• Gabe Powers

The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue Blu-ray Review/Comparison


Synapse Films

Blu-ray Release: June 7, 2022

Video: 1.85:1/1080p/Color

Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono and 5.1

Subtitles: English SDH

Run Time: 92:57

Director: Jorge Grau


A strange twist of fate brings two young travelers, George (Ray Lovelock) and Edna (Christine Galbo), to a small town where an experimental agricultural machine may be bringing the dead back to life! As zombies infest the area and attack the living, a bullheaded detective (Arthur Kennedy) thinks the couple are Satanists responsible for the local killings. George and Edna have to fight for their lives, and prove their innocence, as they try to stop the impending zombie apocalypse! (From Synapse’s official synopsis)



For years, the impact of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was felt in method and sentiment, rather than direct concept. With a few exceptions – Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz’s Messiah of Evil (1973), Bob Clark’s Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1973), Jean Rollin’s Grapes of Death (French: Les Raisins de La Mort, 1978) and Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead movies (1972-75) – filmed zombie fiction still followed previously established rules. The re-animated dead were either magical creatures in the voodoo tradition or vengeful revenants in the EC Comics and pulp horror tradition. They typically were not compelled to cannibalize living victims, merely to murder them. They were rarely the result of a contagion and almost never the outset of an apocalypse. The lack of template led to a small, but unique series of films, including Clark’s Deathdream (aka: Dead of Night, 1974), Romero’s own The Crazies (1973), David Cronenberg’s Shivers (aka: The Parasite Murders and They Came from Within, 1975), and David E. Durston’s I Drink Your Blood (1970), that were released before Night of the Living Dead’s official sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), set us on the slow road to post-millennial zombie overload.


The popularity of Italian rip-offs of Dawn of the Dead helped propel the genre during the home-video era and common knowledge credits Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979) as the catalyst for international demand. While Fulci’s film may have been the biggest Italian zombie cinema hit, it was predated by a Spanish/Italian co-production released in 1974, which endeavored to bring the black & white flesh-eating mayhem of Romero’s first zombie opus, Night of the Living Dead, to the European countryside in full, bloody color. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (Italian: Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti; Spanish: No profanar el sueño de los muertos; aka: Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Don’t Open the Window, and at least 14 other titles) was directed by the Barcelona-born Jorge Grau, co-written by Italian scribes Marcello Coscia and Sandro Continenza (with uncredited additions from Juan Cobos and Miguel Rubio), co-produced by Rome-born Edmondo Amati, photographed by Madrid-born Francisco Sempere, (partially) shot in the English countryside, and populated by Italian, Spanish, and British actors. Though never forgotten, thanks to multiple home-video releases on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray – not to mention a place on the UK’s infamous Video Nasties list – Living Dead at Manchester Morgue remains overshadowed by other Italian and Spanish gut-munchers, and deserves recognition for its many contributions to the cannibalistic zombie genre.



Grau’s career as filmmaker spanned more than three decades, yet, outside of Spain, he’s largely known for his two horror movies, which were made and released over a period of about one year – this one and Blood Ceremony (Spanish: Ceremonia sangrienta; aka: The Legend of Blood Castle, 1973). These demonstrate the director’s innate ability to incorporate classic horror imagery in a wrapping of contemporary exploitation, indulge in sex and violence, but with lyrical flair. Living Dead at Manchester Morgue’s graphic gore is its most stunning feature, especially considering the rarity of such extreme on-screen acts as disembowelment and cannibalism in 1974. The effects were designed by make-up artist Giannetto De Rossi, who was eventually responsible for Fulci’s dirt-caked creatures and, thus, the basic look of all golden-era Italian zombies. These living dead aren’t as ‘earthy’ and their movements mimic those of Night of the Living Dead’s ghouls, but it still seems likely that Fulci was somewhat inspired by Grau’s work here, especially in terms of set-pieces. The graveyard/mausoleum sequences, for instance, are similar to the climax of City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980) and the hospital-set scenes resemble the climax of The Beyond (Italian: ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981). The difference is that those films are works of surreal nihilism. Grau’s gore works in concert with rich, green landscapes, smog-choked cities, and traditional Gothic trappings (spooky mausoleums, open graves, candlelight, and rolling fog) to create a novel, contemporary version of the European horror that proliferated over the previous decade (i.e. the films of Hammer, Mario Bava, and Paul Naschy).


