Could Jorge Grau’s 1974 shocker be the greatest zombie movie ever made?
In the early 1970s, a young, experimental Spanish director named Jorge Grau was, alongside an equally visionary, Nouvelle Vague inspired pack of bratty celluloid slingers (the likes which include THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE helmer Vincente Aranda, being championed as the future of the Spanish film industry. In the wake of Grau’s violent, sexual and historically accurate telling of the Elizabeth Bathory legend, 1973’s THE BLOODY COUNTESS, producer Edmondo Amati approached the filmmaker to direct a movie that would blatantly ride the box office coattails of the George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but add the more visceral dimension of dripping, full-blooded color, replacing the gritty, cheap, shadowy expressionism of NIGHT with a more garish, pulpy and stomach churning pallet. Grau, swayed by a larger paycheck and the chance to film in England eagerly obliged, taking the rather straight forward genre screenplay and giving it a re-write, grafting on his own, unique personality quirks, obsessions and style, “borrowing” from Romero’s creation but forging something completely fresh and deliciously offbeat.
Known on these shores under at least a dozen lurid (and occasionally ludicrous) titles, including DON’T OPEN THE WINDOW, BRUNCH WITH THE DEAD and LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE, Grau’s resulting 1974 Spanish/Italian zombie shocker “Non Si Deve Profanare Il Sonno Dei Morti”, is a movie that I’ve always preferred to call by its UK moniker, THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE. Because I just love the way it reads, especially when read aloud.
London antique dealer George (a bearded, badass looking Ray Lovelock from, among many other things Armando Crispino’s AUTOPSY and Umberto Lenzi’s AN IDEAL PLACE TO KILL) is on a cross-country motorcycle trip into rural England when, after a bike crushing accident, he regretfully hooks up with the beautiful, fragile Edna (Christina Galbo from WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?) who is also traveling into the sticks to visit her mentally ill sister. On route, the pair come across a strange machine; a whirring, pulsing metallic engine sitting squarely in the centre of a farmers field. Said machine is an agricultural device that sends out waves of low frequency radiation designed to provoke insects to go mad and cannibalize each other. Science!
Lanky haired, neo-hippie George balks at such underhanded environmental buggery, a position which only increases in intensity when he and Edna discover said supposedly harmless radiation is in fact stimulating the recently dead to get up and kill, with the people they kill then getting up to kill. As the local police (led by American stage actor Arthur Kennedy, in a cruel and cranky performance) attempt to pin the rash of violent zombie induced murders on the troubled couple, the evil crop-protecting, dead- provoking device keeps chugging and spinning and the corpses keep-a-coming, resulting in the inevitable tragic, violent, titular (emphasis on the tit!) morgue-set climax.
When THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE was released it almost immediately came under fire from critics for its then outrageous levels of graphic splatter, a truly shocking cavalcade of carnage designed by none other than Italian FX wizard Giannetto De Rossi. De Rossi is the latex and karo syrup slinging genius who would later find acclaim drilling brains, poking out eyes and regurgitating guts under the watchful eye of the late, great Fulci and though his art here was not yet quite state of, it’s still pretty damned fantastic: flesh is ripped from bodies, innards are torn out of heaving bellies, eyeballs are eaten and perhaps most notoriously, an unfortunate lass has her blouse ripped open and her left breast crudely removed by the clawing hands of a hungry ghoul.
And speaking of ghouls, the homicidal stiffs on display here are really terrifying; a mangy, slow and stiff lot of relentless red-eyed refuse (incidentally, the crimson contact lenses appear to be exactly the same as the ones utilized for the ‘infected’ in Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER and its sequel 28 WEEKS LATER). And these zombies aren’t a bunch of amateur local yokels bumbling around in greasepaint but are in fact real actors, characters ripped right out of the worst (or best, as the case with us horror fans may be) nightmare; I can honestly say that Spanish actor Fernando Hilbeck’s, gravestone tossing, recently resurrected, drowned hobo Gutherie, with his sopping wet clothes, blotchy stare and stubbly lock jaw is one of the most frightening screen bogeymen I’ve ever seen and the damage he inflicts on his victims is just as shuddery.
But beyond the moldy monsters and the ample waste of human life on display, the real impact in Grau’s remarkable motion picture lies in the level of intelligence, of finely crafted human drama, of mounting dread and almost Hitchcockian suspense (and black humor) that so effortlessly guides the grue. We come to genuinely care for George and Edna, to believe in their blossoming love, their genuine connection that builds under the direst of circumstances. And when things take a turn for the worse in the final reel, there’s a palpable sense of loss that pushes the horror into an emotional level unseen in the post Night, non-Romero zombie efforts. The score, by Giuliano Sorgini (SS HELL CAMP) is another major source of the picture’s skin tightening power, a soundscape that deftly veers between string soaked British lounge pop (especially effective in the dazzlingly edited opening credits montage) and heaving, gasping, synth burbling experimentalism.
THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE is an accessible, thought provoking and paralyzing Eurohorror classic whose ample flaws, frequent lapses in logic (does ANY of the action actually take place IN Manchester?) and many plot inconsistencies (how does Hilbeck manage to revive his fellow cadavers by wiping blood on their eyelids, exactly? Who cares! It’s creepy!) take a backseat to the movie’s many macabre and gruesomely elegant delights.
This isn’t the quasi-realist American horror of Romero and it isn’t the chunky, in your face zombie opera shock of Fulci. This is the zombie film as dark, lyrical, melancholy fairy tale, a film that exists in a class of its own.
And it very well might be the best zombie movie ever made.