Christina Galbo - Edna
Ray Lovelock - George
Arthur Kennedy - The Inspector
Jeannine Mestre - Katie
Jose Lifante - Martin
Genre: Horror/Science Fiction/Zombies
Running Time: 95 Minutes
When a series of murders hit the remote English countryside, a detective (Arthur Kennedy) suspects a pair of travelers (Christina Galbo and Ray Lovelock) when it is actually the work of the undead, jarred back to life by an experimental ultra-sonic radiation machine used by the Ministry of Agriculture to kill insects.
A zombie film with so many different names that it’s hard to decide to what to ultimately call it, THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE [also best known as LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE] is one of the first George A. Romero zombie rip-offs after the success of 1968’s classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Fortunately, while not up to the quality of the 1968 film, THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE still manages to be a good time for the most part - linking up the Romero-type zombies with a bit of social commentary of its time that play very importantly in the film’s narrative. It’s easy to see why this one has retained a cult following, as it does a lot more right than wrong.
The structure of the narrative brings both positives and negatives. One of the many complaints about the film’s screenplay is how long it takes the film to really delve into the zombie action, going for a slow burn during two-thirds of the film to present us with the main characters before putting them in eventual danger. And I do kind of agree with that opinion because the first half of the film does drag a bit at times. But it allows the film to give these characters some backstory, personality and other characteristics that make us either care or not care about them. It also explains the reason why the zombies exist to begin with and makes it a central part of the story. A lot of zombie films don’t even bother explaining anything, so the fact that technology [with the intent of doing the right thing] is causing all this terror, and no one is aware of it until it’s too late, makes the scenario that more terrifying. Everyone other than the two leads who are constantly victimized by what’s going on thinks this radiation to kill parasites to help the countryside is a great thing - not realizing the radiation is affecting them all as well in life and death.
The whole radiation aspect of the narrative lends to the social commentary THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE is trying to express. The 1970s were a time where people really started to care about the environment and the danger of all these chemicals that were polluting the Earth within the air and sea. The scientists trying to rid of these insects that are destroying the local crops believe their radiation experiment is beneficial in the long run, not realizing that destroying one aspect of their surroundings is leading to a greater danger. Sometimes bad things can be done with good intentions, and it seems the filmmakers are saying that some environmentalists have their hearts in the right place, but are only making things worse by only being near-sighted.
There’s also this struggle between the older folk and the younger characters, as their generational gap creates this conflict that ends up bad for everyone. The detective is a gruff, older gentleman who sees the world as black and white, right or wrong without considering the grey areas in between. He’s convinced from the start, without evidence, that the younger characters in the film are murderers because they found the dead body. It doesn’t matter whether a couple of the characters were related to the victim, or the fact that two of them weren’t even present during the murder, he treats them as suspects. When the leads discover the zombie infestation and learn that burning them will get rid of them, the detective finds the charred corpses and believes the suspects are Satanist serial killers! He even makes remarks about his dislike for hippies and the youth movement of the time, instantly making him an unlikable and biased investigator. This even extends to the nearest hospital, where the head nurse [an older woman] feels annoyed by the traumatized characters, ignoring their pleas and screams for help because she thinks they’re just being hysterical. Talk about malpractice!
While I enjoy the social commentary and the fact that the film is willing to give us depth for these characters, the film is hurt by the fact that these characters are actually pretty unlikable and kind of annoying to really follow for about an hour before all hell breaks loose. Edna is hard to root for because she comes across as needy and a bit of a nag for much of the film. Her first impression isn’t good either, as she reverses into George’s parked motorcycle and doesn’t even bother to exchange any sort of information to help him pay for the damages and the inconvenience she has presented him. In fact, she wants him to drive her to her sister’s house because she needs to urgently see her, rather than driving George to where he needs to go because - well, it’s the right thing to do after hitting his motorcycle and delaying his business meeting. So George has to be her chauffeur, help Edna deal with her family drama and get caught up in being the detective’s main target because he’s actually innocent and makes it known. It doesn’t help that Edna is easily scared and traumatized by what’s going on, letting George or anyone else do the fighting for her. Yeah, she could have gone and kicked rocks for all I care.