Living Dead at Manchester Morgue and Blood Ceremony also both engage in political themes. This was one key element of Romero’s zombie movies that didn’t make the leap into Fulci’s films (at least not in a particularly self-explanatory way). This begins with a rather extraordinary reason for the dead rising. Romero’s films famously refuse to answer the exact cause of the zombie apocalypse, but there are throw-away lines in Night of the Living Dead about radiation from a downed satellite. In this film, George leaves the car to ask for directions and happens across men from the Department of Agriculture, who are testing a machine that uses ultrasonic resonance to eradicate crop-eating insects, by driving the unwanted bugs into a cannibalistic frenzy. The science is sensible in theory, but, unfortunately, the sonic radiation also activates the primitive nervous systems of the freshly dead and the newly born – a unique spin on zombie lore that may have inspired Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s murderous kid classic, Who Can Kill a Child? (Spanish: ¿Quién puede matar a un niño?, 1976), on which Living Dead at Manchester Morgue co-producer Manuel Pérez acted as production manager.



Before the radiating insecticide machine is even introduced, the opening titles set the tone with a suffocating montage of London-set industrialization. Sewer grates, smoke stacks, and nuclear cooling towers bellow pollution into the sky. The filthy streets are crowded with coughing people, some of them wearing surgical masks to keep the pollution at bay (George himself can’t breathe without a scarf over his face, which he removes once he’s riding free in countryside terrain). Grau tosses in a shot of a dead bird rotting on the sidewalk for good measure. Then, his counterculture cynicism briefly bleeds through when, without warning, a background performer (who we never see again) strips off her clothes and runs naked across an intersection, holding up a peace sign. Most of the people waiting in their cars for the signal to change don’t take any notice.


The real meat of the messaging, however, is found in the characters. Like many post-’60s folk horror protagonists, George and Edna are progressively-minded, new world characters trapped by coincidence in an old world setting (note that Living Dead at Manchester Morgue was released the same year as Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974]). They aren’t particularly fond of each other, but bond before running into any zombies, because they’re treated with suspicion by rural locals (except at the hospital, where doctors keep asking George for help). The real villain isn’t a homicidal ghoul, but a puritan police investigator and enforcer of the old world morals (played by down-on-his-luck Academy Award nominated character actor Arthur Kennedy), who is convinced that the befuddled “hippies” are responsible for the carnage (“You’re all the same with your long hair and fa**ot clothes. Drugs, sex, every sort of filth,” he hisses when George protests his prejudice). The Inspector (as he is credited) twists every clue in the case to aim the blame and eventually shoots George to death in an abrupt ending designed to mirror Ben’s final moments in Night of the Living Dead. Unlike Ben, though, George gets his ironic, EC comic-style revenge when he returns from the grave and strangles the fascist cop to death.



Video

As I mentioned, Living Dead at Manchester Morgue was included on the UK Director of Public Prosecutions’ list of banned films during the 1984 Video Nasties craze (it was a Section 2 title, so it would’ve been confiscated without prosecution). Multiple companies actually ended up releasing it in the region (VIP, European Creative, LBC), including the banned/uncut versions, the US R-rated cut, BBFC passed versions in 1985, and a Beta tape under the title Don’t Open the Window. I can also find evidence of an NTSC tape from Brazilian company Poderosa, but, otherwise, I’m not sure there was ever an official stateside tape until Anchor Bay released a widescreen VHS alongside their US DVD debut under the title Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (which itself was also available in a limited edition tin). Blue Underground re-released the AB, then Blu-ray and DVD with the Living Dead at Manchester Morgue title sequence. Synapse Films scored the rights and released a limited edition Steelbook in 2020. Two years later, we finally have a standard edition disc, minus the DVD copy and soundtrack CD.


