Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, The (US - BD)
Gabe takes a high definition ride from zombies on the English countryside...
Reviewer Note: Though I’m not going to entirely re-write my old movie review, I have made some changes. The sentiment is the same, but the wording is better. Those curious about the Blu-ray quality vs. the DVD release skip to the Video section.
Two strangers, George and Edna, find their fates intertwined after a simple car accident. While travelling about the English countryside the duo happen upon a few flesh-craving ghouls. It seems the freshly dead, and in a freaky twist, the newly born, are being driven to violence by a sonic resonance device meant to destroy crop-eating insects by attacking their tiny, simple nervous systems. The insects are expected to psychotically eat themselves and each other into oblivion. Rather unfairly the unlikely duo is trailed by a fascist, old world cop who’s convinced of the ‘dirty hippies’ direct involvement in the zombie related deaths.
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (previously released by both Blue Underground and Anchor Bay as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and aka: Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti, Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue, and Don't Open the Window) is notably as an early Spanish/Italian co-produced entry in the post-Romero Euro-zombie lottery. The film stands apart in the greater zombie pantheon for being released as an answer to Night of the Living Dead rather than Dawn of the Dead. NotLD was very popular the world over, and it had a major effect on the whole of world cinema, to the degree that it’s often considered the first modern horror film (there wasn’t a mass influx of similar features at the time). Aside from Bob Clark’s pseudo-spoof Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, and a handful of pseudo-related romps ( Shivers, Deathdream, the Blind Dead series), Manchester Morgue was ahead of the exploitation curve, and it left only Jean Rollin’s Grapes of Death in its wake before Dawn hit. Strangely enough the film occasionally fits the by-the-numbers Dawn-rip style, and in all the film looks and acts as if it were made five or six years after it was initially released.
Manchester Morgue is much better then it has any right being, and places itself ahead of the majority of the flesh-eating pack early with gorgeously green countryside photography, strong performances, deliberate pacing and a unique use of stereo sound. The credits roll over stolen shots of our hero George (played by Autopsy star Ray Lovelock) rocketing though Manchester streets aboard a motorcycle on his way out of town for the weekend, timed wonderfully to a shockingly good main title song. Between not so subtle inserts of polluting industry George witnesses a young lady fling off her clothing and run naked across the street waving a peace sign. George doesn’t seem to care, and neither do any of the other motorists. This is our first glimpse of director Jorge Grau’s political undertones, which often appear much more like overtones.
Many of the post- Dawn of the Dead Euro-rips picked up on a few of the environmental implications of Romero’s overtly political film, but the social meaning was largely ignored in favour of haunting and violent images (in the best cases), and relentless sleaze (in the worst cases). Grau’s film apes the more deeply rooted politics of Night of the Living Dead, which was not as overtly political a movie. Immediately we’re forced to identify with George and Edna, but not because either one is particularly heroic (George is downright snide), but because the rest of the characters treat them like pariahs the second they drive into town. They’re new world characters trapped by coincidence in an old world setting. The film’s real villain (and in a good zombie flick the zombies are rarely the antagonist) of the piece is the police inspector (played by the familiar but not particularly popular Arthur Kennedy), and as the ‘enforcer’ of this old world he immediately has it in for George. In true EC Comics fashion this supposed inspector outwardly ignores the facts of the case around him in hopes of gunning the ‘long haired faggot’ down, which is, of course, a much more obvious point then the somewhat ambiguous one Romero made at the end of NotLD. NotLD trumpeted the impending death of the Love Generation, and Manchester Morgue bares witness. DotD[i] kind of peed on the ashes.
This particular film’s scientific explanation for the re-animation of the dead is strictly science fiction, logically speaking, but surprisingly clever given the wall of zombie films that explain their plague through biological or radioactive means (even [i]Night of the Living Dead alluded to radiation), or simply don’t offer any explanation at all. Manchester Morgue’s sonic resonance theory isn’t only original, and for lack of a better word, ‘cool’, but it points the way to a substantial environmental slant, which, of course, increases the ghoulish flick’s ambitious socio-political currents. Grau avoids heavy hands (well, heavier hands) though George’s rather passive view on the environmental subject. Sure, the guy complains, but he doesn’t really care until he’s being chased by zombies. Bruno Matei’s otherwise terrible Hell of the Living Dead (which actually lifted the Goblin score from Dawn) took this ball and ran with it by blaming its outbreak on a disreputable government plan to make the Third World literally eat itself.
