The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue
Blue Underground // Unrated // $29.95 // October 27, 2009
Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 26, 2009
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Recommended
E - M A I L
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version
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There may only be eight or nine of the undead shambling across the British countryside, but what The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue lacks in sheer numbers, it more than makes up for with its mood and unnerving atmosphere. Originally released under a slew of different titles -- this is at least its third in the U.S. alone -- Jorge Grau's 1974 film easily ranks among the most accomplished of the European zombie films, and it may fall behind only Romero's Dawn of the Dead as the best the subgenre's had to offer the world over.

Better living through technology: researchers for the Ministry of Agriculture have devised a way to rid Britain's farms of destructive infestations without resorting to chemical baths or toxins. Through the use of ultrasonic radiation, their machine attacks the central nervous systems of insects and compels them to slaughter each other. It's an approach that's undergone stringent testing, and because the hardware only affects the most simple of nervous systems, it's safer than an X-ray at the dentist's office...for anyone who's alive, at least. This sleepy hamlet has been plagued in recent days by births of uncharacteristically violent children, including a newborn who manages to gouge out the eye of one nurse. It's also being torn apart by a series of brutal murders. A gruff detective (Arthur Kennedy) suspects a couple of outsiders from London (Ray Lovelock and Cristine Galbo) are to blame. The two of them insist that they know who's responsible for these violent attacks, but they're accusing a tramp that half the town had seen drown days earlier. They manage to dart away from the police for the time being, but the body count continues to rise, and the murders become more and more ghoulish...

It's mentioned repeatedly
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throughout the extras on this Blu-ray disc that The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue owes its life to a producer hellbent on hammering out a color version of Night of the Living Dead, but this is hardly just another Romero knockoff. Jorge Grau devotes the first hour of the film to crafting an unsettling atmosphere, ekeing the most out of its gloomy, forboding British backdrop. There's only a single zombie throughout the first two-thirds of the film, and his attacks early on are more in the realm of outreached hands and strangulation than the gutmunching one would likely expect out of an Italian co-production. Grau carefully selects his zombies rather than bombarding the screen with hordes of the walking undead. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue never puts more than three in front of the camera at a time, but these are among the most effective creatures of any zombie film: the unnerving wheeze of their distant moans, Giannetto de Rossi's exceptional makeup effects, and an eye for choosing the most distinctive, memorable faces.

The first two-thirds of The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is admittedly a rather slow burn as Grau deliberately places all of his pieces across the board, emphasizing mood and atmosphere at the outset rather than slathering every square inch of the screen in grue. The attacks by Fernando Hilbeck's sopping wet drowning victim are restrained at first, clawing at and choking his victims. If not for the fact that the tramp Hilbeck plays is a walking corpse rather than a butcher in black leather gloves, the core of the plot for its first hour wouldn't seem all that far removed from an Italian giallo: outsiders become ensnared in a murder, are watched suspiciously by police who are certain they know more than they're saying, and try desperately to clear their names as the body count rises more and more. The attacks throughout the first couple acts of the film are nothing
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particularly grisly, no, but once The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue crosses the hour mark, all hell breaks loose.

Much like the ghouls of Night of the Living Dead, the zombies in this film are flesheaters, and the effects work here -- four years before Romero would unleash Dawn of the Dead -- is startlingly visceral and effective. Eyeballs are gouged out and devoured. A hospital receptionist has her shirt torn open and a breast savagely ripped off. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue doesn't linger on the splatter and is disinterested in letting its gore overwhelm the film, but the effects work here is still incredibly gruesome and holds up exceptionally well more than thirty years later. Grau crafts some astonishingly tense and claustrophobic setpieces as well, and the zombies' siege on a barricade in the cemetery and the awakening of the undead in an underground crypt in particular stand out among the most masterful of any zombie film the world over. The cinematography by Francisco Sempere reveals a remarkably keen visual eye, and the movie intersperses some unexpectedly clever imagery throughout, particularly the dead being awakened with the anointment of human blood. The undercurrent of man desecrating the purity of nature is fielded rather deftly as well, in keeping with the social commentary pervasive throughout Romero's films. Ray Lovelock's stab at a Cockney accent isn't altogether convincing, but he still does a terrific job in the lead, drawing a character who's smug and self-serving rather than latching onto the standard issue hero template. Arthur Kennedy is another standout as a sneering detective with somewhat of a fascist bent.

