when the zombie holocaust really gets going at a small churchyard where Gutherie and a band of recently returned dead lay siege to George, Edna and an unfortunate 'Bobby' who gets eviscerated while trying to radio his boss for help, McCormick puts two-and-two together and leaps to the conclusion that George must be a church-desecrating Satanist who eats policemen!
The film has a rather muddled attitude towards what actually causes this plague of flesh-eating corpses to come about in the first place, but this confusion all seems to add to the unpredictable atmosphere of the film, increasing the dread as the viewer wonders from where the undead will emerge next.
Ostensibly, of course, it is the tampering with that fictional sonic radiation which is the cause of all the unpleasantness: not only is it turning insects against each other, but the delicate nervous systems of new-born babies around the site where the experiment is being conducted are also being affected, causing them to become aggressive and start nipping at the nurses from their hospital cots! The prone nervous system of the recently dead tramp -- it is later explained -- is also restored to life with a blood-lust because he was in the area while the initial sonic experiments were in progress. This also potentially explains how a great deal of the corpses from the mortuary at the local hospital return to life for the climactic bloodbath at the end of the film.
But there are other unexplained factors at play, such as in the wonderful sequence that plays out in the church-yard crypt, when George and Edna go to check on the corpse of Gutherie and find his coffin empty. They get trapped in the vault, and zombie Gutherie appears tottering towards them. As they attempt to escape up a wooden ladder and through a niche set high up in the wall of the vault (a sequence that foreshadows a similar scene in Lucio Fulci’s “The House by the Cemetery”), Gutherie opens the other coffins in the vault and re-animates each corpse one-by-one by ‘anointing’ their eyes with blood! This seems to suggest a supernatural element to the zombie plague (another idea that would be expanded upon by Lucio Fulci in films like “City of the Living Dead” and “The Beyond”); the fact that Gutherie appears and disappears in an open landscape also backs up this interpretation, as does the fact that this rather shambling zombie tramp manages to attack Edna, but then also turns up on foot, miles away at her sister’s cottage, way in advance of George and Edna -- who are travelling there at high speed by car -- with more than enough time to spare in order to be able to first menace Katie inside the house, and then attack and eat her husband! Also, the killing takes place right in front of Martin’s automatic camera (which is taking night-time photos of some flowers) yet Gutherie’s image fails to show up on the developed film. Evidence of teleporting zombies years in advance of the work of Lucio Fulci? Or just the inconsistencies of a screenplay written by half-a-dozen screenwriters each pushing their own ideas?
Whatever the case, Jorge Grau makes the distinctive cult spectacle work fantastically with many beautifully shot and tense, eerie sequences throughout, tons of gruesome gore, and a fantastic soundtrack full of unnerving electronic oscillations -- and some of the most disturbing zombie groans and 'death croaks' ever heard in the zombie genre. This is a bona fide cult classic which any zombie fan, Italian exploitation fan or indeed, fan of British horror in general, will fall in love with when they see it. Not least because of the now absolutely stunning re-mastered transfer it has been furnished with for this Optimum DVD release.
The only extra is a spoiler-heavy trailer though, which is a shame, because this fantastic cult item deserves all the bells and whistles of a special edition. Never mind - enjoy the movie anyway!