The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue Review
Jorge Grau's zombie film The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is one of the best European horror films of the 1970s and probably one of the best known. It's one of the very few movies in the zombie field which is in the same class as George Romero's first three Dead films and this is largely due to a quite extraordinary sense of menace and atmosphere, conjured up in the midst of some brilliantly marshalled Northern English locations.
Needless to say, the film isn't set in Manchester - although a morgue does feature - and most of it actually takes place in the Derbyshire village of Hathersage. A mismatched young couple, George and Edna, find themselves in the middle of a series of macabre attacks perpetrated by the living dead who are being woken by the use of a radiation based method of insect control. A particularly unpleasant policeman, played by Hollywood veteran Arthur Kennedy, suspects George of the crime despite the evidence to the contrary.
Grau's film is brutal and sometimes disturbing - not always because of the violence but because of character details such as the photographer coldly documenting his wife's drug addiction. But apart from a moment when a bearded zombie removes a nurse's breast, it seems far removed from the sadistic horror comic style of Lucio Fulci. The gore is generally quite coolly observed and matter of fact, rather as in Night of the Living Dead. What makes it quite alarming is the way that Jorge Grau builds up to the climaxes - the sheer grip of the tense set-pieces, particularly the one in the underground vault, is quite remarkable and reminds me strongly of another great European horror film, Tombs of the Blind Dead. The film also has a strange dreamlike quality which is enhanced by the distinctly supernatural touches - the blood on the eyes which wakes up the dead for example.
Where the film also scores is in the characterisation of the Fascist police inspector. Although Kennedy's performance is slightly disengaged and he sports a ludicrous accent, the idea that the police might pose as much of a threat to a young couple as a group of zombies is quite radical and rather apt considering that the film was released at a time when the UK constabulary were something of a law unto themselves. He also gets the best line in the film - upon shooting a character who has been a thorn in his side, he says "I wish the dead did come back to life, you bastard, because then I could kill you again." Like many other foreign filmmakers casting an eye over Britain, what Grau finds is a country which seems on the verge of chaos and, in this sense, his film is a worthy successor to those other extraordinary views of a decaying country, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and Repulsion.
Optimum's recent re-release of The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue offers a very good anamorphic 1.85:1 picture which seems considerably stronger than the Anchor Bay release from 2002. Colours are strong and vibrant, there's a good level of detail and only the knowledge that an excellent Blu-Ray is available in the US is a slight drawback. The only extra is the original trailer.