There was a time when I would've pointed to The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue as my second favorite zombie film, ranking behind only Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Though my enthusiasm has cooled somewhat over the past few years, I'd still point to it without hesitation as among the most exceptional works with the walking undead: its atmospheric approach to horror, some spectacularly visceral effects work, and a skill and craftsmanship that eclipse most of the Italian gutmunchers in the decade that followed. Recommended.


Video
I have to admit that I wasn't quite sure how to take Blue Underground's release of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue at first glance. On one hand, it's worlds removed from the DVD that Anchor Bay issued -- under the title Let Sleeping Corpses Lie -- nearly a full decade ago. Their dark, murky disc doesn't come close to approaching this high definition remaster. I don't have Blue Underground's own DVD release from a couple years back to do a comparison myself, but I'm assured that this Blu-ray disc is considerably more detailed as well.

I've made it a point to collect everything that Blue Underground has issued on Blu-ray up to this point, and I've frequently been floored by the exceptionally high quality of their releases. Films like Two Evil Eyes and The New York Ripper not only look terrific for modestly budgeted genre releases, but their high-def presentations easily eclipse most Hollywood blockbusters of that same vintage. They've continually set the bar so staggeringly high that I went into The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue expecting more of the same. It's worth noting that most every review and message board post I've come across about this Blu-ray disc has raved about how crisp and richly detailed it is. To my eyes, though, it's the least striking of Blue Underground's high definition releases. Considering the quality of their output to date, I have no qualms giving Blue Underground the benefit of the doubt -- that this reflects the original photography or at least the most pristine elements available to them -- but The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is very soft and not especially detailed. Many areas that I'd expect to be brimming with detail -- brickwork, grass, and foliage in sunny exteriors in particular -- wind up coming across as more of a muddy smudge, as if Jorge Grau had painted it with watercolors rather than capturing this imagery with a 35mm film camera. The clarity of the titles, the grain structure (when it's visible, at least), and certain tighter shots make it immediately clear that this is a high definition release, but there are quite a number of moments where if I'd walked into the room without any context, I can't say for certain I would've known that this was a Blu-ray disc on the screen.

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Again, I'm very much in the minority here. Quite a few seasoned Eurohorror devotees have been deeply impressed by this release, and every review I've come across has been overwhelmingly positive. Take my comments for what they are: just a point on the graph. I've been in contact with Blue Underground's Bill Lustig, and he very much stands by the quality of this release. I certainly can't claim to have the same experience or familiarity with filmmaking that Lustig does, but I still can't shake the feeling that especially in some of those wider, somewhat smeary exteriors that more detail should be visible than there is. If that's a factor of the original photography, the digital remastering, or just an unwarranted expectation on my part, I really couldn't say.

For what it's worth, this presentation is largely free of any wear -- just a handful of tiny flecks of dust -- and it boasts both robust black levels and an appropriately overcast, gloomy palette to further establish its unsettling atmosphere. As mixed as my feelings are about this Blu-ray disc, it still easily trumps the nearly-decade-old Anchor Bay release and is a compelling upgrade over that, and I'd recommend it without hesitation to anyone setting out to experience such a remarkable film for the first time.

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is presented at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and its high bitrate AVC encode spans both layers of this BD-50 disc.


