Blue Underground // 1974 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // November 13th, 2009
Your tearing flesh will scream for death
Two words: zombie baby.
At a roadside gas station somewhere in England, Edna (Christine Galbo, What Have They Done to Solange?) runs over George's (Ray Lovelock, Autopsy) motorcycle. While surprisingly calm about it, George does make her give him a ride to his vacation home. One the way, they detour to visit Edna's sister, where she was headed to begin with. However, when they get close, they find the road closed. George heads out to find help, leaving Edna alone in the car where she is promptly attacked by a zombie. She escapes, but something is causing the dead to rise from their graves and George suspects an innovative new farm machine is to blame. The cops believe, because of his long hair, George is a Satanist and responsible for the murders. Can George and Edna make them believe in the living dead before the zombies prove our heroes correct?
After seeing innumerable European zombie shockers, you learn to temper your expectations for what these films can offer. Sure, we have a lot of gore, cannibalistic freaks eating organs, and a pretty awful story. Originality is not on the menu. For the occasionally spectacular set-piece -- like the zombie versus shark battle in Lucio Fulci's Zombie -- we sit through hours upon hours of losers in bad makeup gnawing on faces. Yet, still we watch, and The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is the reason why. This shocker, from Spanish director Jorge Grau (The Legend of Blood Castle), plays many of the usual cards, but adds the rarities of character development, plot plausibility, and his own weird touches to make this little number one of the best zombie flicks ever to come out of Europe.
The number of principle characters is kept small, allowing for maximum development of their personalities. George is an easy rider, content to run his antique shop and ride his bike out to the country. He's easy going about Edna trashing his bike, but knows when to take care of business and who to protect. He's a fun, engaging protagonist that Ray Lovelock plays very well. Edna seems uptight, but George is a complete stranger who she shouldn't trust. Though she may be genuinely sorry for what she's done, she's understandably apoplectic when George commandeers her vehicle. She isn't bitchy simply because the film necessitates a female foil for George. Edna has somewhere to be; her sister is a junky and she's trying to rescue her. Christine Galbo plays Edna with equal parts iciness and humanity. Because there is (thankfully) no romantic subplot between the pair, they can play their roles with consistency, rather than resort to ridiculous, out of place sexual tension. Thwarting George and Edna's attempts to save the day is the police chief (Arthur Kennedy, Peyton Place), who is as much a villain as any number of the undead. He throws roadblocks in front of our heroes that put them in far greater danger, while excusing himself by accusing the duo of Satanism. More than just an idiot, he's a plain old jerk. Kennedy is perfectly crass and mean. His character is a great secondary villain, giving us a dramatic break from the zombies.
While the undead are your typical stiff, shambling freaks, I like their origin very much. They are the result of machines, playing on the classic fear of technology. Before George even knows the dead have risen, he takes a moral stand against the machine. The utter destruction of every pest, though good for farmers' bank accounts, is antithetical to nature and the death of the environment. This is an odd stand to take in 1974, but a welcome change of pace from the disease and chemical warfare we normally see. Grau adds in little bits of sacrilege for flavor, feeding the chief's beliefs in Satanism, while offering an excuse for zombies to hit people over the head with crosses.
Grau's two main set-pieces are very effective. The first takes place in the cemetery, an excellent escape scene in which our heroes are trapped in a crypt with three zombies. Here, we find that the undead are somewhat aware of their situation and can raise the dead themselves by rubbing their eyes with human blood. The second takes place in a hospital where the climax occurs. This is one of the better final battles you're going to find in a zombie film, but just as important, it features the zombie baby. While only appearing briefly, I found the infant with little dashes of red syrup on its hands absolutely hilarious. Manchester Morgue is worth watching for this moment alone. It's the little things you latch onto.
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue has seen a few releases already, originally under the title Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, but this Blu-ray edition from Blue Underground is easily the best of the lot. For a 35-year-old low-budget film, the image looks stunning. On occasion, there is some flickering and, in the more static scenes, some grain is detectable, but overall, this is an outstanding 1080p Hi-Def transfer. Deep blacks, solid colors, and accurate flesh tones go along with the sharp detail to make an excellent viewing experience. The sound is not quite as strong, but still more than acceptable in each of the three tracks. The original 1.0 mono track is flat and murky, while the nearly identical DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio and Dolby 5.1 EX tracks are front heavy, with little in the way of spatial effects. Each is somewhat of a disappointment, mostly in relation to the superiority of the transfer, but better than the film has ever sounded in the past. The extras are the same as the 2008 2-Disc Special Edition and presented in standard definition. They encompass just about anything you might want to know about the film and include interviews with cast and crew, an exploration of the film's locations, a special effects featurette, a still gallery, and some trailers.
Jorge Grau may have been instructed to direct a color rip-off of Night of the Living Dead, but he does much more than that. For its budget, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue stands as one of the better Euro-horror films from the '70s. Thematically interesting, well-performed, and loaded with free-flowing gore, this is one every zombie aficionado should see.
Seriously, a zombie baby is too awesome to find guilty. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery