Brought to life as a direct result of George A. Romero’s now-seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), Jorge “Jordi” Grau’s highly-atmospheric zombie shocker THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE (1974) is perhaps best known for its scenes of gruesome gut-crunching. And, like its primary source of inspiration, Grau also succeeds in generating a potent aura of claustrophobia and mounting paranoia, and it’s this atmosphere of unease—augmented by a bleakness and overlying sense of morbid dread that’s almost palpable—which remains one of its most memorable assets. Released under many alternate titles and in numerous different versions, THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE has been steadily available in several ‘special editions’ throughout the digital age thus far. However, the recent 3-disc Limited Edition Steelbook from those perfectionists at Synapse Films easily eclipses every single other release that preceded it.
Ray Lovelock plays George, an art dealer from Manchester, England who is eager to escape the polluted and congested city for a weekend getaway in the country. While zipping through the English countryside on his big, fat, black Norton motorbike (with stylin’ leather biker jacket to match), by pure—if fateful—happenstance he crosses paths with Edna (Cristina Galbó) at a gas station. After she accidentally backs into his parked bike with her car, the understandably angry George coerces her into taking him the rest of the way to his final destination Windermere. However, the flighty Edna explain that she needs to get to the town of Southgate in order to visit her ill-and-ailing sister Katie (Jeannine Mestre) instead. After getting lost along the way, Ray and Edna stop to ask for directions at a farm, where the highly-opinionated George becomes openly critical of a new insect-exterminating gizmo the Department of Agriculture is testing, which uses low-level ultrasonic radiation as a potentially ‘eco-friendly’ alternative to conventional chemical pesticides. As George and Edna soon find out, however, this machine also ‘just happens’ to cause recently-deceased human corpses to rise from their graves and walk the earth anew…
Still-topical in its ecological concerns, THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE is an upscale and highly engrossing Euro-horror from talented Spanish director Jorge Grau, who, a year earlier, had given us the equally-fascinating gothic horror film, THE LEGEND OF BLOOD CASTLE (a.k.a. BLOOD CEREMONY ). Executed with great professionalism across the board, TLDAMM’s measured narrative takes it time to develop via a succession of believable dramatic interactions between its protagonists. In what is undoubtedly one of his most memorable leading roles, Ray Lovelock is excellent as George, the staunch—not to mention exceedingly frustrated and antsy!—eco-activist, who is viewed with surly distrust by most of the locals, as well as by Edna herself in the early stages of their unwitting ‘relationship’. As more and more people are besieged—and brutalized!—by the living dead, leaving a trail of mutilated corpses in their wake, George (thanks to the ever-fickle finger of Fate) falls victim to several unlucky coincidences. Much to his misfortune, he becomes inexorably caught up in the personal machinations of the detective assigned to the case, gruffly played by the great Arthur Kennedy.
Much like in Romero’s NOTLD, the uglier side of human nature proves to be as big an obstacle to overcome as the living dead themselves. The short-sightedness of Kennedy’s character combined with George’s deep mistrust of the police (“The cops never like to admit they’re wrong!”) results in a number of clashes between the two men from opposite ends of the political spectrum. During one particularly heated moment, Kennedy relishes the opportunity to espouse his unfettered opinion about George and his ‘kind’ when he emphatically declares, “You’re all the same! The lot of you! With your long hair and faggot clothes! Drugs. Sex. Every sort of FILTH!” That said, as the order-barking dick of a detective, Kennedy is such a nasty, stubbornly vindictive character that you just hope he gets his much-deserved comeuppance sooner than later.
Shot almost entirely in England, give or take a few interiors lensed in Spain and Italy, TLDAMM makes the most of its beautiful authentic locales (including Castleton, Derbyshire, which stands in for most of the fictional town of Southgate), many of which are eerily-deserted, and this stark seeming under-population only adds to the impending horror. The opening sequence, which follows George on his motorcycle through the bustling streets of Manchester (including a busty female ‘streaker’ [that quaint social trend of the ’70s!] momentarily jiggling across the road between heavy traffic), initiates this interesting juxtaposition of encroaching industrialization. Set to composer Giuliano Sorgini’s excellent title theme “John Dalton Street,” Grau and his editor Vincenzo Tomassi effectively showcase a civilization teetering on the brink of environmental ruin, cross-cutting between the suffocating, garbage-strewn city streets and the lush open countryside. While NOTLD merely alluded vaguely to the origins of the zombie outbreak, Grau and his writers Sandro Continenza and Marcello Coscia herein directly blame unchecked technological advancement for detrimental effects on our natural ecosystem (“They tampered with nature, and now they must pay the price!” declared U.S. taglines). When George first encounters the aforementioned experimental prototype ‘ultrasonic bug-zapper’, which kills insects and parasites by attacking their nervous systems, he’s quick to dismiss it as “just another machine to pollute the Earth!” But nevertheless, as the film ends, humanity’s inevitable march towards ‘progress’ proves to be unrelenting and unstoppable...