Manchester Morgue’s plot is standard zombie fare, though, again, it does borrow many of the genre’s clichés before they were entirely vogue. From NotLD Grau swipes a few scenes of people locking themselves into buildings to avoid zombies, his characters are strangers forced to count on each other to avoid being slaughtered, and both films are generally pretty nihilistic. From the Universal classics and the Hammer updates (not to mention his countryman Armando de Ossorio) Grau borrows some old fashion shadow and fog set ups, and a staggeringly witty, not to mention dry, sense of humour. The acting and dialogue here is far beyond the norm for the type and era thanks in large part to some clever and natural script, which despite the clear similarities to these other films, features a genuinely original and sense of pacing. There are huge lapses in continuity and logic, especially when it comes to the speed at which some of these zombies seem to travel (sometimes covering vast expanses of countryside in mere minutes, other times lumbering like mudskippers), but it’s very easy to overlook these issues in favour of style and mood, much like Fulci’s fully supernatural, post- Dawn of the Dead zombie opuses.
Grau takes his time with the film’s gore effects, and doesn’t blow his load early like so many of the Italian exploitation mongers that followed in his footsteps. Instead of an early act bloodbath Grau chooses to keep the violence quotient on the down low, depending more on mood than viscera to create unease. The graphic hit a pretty frightful (for the time) and somewhat sudden crescendo in the centre of the film during the first feeding scene (much like Romero did for NotLD). The mostly well executed effects (especially for the time) pre-date Tom Savini’s industry changing work on Dawn of the Dead, and though there are fewer effects shots required, special effects make-up artist Giannetto De Rossi’s work here is actually more convincing than Savani’s on the whole. De Rossi would clearly top himself with Fulci’s Zombie five years later, but Manchester Morgue is a fine dry run. The zombies themselves aren’t particularly rotten like Fulci’s monsters, but they’re marked as the freshly dead by the plot, and the gut-munching carnage is plenty gruesome and grotesque.
This marks yet another Blue Underground Blu-ray release that was first released by Anchor Bay (apparently under Bill Lustig) on DVD, then re-released by Blue Underground itself twice, under two different titles ( Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue). I spent a great deal of my DVD review comparing the old and new transfers, which amounted to more than a simple cleaning upgrade. The latest release was a complete overhaul, with new colour correction, deeper blacks, and all around improvement in detail. This Blu-ray version is clearly taken from the same print, and most of the positive things I had to say there apply here in a greater frequency. This isn’t a miracle transfer like last month’s nearly perfect New York Ripper disc, but the transfer is noticeably sharper than the DVD, and features no noise or blocking the bolder colours (though the end credits suffer a minor case of the jaggies). The big difference isn’t in overall brightness, but the brightness and sharpness of key-lights, and minor light enhancements, without risking the perfect blacks, which now feature harder edges. The fine details aren’t as sharp as those of modern films, but the clarity improvement is unmistakable.
The Blu-ray features the same basic shortcomings, which all seem to be issues with the quality of the original print, which I’m guessing can only be cleaned so well. There are minor flickers of artefacts, and a few minor warps between reels. Grain is present throughout the print, as can be clearly seen in the cleanest whites. The grain is relatively consistent, but does increase during the wider angled, overcast out door shots. The DVD release’s colour correction still stands, as do the less yellowed reds, the deeper blues, and the more natural flesh tones. Colour purity and the overall hue intensity are improved, specifically in those lush countryside greens, and the glistening reds of flowing blood and shimmering guts. Some of the warmer hues do bleed a bit into the less pure blacks, but it’s a minor issue delegated to a few scenes in the tomb and hospital.
Like the DVD releases 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track, this DTS-HD 7.1 track is similar to the older DVD release in basic design, with a bit more depth and clear track separation. Manchester Morgue is one of a few early genre B-movies to really utilize a stereophonic sound design. Even the old VHS was apparently relatively impressive in its right and left action. The back of the box lists an ‘Original Mono’ track, but I was made to understand that the original track was, in fact, stereo based. Regardless, this wacky use of abstract sound design (the zombies are often represented with an intense moog-like sound effect and really loud moans) lends itself very well to digital retooling.
