Blue Underground // 1974 // 93 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // February 22nd, 2008
A good zombie movie with an identity crisis.
When George Romero's Night of the Living Dead burst onto the scene in 1968, it changed the face of horror. That's a pretty bold statement, but the record bears it out. All of a sudden, we were seeing a lot more unsavory undead types shambling about the countryside, making scenes with their carefree, bohemian, rip-out-your-guts-and-eat-them-as-you-noisily-expire behavior. Most of the movies thus spawned were little more than wretched splatter movies. In 1974, though, Spanish director Jorge Grau crafted a genuinely creepy tale that effectively fused two classic movie tropes: The zombie movie and the wrongly accused on the lam tale. Originally released as Don't Open the Window (ominous, but vague), then later as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (not nearly as ominous) and Brunch with the Dead (downright stupid), the film, despite having more aliases than Sydney Bristow, won several Spanish film awards, became a minor cult classic in England, and was eventually retitled The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue.
Blue Underground released the film -- under the title Let Sleeping Corpses Lie -- to DVD in a limited edition in 2000; the title saw general release under the same title in 2007. Now, Blue Underground now brings us The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue.
George (Ray Lovelock, The Cassandra Crossing) is en route to a house restoration/redecoration job in the English countryside when Edna (Christine Galbo, The Killer Must Kill Again) accidentally backs into his motorcycle at a gas station. She offers him a lift to his destination (well, more like he insists), but first they have to go to the quaint English village where Edna's sister Katie and her husband Martin live. Stopping near an estate for directions, George walks over the hill to the main house while Edna waits at the car. George gets some directions from some men working for the Department of Agriculture. They're testing a new pest control system that uses ultrasonic radiation (don't even ask, OK?) to scramble insects' primitive nervous systems, driving them into a cannibalistic rage. As she waits, a man shambles out of a nearby cemetery and tries to attack her. By the time George responds to her cries for help, though, the man has disappeared.
The zombie turns up at Katie and Martin's house, eventually killing Martin before disappearing into the night. Katie runs into the road for help, only to find George and Edna finally finding the house. When the police arrive, the Inspector (Arthur Kennedy, The Sentinel) dismisses Katie's story out of hand; Katie's a heroin addict (she's about to shoot up when Mr. Zombie arrives), and her husband is arranging to commit her for treatment (and this is 1974, so we're not talking the sort of caring, nurturing facility that has revolving doors installed for the likes of Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan; we're talking about an asylum). The Inspector concluded that Katie killed Martin to keep from being committed, and has Katie taken to a hospital for observation and questioning. He's openly contemptuous of the young people, and views George and Edna with thinly veiled disgust.
While visiting Katie, George discovers something rather odd -- newborn babies are displaying aggressive tendencies, biting those who attempt to hold them. A doctor explains that no one quite knows how to diagnose the problem, as a newborn's nervous system isn't fully developed.
While trying to clear Katie, George and Edna stumble across a picture of the man who attacked Edna and killed Martin. There's only one problem; he died three days earlier. Their investigations leaf them to the cemetery, where they find themselves beset by the walking dead. They barricade themselves in a basement with a policeman. George puts the pieces together: The Department of Agriculture's insect killer works by scrambling insect nervous systems. A newborn has a primitive nervous system, and infants have been acting odd as well. Perhaps a newly dead corpse has vestiges of a primitive nervous system that persists for a short time after death. If that's the case, then the insect killer is inadvertently bringing the dead back to life, imbuing them with cannibalistic impulses (It's more of an explanation than Romero ever gave, so I'll give them a pass on this one). The zombie finds a couple of coffins in the basement, opens them up, and smears some blood on the eyes of the corpses, who promptly wake up themselves (OK, maybe not so much of a pass here; see the Rebuttal Witnesses).
George, Edna, and the cop manage to get out of the basement and make a break for it, but the policeman is torn apart and partially devoured by the zombies before George realizes that the only way to "kill" the zombies is to burn them. They head back to the hospital to talk to the doctors, but the police nab Edna and put her in the psychiatric unit until the Inspector can question her. The Inspector then arrives at the cemetery and discovers a grisly scene. Naturally, he concludes that George and Edna killed the policeman and burned the corpses. He heads back to the hospital to find out why. George, on the other hand, discovers something horrible -- the preliminary tests of the Ministry's device have been promising, so they boost the power-now the hospital, with fresh corpses a-plenty, lies within range of that ultrasonic radiation. Now George rushes to the hospital to save Edna and warn the staff that the dead are about to rise.
And the stage is set for a shocking, tragic finale.
This movie has some faults, but one of those faults isn't pacing. Grau introduces the characters, sets up the situation, and slowly allows it to develop, allowing the tension to simmer along, building more and more momentum. The careful development lets us identify with George and Edna, and to a limited extent, Edna's sister. Think about that; how often do you really care about the characters in a horror movie? George and Edna find themselves caught between two forces -- the zombies and the Inspector's prejudice -- neither of which they can understand or control. The development of the relationship between George and Edna is indicative of how well the movie works. If the movie had been made today, by the second reel, Edna would be professing her undying love for George while he swiftly but gently deflowers her. Grau doesn't take that easy out, though, and lets the relationship stay prickly until George and Edna are caught between the menace of the living dead and the menace of the police. Even then, we don't get any romantic interlude; they cling to each simply because they have no one else to whom they can turn.
