‘The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue‘ is an Italian-Spanish zombie film that was directed by Jorge Grau and released in 1974. Despite being an Italian-Spanish production, the film is set in Northern England and it has gone on the become a cult classic and remains a cut above most zombie films of the era.
Generally speaking, Zombie movies and scientific explanations don’t mix. It’s like George Lucas giving us Midichlorians to explain the Force in the Star Wars, it just takes something away from the magic, while in the case of zombies it makes them less scary. Something you understand is generally less frightening than something you can’t explain. But of course there are always exceptions. Also known as ‘Let Sleeping Corpses Lie‘, ‘Don’t Open the Window‘, ‘Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead‘ and more, ‘The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue‘ makes its pseudo-scientific explanation for Zombies appearing in the North of England work for it.
When Edna (Cristina Galbo) accidentally takes out his motorbike, George (Ray Lovelock) accepts a lift from her. But before going on to George’s destination Edna insists on going to see her sister, Katie, who is struggling with a drug addiction and about to be put into a psychiatric home by her husband, Martin. But when they stop to ask the way the journey takes an unexpected turn. George speaks to some men from the ministry of agriculture who are testing a machine that uses ultrasonic radiation to kill insects. While he is gone, Edna is attacked in her car by a dead looking man from whom she barely escapes. The man vanishes and no one believes Edna.
At the home of Katie however the man reappears when Martin is out taking pictures. First he attacks Katie and then kills Martin when he tries to intervene. This is a hugely effective scene, illuminated by the automatic camera flash blinking relentlessly on as Martin is strangled. When Edna and George arrive they alert the police but of course no one will believe drug addict Katie, least of all the bullying police inspector, and she is arrested for murder.
The distraught Katie is taken to hospital where, it emerges, babies have started being born with homicidal tendencies, biting people viciously. George immediately associates this with the insect killing machine, flooding radiation into the surrounding area.
Having identified the man who attacked Edna as a local tramp, she and George visit the local graveyard to find out if the man really is dead. Now George is finally convinced by Edna’s story as they are trapped in a crypt with the dead coming to life around them and attacking. They escape with the help of a policeman but all three are trapped once again. George is now sure the ultrasonic radiation is responsible, affecting the dormant nervous systems of both babies and the dead.
When he attempts to get to his radio, the policeman is killed and eaten by the zombies. George and Edna only escape by burning the zombies as they break into their hiding place. George hurries to destroy the machine but now he is a wanted man as the Inspector thinks George murdered his constable and may be part of some sort of cult.
The action climaxes in the hospital where the injured Edna has been taken only to be attacked by her sister. Now Edna too is a zombie and George is forced to burn her. On seeing this the inspector eagerly guns down George, saying he only wishes the dead did come back to life so he could kill George again. When he returns home that night he gets half of his wish.
Obviously the scientific explanation in the film is nonsense but it works for two reasons. Firstly because the rest of the film is extremely well executed, keeping the tension high and painting believable relationships between characters who are not always likeable but win us over throughout. Secondly it works because the explanation ties into an environmental philosophy that seems very current for a 40 year old film. Replace the insect killing machine with fracking and this suddenly seems quite of the moment. It may be a kneejerk reaction against change but because the explanation connects to a deeper fear of technology’s impact on the world around us, it does not detract from our fear of the zombies. French director Jean Rollin, would explore a similar theme a few years later in 1978 with his film “Les raisins de la mort” (aka ‘The Grapes of Death‘) where a pesticide used to improve crop yield in a vineyard has catastrophic side-effects and turns the locals into zombies.
The film is also notable for its cinematography, which has been done with real care and is quite beautiful at times. The green landscape of Northern England is not a setting you would usually come across in zombie films, but it really works in the film’s favour – the countryside is often presented as alien and claustrophobic, and the locations used, like Hathersage Church in Derbyshire, really add to the atmosphere.
The gore is graphic, but doesn’t dominate, which also helps to lift this film above the regular zombie-grindhouse movies of the era. The zombies themselves are genuinely unnerving and pretty unique – remember this is 1974 and Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (which probably more than any other film went on to set the basic rules and blueprints for modern zombie films) hadn’t yet been released – so instead of a shuffling mass of undead driven by crude instincts, what you get here are actually pretty individualistic zombies who can use tools, or manipulate their environment. Its no bad thing, and it all serves ultimately to add to the creepiness that runs through the core of this film.
The film’s not perfect. Slightly oddly this is an Italian film set, and partly shot, in England and there are various inaccuracies and an array of accents that defies belief. But none of that stops it from being a well-made, tense and watchable undead thriller.
Watch the trailer for ‘The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue
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‘The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue’ has a pretty wonderful soundtrack that was composed by Giuliano Sorgin. The score is a mix of Italian progressive rock, and experimental and moody synth themes. You can hear a sample below:
Find out more about the soundtrack from ‘The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue’ over at Site of the Dead who specialise in zombie movie soundtracks.
Written by: Robin Bailes