Review Date: February 18, 2008
Released by: Blue Underground
Release date: 02/26/2008
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
It is easy to say that Night of the Living Dead
changed the way horror movies were made, ushering in a newer, more visceral sub-genre of zombie films. The actual truth though, is that those accomplishments lie with his follow-up, Dawn of the Dead
. Night of the Living Dead
was popular, and much loved, but still generally seen as a one off success. Compare and contrast the litany of zombie films (both here and abroad) made in the wake of Dawn of the Dead
(Hell of the Living Dead
, Nightmare City
, etc.) with the handful of titles to trickle out in the nine years between Night and Dawn. The first was probably Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things
, the second a shelved Canadian classic, Corpse Eaters
, and the third, and first offering from Europe, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue
. Otherwise, it’s slim pickings in the era before Dawn of the Dead
, but as many fans will notice, those three offerings hold more weight in the zombie genre than almost all of the post-Dawn
Italian knockoffs combined.
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue
has now been released three times here on DVD. The first two were under the title Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
, one for Anchor Bay and the second a direct copy for Blue Underground. That release was eight years ago, and considering its following still remains strong in worldwide horror circles, it’s about time Blue Underground sprayed the crops with a remastered special edition. The Blue have been pretty quiet these last two years, but as they proved with their two-disc last year of The Stendhal Syndrome
, they’ve still got the touch. Does this zombie film get the same divine treatment, and more importantly, is it worth diggin up?
Rather than your typical Universal Monster movie overture, the film begins almost entirely with a flurry of every day sounds. It is 1974, the counterculture has failed. Technology and politics rule what was for a time a movement about life. Thus, the humming rattle of car engines bumper to bumper in a crowded metropolis, seems a fitting metaphor for the cattle prodding of contemporary society. George (Ray Lovelock
), aims to escape, taking with him a few eclectic possessions to sell abroad. While refueling his motorcycle at a garage, he is inadvertently run into by Edna (Christina Galbo
). She wrecks his bike and looks quite fatigued, so rather than hanging out in the countryside for a few days, he agrees to drive her to her sister’s house. But where they’re going, they’ll never return.
Once arriving in the rural farm community, George notices a weird new machine in one of the crops. “No chemicals!” The operators boast, as a man in a white protective suit runs his sonar machine along the ground. This new piece of machinery is designed to kill off all bugs by using radioactive waves to agitate the bugs to the point of attacking themselves into extinction. Seems a novel concept, but granola George suspects something else is a play in those weird waves. His suspicions seemed immediately confirmed when Edna is pursued by a lurching man close to the riverbank. He doesn’t seem to have much fine motor coordination and seems to want to nibble on more than just her ear. The two escape and learn that the man had died days ago. They immediately hypothesize these theories of the living dead, but who on earth would believe them?
Certainly not The Inspector (Arthur Kennedy
), who is brought in to the town when Edna’s sister is accused of murdering her husband. It’s clear a zombie did it, but there’s no proof, and George sure has a shaggy beard. Can you say Charles Manson? Babies begin being birthed with heightened aggression, and the dead in both the local cemetery and the titular morgue start to come back to life. Only George and Edna seem to be privy though, and not only are they going to have to find a way to survive, but they have to find a way to convince the authorities of their influence. The generation gap is the last of their worries.
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue
is Night of the Living Dead
filtered through European arthouse cinema. If Romero’s film created chills through its verite realism, this one does it through stylish ennui. The best moments in the film are when nothing is said at all, and instead the sounds of society – honking cars, flashing camera bulbs and pulsating sonar waves – help to illustrate the societal decay embodied by the resurrected dead. The soundtrack is quite amazing, minimalist but at the same time totally overwhelming in the emphasis of the synthetic noises we block out every day. In the dialogue is a fairly routine zombie film filtered through a flower power lens, but the way Director Jorge Grau observes the story is what makes it most interesting of all.
The most potent and profound observation seen in the entire film only has to do with zombies on a metaphoric level. When introduced to Edna’s brother-in-law, he is seen developing a film in a dark room. The film plane is blank, only to have an image of a flower slowly imprint itself on the canvas. Suddenly, birth is registered synthetically through our technology. He hangs the photo up next to a series of pictures taken to observe the blooming of said flower. Seen through Grau’s critical camera gaze though, this ordinary event takes on a weighty significance. Film may capture life in happening, but film is not life. It captures things we appreciate as surface textures, but can never register the zest, feeling and emotion behind it. Animating it in a sequence like the photographer with his plant (or for that matter Grau and his film) gives the illusion of movement, of life, but in reality there is nothing more dead. Film is a zombie, recapitulating surfaces we once knew into a stuttered, hollow display of movement.