The overall effect is rather natural, though not something that would be mistaken for a modern soundtrack. Fortunately there haven’t been any sound effects added to fill out the channels (ala the more recent releases of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns), even if the majority of the track is low-key and dialogue based. There’s a tinge of hiss to some of the dubbed dialogue tracks, and occasionally sound effects sound a bit tinny, but this is the best state of the art representation you’re going to find without robbing the film of some of its natural and rustic charms. This uncompressed version features a little more centre channel distortion on the really loud stuff, specifically the abstract electronic sound that signifies approaching or impeding evil. The sonic resonance is actually cleaner and approaching almost shocking volume levels. There are also more subtle inclusions made clearer by the lack of compression, mostly incidental effects. The uncompressed version also amplifies some minor echoing in the music and dialogue, but features more believable directional effects. The soundtrack, by the way, is also fantastic, including an unfairly catchy title track.
Unfortunately there aren’t any new extras supplied with this new release, but the old extras were pretty good, so complaints remain minor. The extras begin with three interview/featurettes. The first, ‘Back to the Morgue’ (45:00, SD) takes a journey through the filming locations with director Jorge Grau. Grau is interviewed in Spanish as he walks around the busy spots (so busy that the traffic just about drowns out his words). Manchester was chosen for practical reasons rather then stylistic ones, though the polluted state of the city helped his environmental subtext. Fortunately the interview eventually moves beyond the realms of the film’s locations, which gets really old, and moves onto the filming process, the special effects, etc. Forty-five minutes is a little trying, but focus is more or less maintained throughout.
Next up is ‘Zombie Fighter’ (16:00, SD), an interview with Star Ray Lovelock, who in true Blue Underground tradition doesn’t just cover his work in Manchester Morgue, rather he more or less runs down his entire career. Lovelock (speaking in Italian with subtitles) has impressive recall abilities, and has mostly fond memories of his work to share, along with nice things to say about the other Manchester Morgue actors and Grau. It’s really too bad that Blue Underground didn’t interview the guy that dubbed Lovelock’s English dialogue. Though Lovelock has the look, his cockney dialogue is the element that sticks the performance above the average B-grade gut-muncher in my book.
‘Zombie Maker’ (17:00, SD) is an interview with effects make-up artist Giannetto De Rossi (in Italian), who also runs down a brief synapse of his career highlights. De Rossi’s was the man behind the gruesome excesses of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and the slightly more tame goop found in Lynch’s Dune. Because Blue Underground owns part of the distribution rights of Zombie (though they released it as Zombi 2), a lot of the interview focuses on his work on that film. For some reason the interview covers the Zombie stuff before the Manchester Morgue stuff, even though Grau’s film predated Fulci’s by several years. Though primitive by modern standards, De Rossi’s work always carries the ability to disturb, as seen in his ‘come back’ feature, Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension.
Things are wrapped up with a 2000 interview with Grau (20:00, SD) that was part of the original DVD release, and which is better then the newer set visit, but interestingly enough doesn’t cover too much of the same material, an international trailer (HD), a US trailer (SD), a US TV spot, radio spots, and a poster and still gallery set to the title track.
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is a ‘definitive’ zombie film, and one all genre fans need to have under their belt. Those of us with Blu-ray players owe it to ourselves to upgrade, and Blue Underground doesn’t disappoint with this new 1080p transfer, which is taken from the same source as their already nicely re-mastered re-release DVD. The DTS-HD soundtrack is only a slight upgrade, at least to these ears, and the extras are all the same, but the video upgrade is a definite plus.
*Note: These images are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 27th October 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby Digital Mono English
Subtitles: English SDH, French and Spanish
Extras: 'Back to the Morgue', 'Zombie Fighter', 'Zombie Maker', 2000 Director Interview, Trailers, TV Spots, Radio Spots, Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jorge Grau
Cast: Fernando Hilbeck, Jose Lifante, Raymond Lovelock, Arthur Kennedy, Cristina Galbo
Length: 93 minutes
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