Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, The (1974)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2022-07-17 22:12

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974)
Studio: Synapse Films
Release date: June 7th, 2022

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead inspired hordes of imitators, something that’s bound to happen when a filmmaker practically pioneers an entirely new genre. The two decades that followed his seminal undead film churned out plenty of gut-munching carnage, with the European crowd in particular looking to push the limits of gore-drenched violence. Very few of these imitators, however, seized upon the bleak cynicism Romero threaded throughout Night of the Living Dead, a film that ultimately captures the maelstrom of the era’s socio-political turmoil. And that’s fine: not all films need to be explicitly political, nor should we expect all filmmakers to be on the same wavelength when they hail from different times and places. That said, it’s perhaps no surprise that one of the best of the immediate imitators did pick up Romero’s counterculture threads, allowing them to unravel into the mid-70s, where they’d become even more frazzled and frayed in The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (aka Let Sleeping Corpses Lie). Helmed by Jorge Grau, a Spaniard raising hell in Britain, Manchester Morgue cleverly exploits the zombie movie twisting it into a dusky, sodden genre cocktail that evokes everything from Hammer horror to Italian crime movies.

Pure chance unites George and Edna (Ray Lovelock and Cristina Galbó), our ill-fated protagonists who find themselves sharing a car when the latter rams into the former’s motorcycle, putting it out of commission. Since they’re going in the same direction, George suggests he hitches a ride—it’s the least she could do, after all. While he’s on his way to help some friends move, she’s out in the English countryside for a much more sobering reason: to visit her drug-addicted sister. Their journey winds through sleepy village towns and across lush, rolling green hills that conceal the horrors soon to burst from the surface of the damp earth thanks to an experimental pesticide machine that has the adverse effect of waking the dead with its ultrasonic radiation. When Edna is attacked by a strange man, none of the locals believes her story because her description matches that of a vagrant who died weeks ago. Predictably, the walking corpse continues to terrorize the countryside until it devours Edna’s sister, a twist of fate that puts her, George, and the dead woman’s husband under suspicion of a tyrannical police force that doesn’t tolerate hippie nonsense.

Grau brilliantly takes the kernel of Romero’s living dead conceit and paints it on a broader canvas, untethering the horrors of Night of the Living Dead from their claustrophobic confines. Unfolding over the course of several days and across various locations, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue simmers with a grim inevitability. Where Romero’s harried characters have little time to sort through their ordeal, relying only on piecemeal bits of radio and TV broadcasts between bouts of fending off the undead, George and Edna spend most of their time convincing local authorities that the dead are even rising in the first place. It obviously makes for a much different experience, all while upholding Romero’s insistence that humanity is much more monstrous than the undead ghouls when the police refuse to believe the duo’s story.

Arthur Kennedy takes the lead here, sketching a portrait of a despotic cop that nearly borders on parody. Hissing homophobic slurs and dismissing his two suspects due to their youth, he’s poster child for authoritarianism that blossomed as the Flower Power era wilted. Much like Romero’s undead pictures, Manchester Morgue becomes an allegorical struggle, in this case an existential fight between youth and authority that still resonates over 40 years later. Essentially, it’s the tale of two young people proclaiming their innocence in the face of fascist goons that don’t want to hear that these horrors are spreading due to pollution, a subplot that taps into the era’s eco-horror concerns. The destruction of youth seems to have been on Romero’s mind as well considering the horrific fates of Tom and Judy, the clean-cut, All-American couple that literally goes up in flames in the middle of the movie. Grau doubles down on this, making these identity markers that crucial flashpoint of the struggle for survival: George and Edna only find themselves entangled in this ordeal because the police refuse to let them leave town, forcing them to stick around and scour through the countryside in search of proof of for their wild tale.

