Color, 1974, 93m.
Directed by Jorge Grau
Starring Ray Lovelock, Cristina Galbo, Arthur Kennedy
Blue Underground (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Anchor Bay (US R0 NTSC, UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1
The English countryside isn't usually regarded as a hotbed of terror, but the early '70s tried to change all that. Sam Peckinpah exposed the gruesome underbelly of the British provinces in Straw Dogs, and then the Continental neighbors had their turn with Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (Fin de semana para los muertos), the first European imitation of Night of the Living Dead. Sort of like an Agatha Christie whodunit gone horribly wrong, this moody, haunting little gem in turn influenced an entire decade of undead gutmunchers from the likes of Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi, but thanks to clever plotting and a creepy, blood-soaked atmosphere, time has done little to dilute its impact. Motorcyle riding antique owner George (Autopsy's Ray Lovelock) heads off to the countryside for a little break from noisy, polluted city life. During a stop at a gas station, his bike is accidentally run over by Edna (The House that Screamed's Cristina Galbo), a young woman journeying to see her sister. George leaves his bike for repairs and bullies Edna into taking him to Windemere, where he can spend the weekend in peace. Edna insists she go to her sister first, but a stop along the way results in a riverside attack from a creepy, water-covered vagrant. The attacker's description matches that of Guthrie, a tramp who drowned a week earlier. That night Edna's neurotic sister, Katie (Jeannine Mestre), flees from her abusive husband, who is killed by a zombie. Katie is accused of the crime by the belligerent, bigoted police inspector (Arthur Kennedy), who in turn lashes out at George and Edna as decadent, drug-addled youths. The inspector orders them to stay in town at a local inn, so George and Edna decide to do some snooping of their own. Thanks to a handy roll of film and a jaunt through the countryside, George discovers a group of scientists and agricultural workers testing out a new device using sonic waves as a kind of pesticide. Unfortunately, this process has the nasty habit of overstimulating the nervous systems of newborn babies and, more devastatingly, the corpses of the recently deceased. Soon the countryside runs red with blood, as George and Edna are forced to elude both the police and the shambling corpses emerging from the earth...
A skillful production in every respect, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is a rare zombie film even traditional horror fans tend to enjoy. The gore is mostly contained to the final act, though it's not much more explicit than George Romero's original film. The deliberate but never pokey pacing allows the viewer to spend some time with the characters and develop some sympathy, with Galbo making an especially winning and fragile heroine. Lovelock is great fun to watch, despite (or perhaps because of) his overdone dubbed accent, but Kennedy really steals the film as the hateful inspector with a personal grudge. (As Grau reveals, the character wasn't too far removed from the embittered actor himself.) Unlike most cut and dried zombie films, this one layers its narrative with some interesting shadings, such as the concurrent police investigation (revolving around the Hitchcockian wrong man conceit) and the bizarre notion of the corpses creating more of their kind by applying blood to the eyelids of the dead. The satisfying twist ending still manages to provoke a sick chuckle; it's amazing more genre films haven't ripped it off in the following decades. And for a good laugh, keep an eye on the glass doors of the "Old Owl Inn," which seems to change spelling from scene to scene.