Never before has a director taken a medium that has for so long, ever since that infamous train pulling into the station, been so filled with life and turned it into a medium of death. The hope of the sixties is over, embodied in the film with the haunting opening shot of a woman running naked through a crowded street. She holds up a peace sign and darts through stagnate cars, but nobody even notices. That time is over, and the horrors of life have instead taken over the complacent minds of a technological society. It’s fitting, then, that Grau sets up the medium of cinema like a zombie, since in a worldview a wave spewing insecticide is really no different than a image spewing projector. Both entice through means otherwise invisible, and both can cause great hegemonic harm.
Sure, it would be one thing to mention the standout effects work by make-up legend Diannetto De Rossi (The Beyond
, Haute Tension
) or the comeuppance twist of the finale, but with Grau’s infatuation with the mechanics of cinema, everything in front of it seems marginal by comparison. This is ultimately a film about the death of culture, the death of cinema, and how through the moving image it too becomes this undead shell of its former existence. As a zombie flick it delivers the goods in spurts between a more plodding pace, but as a commentary on the arts it never stops moving. There’s not much living at all in Grau’s dead.
Blue Underground did a good job with this transfer in 2000, but they do an even better job of it now. This new anamorphic 1.85:1 remaster improves on the original in every way. There’s less grain, less contrast, better color reproduction and the dust and pixilation on the previous release is nonexistent here. The screen shots should say enough, but seeing the movie in action is when you really notice, when the grain patterns cease to dance in this new one like they did in the old. Great job.
I don’t notice much of an upgrade here with this Dolby Digital 5.1 remaster, but that’s not to worry since it already sounded fantastic. This was a quality remix that expanded the soundscape but never sounded like a gimmick. The dread looms a lot larger in 5.1, and the banging of doors, shooting of guns and layering of all the other noises that engulf us really comes through great in this remix. Purists can be happy with this new disc though, because the original mono track has finally been included after being left off of the previous discs. You’ll want to still listen to the 5.1 track though, it’s really spot on.
The first DVD was already 16x9 and already had a 5.1 soundtrack, but extras was something it was lacking. There was an introduction and featurette with the director, but otherwise there wasn’t much else. This new set adds three more featurettes in addition to all the older material, housing it all on a new second disc. It’s not all roses, but there’s a few nice reasons to upgrade here.
The best new addition is “Zombie Maker – Interview with Special Effects Artist Giannetto De Rossi”, a 17-minute talk with one of the kings of horror makeup. He comes across very well, and proves that he’s a real artist with a care for the craft of painting and sculpture. When he says he chose the clay in Zombie
to reflect the idea that we all turn to dust in death, I was sold on his brilliance. He talks at length about Zombie
and Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
, providing some nice anecdotes as well as a lot of history about the nature of the business. In contrast, “Zombie Fighter – Interview with Star Ray Lovelock” is only okay. Running 15-minutes, it is something you’ve probably heard before if you’ve ever seen a Lovelock interview. He talks about singing with Tomas Milian and how he started in the business, and how he tried to hone his craft later working with bigger actors. He’s said the same before, and better, on featurettes like the one included on Sazuma’s excellent The Last House on the Beach
Likewise, Jorge Grau’s old 2000 interview included here was already good enough – this new 45-minute(!) tour of the old locations with Grau seems too little, too late in comparison. It’s basically a handheld walk with the director as a journalist probes him with questions throughout. He remembers plenty from the film, but a lot of it is incidental and not entirely essential knowledge. Unless you are a die hard fan of the film, then Grau’s 2000 interview will be more than enough insight into the film.
The set is rounded off with a couple trailers, a TV and radio spot, a gallery and the original introduction by Jorge Grau. Considering none of the principals really speak English, a commentary wouldn’t really have been feasible, so for fans of the film there’s enough here to keep you happy for ages.
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue
is by many turns arty and slow, but there are moments of gory ferocity that will certainly appeal to Eurohorror fans weaned on Fulci. Yet, beyond everything on screen, Jorge Grau has crafted a provoking critique of the cinema itself, boldly asserting that a photo is death, and animating it using the technology that makes us complacent turns the dead into the undead. That’s high art for a horror film, but that’s the beauty of pre-splatter arthouse horror. This set is an upgrade in every way from the previous disc, with a vastly improved picture, a stellar 5.1 track and newly added mono mix, and a second disc filled with interviews. While not all the interviews are home runs, the fact that the film has garnered this much effort is a welcomed gesture. Hopefully one day Corpse Eaters
will get the love that Blue Underground has given here, and CCI has with Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things
to cap off the golden era of pre-Dawn of the Dead
Movie - B
Image Quality - A-
Sound - A-
Supplements - B
- Running time - 1 hour and 39 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- English Surround 2.0
- English mono
- English closed captions
- "Back to the Morgue" location featurette
- "Zombie Fighter" Ray Lovelock featurette
- "Zombie Maker" Giannetto De Rossi featurette
- 2000 Interview with Director Jorge Grau
- "Inside Scan: Scanners" interview with historian Alan Jones
- Theatrical trailers
- Still gallery
- TV spot