Not saying that George is portrayed any better. The fact that he’s smart and proactive makes him more rootable than Edna. Yet, he comes across as a jerk for most of the film, verbally lashing out at Edna and unwilling to listen to any sort of authority even if it’ll help him in the long run. The film takes a weird turn in which George starts to have feelings for Edna, but it doesn’t connect because he’s so hostile and annoyed by her from the moment they meet.
The rest of the living characters aren’t rootable either. Katie, Edna’s sister, is a heroin addict who is pretty much suffering through her addiction and being in shock for much of the film. Her husband Martin adds nothing of note but a body count. And I already mentioned the cops and hospital staff in this film. And the scientists, while meaning well, are just clueless to what’s happening. Honestly, the zombies are the most likable characters. Chew on that one.
Speaking of chewing on something, the gore effects in THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE are pretty good for a 70s zombie film. We get some juicy moments where zombies feast on people, ripping them open and eating their insides - which looks pretty realistic. The fire effects are done really well, with brave stuntmen and women doing great work. The aftermath with the charred skeletons and remains adds to that effect. And I love that you know who a zombie character is by their red pupils, which has seemed to have inspired later infected zombie films like 28 DAYS LATER. I don’t think zombie effects got elevated until 1978 with DAWN OF THE DEAD, but this film does a good job showing the violent aftermath of these attacks.
Director Jorge Grau does a nice job in presenting a zombie film that feels like a logical progression from what Romero had presented years earlier, but still doing it his own way. While the film has pacing issues due to that long first half before exploding with an action-filled second half, Grau makes sure to keep your attention with the gorgeous and colorful European landscape and the interesting ways things are shot. Grau’s best contribution is giving the film a ton of tension during the zombie scenes, creating a lot of terrifying atmosphere and mood to match the level of danger these characters are in. The morgue and hospital scenes, in particular, are just presented extremely well with dim lightning that add to the terror. And I already wrote about the effects, which Grau also directs well. For one of the first zombie films to display the kind of gore that would later become commonplace, it’s a solid job. And the sound design, especially the wheezing from the zombies, is pretty disturbing in the right way. Good stuff overall.
The acting is a little tougher to rate since I watched a dubbed version, and well - the voices are a bit over the top that it almost becomes an unintentional comedy. Arthur Kennedy, as The Inspector, is probably the worst case of this as the dubbing pretty much yells every line he says. Still, Kennedy overshadows all his fellow actors in the film due to his portrayal of a gruff detective not taking crap from anyone, even if he’s completely wrong about the entire situation. Both Christina Galbo and Ray Lovelock are fine in their roles as the main couple of characters, getting the most to do and having some tense scenes against the zombies. Too bad their characters were annoying, but the two made the most of it.
THE FINAL HOWL
One of the better zombie films in-between 1968’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, Jorge Grau’s THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE [also known as LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE] is a competent Euro-horror flick that does more right than wrong. The direction is well done, showcasing some nice zombie gore [rare for the time] and presenting tense and suspense moments in the film’s final half that hold up nicely. The dubbing makes it a bit tough to judge the actors, but they do fine enough in their roles - in particular Arthur Kennedy as the hard-nosed inspector, who steals the spotlight in any scene he’s in. And the social commentaries on chemicals and technology secretly destroying the earth while thought as an aide, as well as the struggles of a generational gap that refuses to understand the other, are quite interesting and actually add to the narrative and the explanation for the zombies. However while it’s nice to have a slow build to introduce characters and give them a bit of depth, the first two-thirds of the film drags a bit while featuring main characters who aren’t really likable and probably deserve to be eaten by the undead. But despite its flaws, THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE is worthy of its cult status and still manages to be a fun time once the zombies show up to mess everything up in a satisfying way.
3 Howls Outta 4