Audio
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue's DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 remix doesn't take all that many liberties with the original mono audio. The surrounds help flesh out a world that feels more organic and alive -- cars careening across the entire soundscape and otherworldly howls in a subterranean crypt -- and this sense of immersion never once comes across as awkward or gimmicky. There are also some effective moments of directionality across the front speakers, such as the zombie played by Fernando Hilbeck dropping the rod he'd been impaled with, resulting in a metallic clink that emerges from the right front main. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue owes so much of its strength to the atmosphere it builds, and this multichannel remix only serves to heighten that. Bass response is modest but effective, particularly the relentless pounding of the zombies as they mount their siege against a barricade in the cemetery. The film's dialogue is rendered reasonably cleanly and clearly, and though there is a pervasive hiss throughout, it's too mild to distract. This is a strong effort from Blue Underground.

This Blu-ray disc also features the film's original monaural soundtrack (DD 2.0; 256Kbps) along with a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.


Extras
This Blu-ray disc opens with the same optional introduction by Jorge Grau (1 min.; SD) as Anchor Bay's original DVD release.

  • Back to the Morgue (45 min.; SD): Director Jorge Grau reflects back on the film by revisiting the many different locations in and around Derbyshire where much of the film was shot. This includes the streams with the stepping stones where the first attack took place, the streets of Manchester, the church that the afro'ed streaker dashes from, a long-since-closed hospital, what's left of George's shop, and, of course, the cemetery. Grau's comments early on primarily just recap the plot, but the conversations get more and more lively as they go along: shaping the shamble of the undead, arguing in favor of filming in Glasgow instead, crafting the color of the fake blood, working with a crew of Italian purists who brought their own pasta and sauces from their homeland, and speaking at length about working with such an international cast and crew. This is a terrific interview, and setting it against the backdrop of some of the original shooting locations helps it stand out from
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    just another talking heads piece. This interview is conducted in Spanish and has been subtitled into English.

  • 2000 Interview with Jorge Grau (20 min.; SD): Grau's other interview is carried over from the original Anchor Bay DVD release, and it too is conducted in Spanish. Among the topics here are Grau being pursued by a producer obsessed with Night of the Living Dead, his meticulous research into autopsies, incorporating the voices of the undead he'd created into the film's score, and the controversy that swirled around the crew's "desecration" of the resting place of Robin Hood's right-hand, Little John.

  • Zombie Fighter (16 min.; SD): This interview with Ray Lovelock opens with a story about how he first broke into the burgeoning Italian film industry. From there, the movie's star notes how he became ensnared in The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, speaks about how wonderfully he got along with the rest of the cast and crew, touches on his opinion of the film now, and mentions that he initially disagreed with Grau about its epilogue. This Italian interview features English subtitles.

  • Zombie Maker (16 min.; SD): The disc's second Italian interview aims its cameras at special effects artist Giannetto de Rossi. He speaks in great detail about his work with Lucio Fulci in Zombie as well as his first stab at the walking undead, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. de Rossi offers up recipes for his different flavors of stage blood, describes how he made an edible eye and the breast he ripped off with his own hands on-screen, and notes his admiration for Grau crafting an atmospheric horror film rather than a mindless splatterfest.

  • Trailers, Commercials, and Radio Spots (7 min.; partially HD): The international trailer for The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is the only high definition extra on this disc. The rest of the promotional material uses the title Don't Open the Window, including a pair of minute-long radio spots -- playing over a montage of newspaper clippings -- that bungle the recap of the plot.

  • Poster and Still Gallery (3 min.; SD): This montage features a slew of production stills, posters, and lobby cards the world over.

I'm normally not the type to grouse about cover art, but the Photoshop hackjob here is amateurish and embarrassing. Not only that, there's a fairly colossal spoiler to boot, even if it is a similar shot from one of the original lobby cards.


The Final Word
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue easily ranks among the most exceptional of the European zombie films, and it may have been the best the world over until Romero first released Dawn of the Dead. Though its release on Blu-ray is nothing overwhelmingly dazzling visually or aurally, the atmospheric horror of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is well-worth discovering in high definition, and it's appreciated that Blue Underground has assembled such a compelling selection of extras. Recommended.


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