Saturday, July 24, 2010

What's In a Name?

I think it was William K. Everson who put The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974, directed by Jorge Grau) on my radar when he wrote a glowing blurb for it in The Classics of the Horror Film. Everson thought it was a better movie than Night of the Living Dead, and it's hard for me to overlook that kind of endorsement. It took a LONG time for me to track the film down. I didn't have a good copy until Anchor Bay put it out on DVD under the title Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and when I finally did, I was surprised to discover that it was a film that I'd already seen. The movie has had an encyclopedia of alternate titles. I originally saw it on a fly-by-night VHS edition under the abbreviated title, "The Living Dead," in the early-90s and didn't even realize it. The titling of the movie is a huge part of its relative obscurity. It's hard to build a brand on that kind of confusion.

In any event, I had a mind to revisit the film this week.

What's immediately apparent to me about The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is how uneasy a combination of elements it is. With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy for me to see what Everson liked in the movie. He was a reactionary when it came to horror movies, and this movie reassembles the radical break with tradition one finds in Night of the Living Dead into a more traditional Gothic form, so of course he's going to prefer it. Unfortunately, this retrogradation of the new radical horror movie (well, new in 1968, anyway) tends to dull the impact. It dates the movie badly. Which isn't to say it's bad, mind you, just that one needs to make allowances. The overall effect of the movie is what you might get if one of the baby Hammer studios--Amicus, for instance, or more probably Tigon--tried to reverse engineer Night of the Living Dead.

The story here follows George, an antique dealer, on a trip to the Lake district, where his motorbike meets with an accident when a woman backs over it with her car. He impresses the woman, Edna, to take him on to his destination, but before they can arrive, they're waylaid by the events of the movie. First, they encounter a Ministry of Agriculture machine that's using low-level ultrasonic radiation to kill insects, then they encounter the living dead. The machine, it seems, stimulates primitive nervous systems, so it drives newborn children at the local hospital insane and it raises the recently departed and drives them into a homicidal rampage. Unfortunately for our heroes, the law thinks they're responsible for the ghastly murders in the area. The Inspector on the case doesn't like George's looks; he thinks his hippie hair and his "faggoty" clothes are emblematic of the moral rot in the world. Unfortunately for our heroes, bodies start piling up.

Unfortunately, this never makes it to Manchester, unless that's supposed to be Manchester in the prologue. This is strictly rural, which gives the film part of its character. This was filmed in Derbyshire and the landscapes in this are spectacular. In fact, all of the locations in this are picturesque, which lends the film its old-school Gothic ambiance. By placing its Romero-esque zombies in this context, the film takes on a quality of medieval horror, more akin to The Tombs of the Blind Dead than Night of the Living Dead. The zombie sequences are pure Romero, though.

Our first glimpse of the living dead is deliberately styled after the opening of Night of the Living Dead, in which the drowned zombie wanders into the frame like Romero's cemetery zombie to attack our heroine. It's still an effective sequence at second hand. The later zombie feast when the policeman buys it in the cemetery cements the association. In general, the zombie sequences in this movie are very effective; they turn the screws tight and are pretty violent. Grau doesn't pander to gore hounds, per se, but he certainly doesn't disappoint them, either. The fate of our heroes at the end of the movie are also deliberate echoes. It's too bad that the filmmakers didn't stop there, because there's an illogical coda to the movie that turns it into an E.C. Comic and diffuses the impact.

Grau is one of the few first-wave European inheritors of Night of the Living Dead to recognize that film's social critique, and he builds a similar critique into his film. The shots of the city in the prologue are designed to emphasize the pollution and alienation of our civilization (an effect amplified by the contrast with the scenery in the rest of the film). When a streaker disrobes and runs into the street, it's not even remarkable. The story itself is stridently environmentalist, with our hero standing in for Ibsen's archetypal enemy of the people. The Inspector, of course, is the oppressive hand of the old order, intent on crushing dissent and stifling the young. Grau uses a heavy hand when it comes to his symbols. This stridency fixes the movie forever in its time. Still, Grau began his career in Franco's Spain, which I'm sure colors his viewpoint when it comes to authoritarianism. He's probably entitled. This also puts me in mind of the depiction of the Yorkshire police in the Red Riding trilogy. While I was watching The Inspector in this movie, all I could see in my mind was the characters in Red Riding toasting themselves and "The North! Where we do what we want!" So maybe it's not as strident as it could be.

That all said, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is a pretty good movie that deserves better than the obscurity to which it's been consigned.

1 comment:

Lin said...

You know, I had the exact same thing happen to me when I rented this on dvd earlier this year (last year?). Within about 15 minutes, I realized I'd already seen it, but many years ago--my memories of it were spotty enough that at times it was like a first viewing.
Good review, fun good-not-great little movie. Thanks for the reminder--with this title, I forgot (again!) that I'd already seen it. Twice.