Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974)


Non si deve  profanare il sonno dei morte
The Living Dead
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
Don't Open the Window

The inclusion of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue on the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) hit list of Video Nasties illustrates perfectly the way in which the horror genre itself was being suppressed. The rhetoric that suggested these films were a new breed of vicious horror film that had dropped out of the skies on an unsuspecting public is refuted by the thoughtfulness and intelligence of this film. This is no more offensive than say Night of the Living Dead (1968) and certainly less cheaply exploitative than some of Hammer’s tackier films from the early 1970’s. It is easy to overlook the fact that a number of the films banned were produced several years before. In the case of this film a decade before the media hysteria that led to its brief containment. Part of the unfairness of this was that a very good film like Living Dead… was associated with garbage and not allowed to exist as it should; within its own generic niche. It is a testament to the strength of video censorship in the 1980’s that only a distinct handful of the films classified as Video Nasties have been able to shake off this scandalous tag and subsist without the political and cultural connotations that doom so many to the level of mindless trash. In recent years Living Dead… has been able to recuperate its reputation to a certain extent. Now the film is viewed as an efficient retread of Romero’s principle themes and ideas within a rural English setting. And like Romero’s film also has the wherewithal to include a level of allegory.

The influence of George A. Romero is notable in a number of scenes - the heroine being attacked in her car by a vagrant zombie, or the shocking final moments which see our counter-cultural hero (in this case a hippy rather than a black man) shot dead by the blinkered forces of patriarchal bigotry. The counter-culture or director Jorge Grau’s conception of it is a central concept of the film. The Spaniard does resort to stereotype and cliché in his characters, but they are intended as representations of something larger. If you’re looking for carefully constructed characters who develop and grow then you should seek a different film. Like Romero the position Grau takes is one of cynicism and pessimism - there is not a lot of good in the world and naturally the tone of the film is downbeat, sombre and depressing. He suggests that those wishing to express their freedom and to live their lives in a manner appropriate to belief systems that sit outside social and religious orthodoxy are doomed. Its alliance with Night of the Living Dead is in its warning and its call for some kind of revolutionary position. Opposing this are bigoted authoritarians, and like his depiction of counter-cultural figures Grau opts for stereotype and exaggeration. The bigoted police inspector in this case is played by Arthur Kennedy who gets such brilliant and over the top lines as “You’re all the same the lot of you, with your long hair and faggot clothes. Drugs, sex, every sort of filth!” and “I wish the dead could come back to life, you bastard, so then I could kill you again.” Where Grau does differ from Romero’s template and offer some innovation is in the ecological and environmental concerns of his story.

The resurrection of recently dead corpses is not due in this film to voodoo rites, far fetched mysticism or some oblique otherworldly source. Instead the dead rise due to a revolutionary new method of insect extermination developed by the Ministry of Agriculture to save crops and maintain yields. This technology uses ultra sonic sound waves to drive the crop pests to delirium, but with a costly and unforeseen side effect. The film has a deep distrust of modern science and government institutions which allies it with many of the ecological horror films seen in the 1970’s. Grau takes this critique further however by exploring alienation and the limitations of urban modernity. The city which is viewed briefly at the beginning of the film is a monstrous space, choking under a fog of pollution and overflowing with people and traffic. It is a selfish world in which people are so wrapped up in their daily routines the even fail to notice a naked streaker jogging through the congested streets. This space is contrasted with the countryside, which is presented as idyllic, fresh and virginal. In the end even this beautiful landscape is polluted by modern science, the government, authoritarianism and urban counter-culture resulting in a bleak message of no escape.

The cinematography by Francisco Sempere is one of the stylistic highlights of the film. His lens captures the peace and serenity of the English countryside in a way which no contemporary British film did. It is shot with a reverence and respect, which gives the violence of the last third added strength and resonance. The film doesn’t pull any punches with regard to gore and violence, especially when the action shifts to the morgue of the title, but as its violence in service of a point of view and a philosophical position it is perfectly acceptable. Unfortunately this wasn’t the position of the DPP who just saw violence with no context. But now this excellent zombie film can be enjoyed by a generation totally unaware of the cultural baggage attached to it in the United Kingdom.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Awesome movie, very underrated.

    The scene with the lady streaking in the middle of the busy city street didnt make much sense to me, but I see what you mean, everybody is so busy and in such a hurry, that they dont notice the naked lady running through the streets.

    A very underrated zombie film!

  2. Well thats my interpretation of the scene Franco. Others may have a different take on it. It actually bothered me a lot that scene. It is just so odd and surreal that whenever I think about the film that scene always comes to my mind first.

  3. Yeah, but that was my take on it too if I remember correctly. That whole scene is about showing how over population creates a chaotic atmosphere, I love how he focuses on the decaying city streets, the factories, the polution, the car exhaust, then he puts that all in contrast with the beauty of nature.

    Lucky europians have this amazingly beautiful landscape to shoot their movies in!

  4. I've been tempted to buy this one, I've heard plenty of good things about it, but I'm a bit off because I'm really not a zombie fan. I'm especially not a fan of Romero-style zombie movies.

  5. I dig your take on the streaker. I'd like to add that I've read a take on this scene wherein the writer suggested that the less-than-attractive streaker helped establish the ugly urban environment. Love this film and really think highly of this site--I've read five or more reviews sequentially after happening upon your review of Sleepless.

  6. Thanks for the kind words Michael, it is comments like yours that inspire one to continue :-)

  7. One of the best Zombie films made to date....

    I enjoyed the review, I believe that I procured the movie after watching one of your very own copies. I also like that the premise of how the dead rose broke away from the staple of the time, and played on the idea of a biologically engineered Pesticide which was at fault.


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