In doing so, they encounter plenty of undead fiends, allowing Grau to deliver the undead carnage expected from this genre with visceral, flesh-shredding, gut-spilling outbursts that signal the decade’s growing push towards gore. And yet, Manchester Morgue also has one foot rooted firmly in the gothic past, as Grau appropriates the lush, painterly visuals of Hammer horror, forging gloomy atmospherics from fog-drenched graveyards and cobwebbed crypts. For all its infamous gore, the film thrives as an elemental horror show, its pale undead corpses emerging from shadowy voids to create a frenzied terror. Just as Night of the Living Dead feels like a harmless 50s/60s matinee horror gone horribly haywire, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue feels like an especially nasty, bitingly cynical Hammer movie. These days, genre filmmaking is awash in loving, doting aesthetic tributes that wind up being fine simulacrum of a bygone era, but I liked it better when the likes of Romero and Grau would totally fuck things up by turning that familiarity inside-out. Manchester Morgue isn’t just cool because it vaguely resembles a Hammer movie: it rules because it brings a pronounced mean streak to the aesthetic, yielding a film that feels provocative precisely because it’s not trying to feel like a warm, nostalgic blanket.

Nowhere is that more evident than it is during the incredible finale, where Grau revisits Romero’s bleak, ironic climax with his own hail of gunfire that’s even more pointedly savage. Night of the Living Dead suggests that our destruction will be born out of sheer ignorance, whereas The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue insists that hatred and fascism will pull the trigger. Grau goes a step further with a twisted coda that feels less like karmic retribution and more like mutually assured destruction. We’re all fucked, Grau insists, as the pesticide machine drones on, a testament to both mankind’s dominion and folly broadcasting on an ear-splitting frequency that nobody will pay any heed. Sounds about right.

The disc:

Since it’s frequently cited as one of the best Spanish horror films of all-time, it’s no surprise that The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue has enjoyed a long, healthy home video life during the past two decades. Its first appearance on DVD dates all the way back to the halcyon days of Anchor Bay, who made it one of its first Eurohorror offerings as the new century dawned. Since then, it’s been reissued several times on DVD and Blu-ray, with Synapse’s 2020 steelbook release proving to be the most definitive thanks to its extensive extra features and a new 4K restoration. Now, a little less than two years later, Synapse has issued a pared-down standard release that loses the steelbook packaging and the CD soundtrack that accompanied it. Otherwise, however, the Blu-ray itself appears to be the very same, meaning it sports the strongest presentation imaginable unless Synapse releases a 4K UHD down the road. And even if that never happens, we’ll hardly be left wanting because this high definition presentation is another stunning testament to Synapse’s meticulous restoration methods. Not only is the 35mm negative in immaculate shape, but it’s also been flawlessly transferred to a digital format. The image consistently pops with detail and vibrancy, and it’s matched with both the original mono track and a newly produced 5.1 mix that’s surprisingly dynamic and makes great, natural use of the surround channels without feeling too gimmicky.

All of the supplements from the steelbook release remain intact, including two commentary tracks: one features critic Troy Howarth flying solo, while the other pairs scholars Nathaniel Thompson and Bruce Holecheck. A pair of extras highlight effects artist Gianetto De Rossi, who appears for both an on-camera interview and during a film festival Q&A that boast plenty of anecdotes and extremely candid commentary on both Manchester Morgue and a slew of other films he worked on, including Rambo III. Grau himself is the focus of Catalonia’s Cult King, an 89-minute retrospective documentary on the filmmaker’s life and career. An assortment of trailers, TV, and radio spots round out the supplements, which, it should be noted, don’t include the extras from previous Anchor Bay and Blue Underground releases, so enthusiasts will want to hold on to one of those discs to have a fully comprehensive collection. If you don't already have those lying around, then this disc will be the best possible introduction to The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue on home video thanks to Synapse's remarkable restoration. That label gets a lot of heat in some circles due to the lengthy production times for most of their releases, but this one is another reminder that Synapse absolutely makes it worth the wait once these discs are in our hands.
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