Synapse’s transfer is an exclusive 4K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative and is presented in 1080p and the preferred 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This remaster is an improvement on the Blue Underground disc, which is good news, because that release already featured a pretty strong transfer. I’ve included sliders to give you an idea of the differences, which are notable enough to see, even when shrunk to fit the page (full sized caps can be accessed by right/command clicking the images and opening them in a new page). There are obvious improvements in terms of color and dynamic range with Synapse’s remaster correcting the somewhat muddy quality of the BU disc’s hues and shadows. Black levels are also stronger, though it could be argued that they’ve over-brightened some of the harsher white levels. The remaster’s more subtle improvements include better grain texture and natural detail. Despite being flatter overall, the BU transfer was also a smidge oversharpened to compensate.



Audio

Unusually for a modestly budgeted Eurohorror movie from the ‘70s, Living Dead at Manchester Morgue was mixed for 4-Track Stereo. Assuming a theater had all the right equipment, they could have screened the film with four discrete tracks – left, right, center, and surround. Obviously, most theaters couldn’t manage that at the time, so there was also a mono mix. The Anchor Bay DVD included a 5.1 remix of the stereophonic original alongside a 2.0 track, which was further broadened to a 7.1 mix for the Blue Underground Blu-ray. Synapse has arranged for their own exclusive 5.1 remix, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio. There is also an uncompressed mono track, but this is a rare case when 5.1 better matches the filmmaker’s original intent (at least theoretically). There aren’t a lot of modern directional effects, but the stereo and surround channels get a decent workout via composer Giuliano Sorgini’s music, melodic sci-fi noises, and groaning, breathy zombie sounds that were reportedly recorded by Grau himself. The mono mix is louder and crisper, though, obviously, it doesn’t have the same impact. The lack of additional language tracks isn’t much of a concern, since the lead cast is speaking English on set and some seem to be dubbing their own performances, namely Arthur Kennedy. I’m eternally curious as to if Ray Lovelock managed the over-the-top Cockney accent himself – his father was English, after all.



Extras

  • Commentary with Nathaniel Thompson and Bruce Holecheck – The Mondo Digital and Cinema Arcana critics/editors break down Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, its production, the making-of Blood Ceremony, and find time for some interesting cast & crew anecdotes that I hadn’t already heard/read from a litany of older interviews or even the feature-length documentary on this disc (which I watched first). Holecheck works from a script while Thompson supports him with more off-the-cuff remarks.

  • Commentary with author Troy Howarth – Howorth, the author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films (2015, Midnight Marquee Press), is his typical affable self in this slightly more structured, but similarly informative track. There is overlap with the Thompson & Holecheck track, but not as much as you might assume, especially considering how packed each commentary is.

  • Jorge Grau: Catalonia's Cult Film King (88:58, HD) – In this new documentary about Grau and Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, the director discusses the film’s inception and production, English locations, the cast, his approach to horror and violence, how he broke into filmmaking, politics and censorship, working in Italy, making Blood Ceremony, and the many titles Manchester Morgue went by across the world. Academics/authors Russ Hunter, Callum Waddle, Kim Newmen, John Martin, and Rachel Nisbet offer additional critical perspectives and political/cultural context. Giannetto De Rossi and Giuliano Sorgini also appear to chat about special effects and music.

  • The Scene of the Crime: Giannetto De Rossi in Discussion from Manchester (15:24, HD) – The make-up/special effects artist goes into greater detail on his work in this interview by author/critic Eugenio Ercolani.

  • Giannetto De Rossi Q&A at the 2019 Festival of Fantastic Films in the UK (42:29, HD) – Ercolani again acts as interviewer in this deeper look at De Rossi’s entire career.

  • Theatrical trailer, 2 TV spots, and 2 radio spots



The images on this page are taken from the Synapse BD and the Blue Underground BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.

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