The counterculture has an important role in film history. From the gangster flicks of the 1930s, up through Easy Rider and Heathers, movies have offered audiences a glimpse of those who don’t quite fit in society. The audience can sympathize with the anti-hero, because his howl in the night, leveled at those in charge, is justified. What an interesting concept: Authority harms those it is supposed to protect. Left in a world so far flung from sanity, he who rages against the machine is the only sane one. Such is the case in Jorge Grau’s Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, which could have been another throwaway monster movie, but had ambitions to become so much more.
The movie starts in London, as hippie George is headed out of his antique shop for a holiday in the country. Instantly, Grau sets up a world of contrast. He cuts back and forth between scenes of a crowded London street to the pastoral country, rolling hills with green trees and lush grass. Intercut between these are at least a dozen shots of fog and smoke, pouring from all corners of London and everywhere in between. A dead bird lies in a gutter. Clearly we are looking at two contrasting worlds here. George is abandoning one for the other, on his motorcycle, the perfect vehicle to symbolize the counterculture. As a representative of the counterculture, he wants to return to the natural world, and escape the burdens of the industrial world.
When George stops at a gas station, Edna backs over his motorcycle. When he finds out he won’t get his ride back until Monday, he commandeers Edna’s car. The two travel to Southgate, which takes George far out of his way. While stopped to ask for directions, George discovers a new agricultural machine, sent by the government, that works on the nervous systems of insects and parasites, forcing them to kill each other. While he’s away, a soaked vagrant attacks Edna in her car. When they arrive at Edna’s sister’s house, they find that the same vagrant, who died a week ago, has attacked and killed Edna’s brother-in-law. Thus begins a confrontation with the police, and even worse, the one the title refers to.
Along the way, Grau creates a terrifying atmosphere. The music is an funereal mix of synthesizer strains and odd breathing sounds, that awares the audience of danger even when none would seem to exist. His use of set pieces furthers the dark tone: a night attack on Edna’s sister’s house, illuminated by a flash bulb; the quiet, sterile hospital played against the living dead and their cannibalistic habits; even the mortuary truck, which is no mere hearse, but a full sized delivery truck into which the coffins slide like cans of soda in a dispenser. The best setting is definitely the rustic mausoleum. Entombing George and Edna with a half dozen zombies would seem typical for a horror movie, but Grau brings great scares to the scene. The claustrophobic tomb, low lit by candles, is a terrifying place. The zombies themselves are frightening, with their blood red eyes and wheezing breath. They follow the Romero paradigm, but Grau manages to give them some interesting twists.
Grau also creates great conflict between George and Sergeant McCormick. George is kind of a dick throughout the movie, but not without reason. He shouldn’t be here, but now he’s forced to face the horrors that lie ahead. McCormick, however, is truly mean spirited and unbending. In the face of every evidence, McCormick refuses to believe any theory other than the one that he has created: that George, Edna and her sister Katie have killed Katie’s husband. He’s from the old school, and will never believe that the leather bound, long haired George, a clear cut member of the counterculture, could be anything but a threat to the old fashioned values he holds so dear. Ironically, his misuse of authority will bring death and undeath to those he is supposed to protect. McCormick’s adherence to cultural norms make the zombie a fitting choice of monster for the film. Because when you look at them, zombies are a perfect example of the counterculture. Cultural norms dictate that, as George of all people states, the dead stay dead. The very existence of the zombie is a strike against society and its rules.
The special features are a bit of a disappointment. Most of them focus on Grau. In an interview of nearly 20 minutes, Grau provides some interesting details about how the film came together and some of the inspirations for the choices he made. He also gives a brief introduction to the film; make sure to watch it. He says some cool things. A trailer and an animated stills gallery round out the mix. I would’ve appreciated a commentary or full documentary, but I’m happy to have gotten some insight into the film. Note: If you’re looking for this movie, you won’t find it under the title. You’ll have to get it as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. Did this film go into the Horror Movie Relocation Program, as so many others have? I’ll never know.
Since 1968, all zombie movies have worked in the long shadow of Romero. Some are derivative to the point of being unnecessary. Not The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue. Grau’s work has just as much to say as Romero’s. It offers a strong social commentary about ecology and the social structure; and perhaps the true scares in this movie are that we are not only destroying our world, but refusing to change with the times. We will blindly destroy in order to clutch to old beliefs on which we refuse to give up. Along with Jean Rollins’ Grapes of Death, Manchester Morgue is a powerful link between Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and what is to come at its Dawn. I strongly recommend it.