There was an interesting decade there when the zombie movie was a thing but it didn’t have any rules. George A. Romero revolutionized them in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead and he would later cement their importance and general lore with 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, but the interim years were anyone’s game. In Europe, movies using undead flesh-eaters became a way for filmmakers to be scary and have different ways of creating the monsters. They kind of became the ubiquitous gore-fest creatures that were a wide open field as far as background stories. One of these, I’ve already looked at, is the somber French outing The Grapes of Death. My favorite of these is the 1974 Spanish-Italian co-production with a billion different titles. My favorite of these titles is The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue.
Directed by Spanish filmmaker Jorge Grau, whose earlier films with subtle names include The Legend of Blood Castle and Violent Blood Bath, the film I like to call The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue has no fewer than 18 titles in different languages, several in English depending on the market. My favorite thing about them is that they’re either super boring (like The Living Dead) or they make no sense at all. The original Italian title is Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti or “Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead,” which no one on screen really does, nor is that the reason they rise. Another title, and the one that is the most common, is Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, which, again, is not something anyone is disagreeing with. I think the characters in the movie would have happily left the dead fuckers alone the whole time. The most absurd title is Don’t Open the Window, despite there not being a single instance in the film where someone befalls any harm after opening a window, nor does a scene exist where someone opens a window, nor is there a scene that prominently features a window. The best title is the Manchester Morgue one, even though that only explains something like 30 seconds of screen time.
Whatever you want to call it, this movie tells the story of long-haired hippie George (Italian heartthrob Ray Lovelock) accompanying pretty Londoner Edna (Spanish actress Cristina Galbo) through the English countryside in her tiny little English car after his motorcycle bites the dust. Along the way they are attacked by people who just plain don’t look right. It’s probably because they’re reanimated corpses. Obviously. It’s intimated that the dead have risen from a new kind of pesticide being sprayed on the crops in Manchester. Unfortunately, when the youngsters go to the police, they are immediately suspected of the grisly murders themselves by the youth-hating Inspector (Arthur Kennedy). The Manson Family murders had just recently been committed so this movie definitely sought to point out the backlash the counterculture felt shortly thereafter, and to offer some kind of revenge against the squares.
Because this was a pre-Dawn of the Dead zombie film, the MO of the undead hadn’t quite been established for the genre, and so Grau and company were able to do whatever they wanted basically. As such, the zombies use tools, appear to move in wholly impossible ways (specifically when they stand up, they look like they’re being pulled up like they’re marionettes or something), and don’t die in the ways we were taught. It seems fire is the only thing that can do them in, and shooting only slows them down. They also look more possessed or under some kind of mind control more so than just being mindless eating machines driven by instinct. There’s something very sinister behind the dead eyes of these zombies which stands to make the movie much creepier and a little more Gothic than your average undead gorefest.
Zombies Doing Things (one of the titles, probably) has a couple of notable and very impressive set pieces that make it stand out. The first is an extended sequence in which Edna’s car breaks down in a seemingly idyllic stretch of road near a church. After the first zombie tries to attack her, and George not entirely believing her claims, the two try to whole up in the church, only to find that there are several unburied coffins fulla dead people in there. Police come to help, but they are quickly overrun by the undead, some of whom were probably once kindly grandmothers or at least librarians, and they get devoured. This is the scene, and George’s tales thereof, that get the Inspector thinking he’s the one perpetrating them. After all, how could this long-haired punk be telling the truth? He’s got a BEARD after all, doesn’t he?!?!
The second set piece is the finale, which takes place in a hospital and, yes, for half a minute in the titular Manchester Morgue. Edna has been admitted there and, little does George know, she’s slowly turning into one of the Living Dead herself. Quickly, the other corpses begin getting up, including the head bandage zombie who is this film’s unofficial mascot in the marketing. Things go to hell very fast and, despite George’s attempts, Edna falls victim to her zombification. He’s forced to throw her in the fire just as the Inspector arrives and shoots him, thinking he’s done the right thing (This goddamned hippie, am I right?) It’s a very dour ending, and not unlike the ending to Night of the Living Dead. However, the twist here is that, unlike Ben in Night, George comes back as a zombie and kills the Inspector, a final “screw you, man!” to the film’s real antagonist.
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, or whatever you want to call it, is one of the finest non-Romero zombie movies out there and a good ol’ dose of Italo-Spanish gore effects. I love 1970s Euro-horror because of the texture of the film and the “who cares how gory it is!” attitude that perpetuated them. Unlike a lot of those films, even the best of Argento or Fulci, this film actually has a subtle social commentary about the youth generation versus the old guard in a post-Vietnam world and for that, Grau hews much closer to Romero than any of his more famous Italian counterparts. Add this to your repertoire for the upcoming Halloween season and you won’t be sorry.