Acting is pretty solid. There are only three characters of note, and Lovelock, Galbo, and Kennedy acquit themselves well. At this point in time, Kennedy's once-promising career had stalled, and he was working mainly in European productions, so playing a character full of resentment was probably not that much of a stretch. It's hard to judge the line delivery, as everything is clearly dubbed (The characters can be seen speaking their lines in English; the lines were either dubbed to replace Italian accents with English ones, or as a routine matter). But bad dubbing aside, the actors do a wonderful job with expressions -- a look or terrified resignation as one character realizes she's about to die; sad longing from a newly risen zombie as it goes up in flames, as though it can somehow remember part of its earlier life. Simply put, plot flaws aside, this is a well-made movie.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the opening credits, as there are a couple of notable things going on. The credits are shown while George is driving out of the city, and we see the results of industrialization -- factories spewing smoke, steam rising from sewer grates, people wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from the miasma. Then, at one point, as George passes a church, a girl flings off a trench coat and streaks across the street, stark naked, flashing a peace sign. No one notices. The images establish the underlying themes -- the way in which people are becoming cut of from nature and each other, and the way in which progress is running riot. It should also be noted that the young woman's form demonstrates that in some cases, jogging bras are not fashion accessories, but mandatory items. I'm just sayin'. In addition, it's pretty obvious when the film cuts away from the original title sequence and cuts to a garish, completely out of place title card with "The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue" emblazoned across the screen, and then back to the original credits.
Video is pretty decent. Given that we're talking about a relatively low-budget production, it's surprisingly good. There's a fair amount of grain throughout, but nothing particularly distracting; all the blemishes and scratches have been cleaned up. The movie's original mono soundtrack is included, along with Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 remixes. The 5.1 remix does a pretty good job with the sound effects; I wouldn't be surprised if some sound effects were re-recorded to provide the good ambient noise surround action. Dialogue is fairly clear, but a little muddy in spots.
Egregious double dipping aside, Blue Underground hasn't skimped on the extras here, though a background in Romance languages is certainly a plus. The first disc, along with the movie itself, has the little stuff: trailers, galleries, etc. The second disc has four featurettes. There's a 20-minute interview with Grau; this interview, along with the material from the first disc, was also included on the previous two releases. There are three new featurettes for this release, all of which appear to have been done in 2007 -- "Back to the Morgue" has Grau take us on a tour of the film's locations. The 45-minute segment is in Spanish, with English subtitles. As he retraces the movie's steps, he recalls details about the production -- it almost plays like an abbreviated commentary track. Grau comes across as a pretty likable guy, dedicated to his craft, and delighted at the success of the film. "Zombie Fighter" is an interview with star Ray Lovelock, in Italian with subtitles, he talks some about his career in general, and some about the movie. Finally, "Zombie Maker" is a 17-minute interview with special effects artist Giannetto De Rossi, which is moderately interesting (yeah, it's in Italian as well).
The unrated version has eight additional minutes of footage added to the original R-rated American release. I'll go out on a limb and say that a lot of that footage deals with zombies chowing down. The Spanish release, on the other hand, has yet an additional two minutes; one shudders to think of what those two minutes contain. Still, if you're going to bill the thing as the unrated version, give us the whole thing.
The final scene is not only telegraphed from the other side of the English Channel; more importantly, poetic justice aside, it makes no sense whatsoever. It forces you to recognize a basic flaw in the plot -- the inconsistent behavior of the zombies. In one scene, they're the traditional shambling bringers of carnage; the next, they seem to have a certain level of intelligence about them -- enough to quickly discover alternate exits, and to execute semi-coordinated attacks. In some scenes, they eat their victims like good little zombies; in others, they turn their victims into new zombies. Fortunately, by the time these things start happening, the movie has taken off, momentum-wise, so you can't really dwell on it.
Plot flaws aside, this is an enjoyable entry into the zombie canon.
Blue Underground tries to pull off a sneaky double dip by means of changing the film's title. Under most circumstances, such a transgression would demand a stiff penalty, such as being forced to watch the collected works of Pauly Shore. Because this is a pretty good movie though, they are let off with a warning. They'd best be on their best behavior, though; I have a copy of Bio-Domeand I'm not afraid to use it.
Review content copyright © 2008 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* International Trailer
* U.S. Trailer
* TV Spot
* Radio Spots
* Poster/Still Gallery
* Back to the Morgue: Locations Featurette with Director Jorge Grau
* Zombie Fighter: Interview with Star Ray Lovelock
* Zombie Maker: Interview with Special Effects Artist Gianetto De Rossi
* 2000 Interview with Director Jorge Grau