This film has undergone many title changes, and just as many alternate versions seem to exist. In America it played as Don't Open the Window, a fairly useless slasher-type moniker, while overseas it played as The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, Breakfast at Manchester Morgue, and even Zombi 3 during a later Italian reissue. The US prints were obviously cut, removing two brief but moist scenes of gut-pulling and a few other snippets. Most horror fans from the video age have seen the Japanese laserdisc edition (as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie), the Venezuelan video release, or the uncut PAL release in the UK which was banned as a video nasty! The complete print from Anchor Bay differs significantly from the Japanese disc, which featured swirling opticals and a superimposed Guthrie face over the opening credits, dropped a significant amount of footage from the opening urban blight montage (and optically censored the female streaker), and removed the ambient music from the closing credits. Though colorful, the print was also in rough shape and, though letterboxed, featured open matte inserts for the pesticide scenes. Therefore the Anchor Bay DVD was truly the first complete, and correctly letterboxed edition ever available. The quality looks nice, though the night scenes suffer from some compression anomalies. The 5.1 audio mix tweaks the original stereo tracks a little bit, with some minor separation effects in the rear speakers; it sounds fine and faithfully captures the ambience of the film's subdued, intricately mixed soundtrack. The disc also includes a brief intro and a twenty minute interview with director Jorge Grau, who filmed this as a follow up to his fascinating, underrated Ceremonia sangrienta (The Female Butcher), which deserves a DVD release as well. Grau is likeable and candid throughout, offering an amusing anecdote about the film's producer which openly acknowledges this film's debt to Romero's classic. He also discusses most of the actors, with the bit on Kennedy obviously containing the juiciest details. The disc also includes the US TV spot, a familiar staple from public domain horror trailer tapes, and similar radio spots, along with a reproduction of the German theatrical poster. Anchor Bay’s UK disc (as The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue) adds on the aforementioned alternate opening and features a thick insert booklet comparable to the material in the US limited tin edition.
However, the really juicy edition is Blue Underground's reissue (as a Blu-Ray or double-disc DVD), which switches over to the UK release title and features yet another variant of the film. Remastered in hi-def from the original negative, the transfer sports the original Manchester Morgue opening title card, with the credits playing out somewhat different with even more enhanced spiral graphics and a closer zoom into Zombie Guthrie's eyes. Personally this title sequence seems to work the best, though completists might want to hang on to their older versions just for the sake of completeness. The 5.1 audio mix on this version is also more aggressive (or perhaps just less compressed), with much clearer channel separation and particularly spooky use of zombie groans emanating from the rear speakers. Very nice. The transfer itself is an improvement, certainly, though the older versions already sported very satisfying color and detail, so don't expect a dramatic leap there. However, the night scenes are much cleaner and clearer, which makes the first nocturnal attack in particular easier to enjoy. Bonus points as well for the very stylish, spooky and subtle menu design. (On the other hand, that cover image is a major spoiler, so don't point it out to anyone who hasn't seen the film.) The Blu-Ray in particular offers the film with more clarity than you'd find in a circulating print, featuring exceptional color rendition and giving away some limitations in the original source material (such as the cheap stock used for a few outdoor shots which causes grassy areas to blow out a bit). Excellent all around.
As for extras, you get the same Grau intro while adding on two cool new promotional additions, the full US trailer (which really isn't that much longer) and, best of all, the original international trailer, a real treat cut to that great opening "John Dalton Street" opening theme with plenty of those wild, colorful graphic transitions familiar from many Italian giallo trailers. Very, very cool, and worth upgrading for this alone if you're a trailer fan. (Interestingly, it also features some slightly different line readings from Arthur Kennedy.) You also get the original 2000 Grau interview, the gallery and radio and TV spots (DVD only), and a huge heap of brand new extras. "Back to the Morgue" spends 45 minutes with Grau covering the Derbyshire locations from the film, including the site of the first car attack. "Zombie Fighter" (17 minutes) features the Italian-speaking Lovelock talking about his career in Italian cinema and his role in this film, including the fact that he and his onscreen nemesis, Arthur Kennedy, were quite chummy and wined and dined together every night. He also covers which interiors were shot back at Cinecitta in Rome, such as the mausoleum sequence. In "Zombie Maker" (16 minutes), gore FX maestro Gianetto De Rossi takes center stage and talks about his family's notable history, his Rome studio days, and of course, his legendary work on Lucio Fulci films like Zombie ("People are still trying to copy my zombies!"), though of course this was really his first zombie film. In short, one of the crown jewels of European horror finally gets the definitive treatment, and even if you own any older version, it's certainly a title worth revisiting and still one of the best zombie movies around, period.