In addition, Grau's film includes several inventive (if unexplained) touches. Besides their unnerving, star-shaped and exceedingly bloodshot eyes, the living dead are also given an inexplicable ability to transmit ‘unlife’ to one another, which they do by dabbing the eyelids of their fellow dead with the blood of the living (i.e., that of their freshly-dead victims). As the film’s primary zombie (a recently-drowned tramp named Guthrie), Fernando Hilbeck fulfills much the same function as Bill Hinzman had in his infamous turn as the first zombie seen in NOTLD. Like Hinzman, Hilbeck’s imposing presence in the present film has also gone on to become iconic. Having earlier appeared in Narcisco Ibáñez Serrador’s superb THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (1969), pretty Spanish starlet Cristina Galbó (credited here as “Christine Galbo”) also adds immensely to the film as the understandably distraught Edna as she too witnesses the visceral violence perpetrated by the living dead.
Meticulously photographed by Francisco Sempere, the DP’s work herein looks truly splendid on Synapse Films’ new Blu-ray, which boasts a stunningly sumptuous new 4K restoration taken from the original camera negative. Without going into too many specifics, the image is virtually flawless. Without compromising the film’s natural grain structure an iota, this new transfer is unparalleled in its clarity, with richer colours and deeper blacks; it’s all so impressive, you’ll never need (or want) to re-watch it in any other form! The disc provides two DTS-HD MA audio options, including the film’s original 2.0 mono track and a 5.1 remix, both of which, depending on your set-up, sound excellent, giving further prominence to Giuliano Sorgini’s memorable score and unsettling sound design.
Extras on Synapse’s disc commence with two separate audio commentaries, starting with author Troy Howarth, who has plenty to discuss. He gets underway with the film’s genesis, then goes into the significance of NOTLD on the genre, addresses TLDAMM’s still-prescient ecologically-conscious themes, as well as how the filmmakers went through a sort of (quote) “checklist” in order to ensure they had all the necessary commercial aspects covered. Howarth also provides an excellent primer on the once-problematic Spanish film industry under Generalisimo Francisco Franco’s (1892-1975) regime, Grau’s lengthy career, Kennedy’s sojourn within European cinema, and much more, making for a well-informed and thoroughly engaging commentary. For the second audio commentary, Cinema Arcana’s Bruce Holecheck and Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson provide another of their highly-entertaining discussions, which is crammed chock-a-block with tons of invaluable info, plus several fascinating anecdotes too. Both participants are eager to point out that Grau’s film is one of (quote) “the high points of European horror,” then proceed to enthusiastically discuss TLDAMM’s (quote) “surreal, dreamlike quality,” its unique locations, Sorgini’s impressive sound design, the superb cast, special make-up effects artist Gianetto De Rossi, and also some of Grau’s other work, including his vastly-underrated rape/revenge shocker CODE OF HUNTING (1983), as well as his extremely misleadingly-titled crime drama VIOLENT BLOOD BATH(1972). A great listen all round, indeed!
Unfortunately, a trio of featurettes (including the great location doc Back to the Morgue) from Blue Underground’s 2009 Blu-ray have not been carried-over on Synapse’s new disc. Making up for that, they have included several other new extras instead. In the first, Catalonia’s King of Cult (88m58s), Jorge Grau gives a career-spanning interview, most of which (natch!) focuses on this his living dead opus. The doc also includes observations on the film from Kim Newman, Rachael Nisbet, John Martin and others. In the following extras, beginning with Scene of the Crime (15m24s), Eugenio Ercolani interviews special makeup-man Gianetto De Rossi, wherein he discusses his (quote) “perfect artistic relationship” with director Grau, his thoughts and apprehension regarding ‘eyeball violence’ in such films as Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE (1979), and his opinions (“Fuck! What I am doing!?”) about his gruesome work on Joe D’Amato’s EMANUELLE IN AMERICA (1976). In the final extra, Ercolani is once again on hand to moderate a very lively Q&A with De Rossi at the (fittingly enough!) Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films (44m29s). In it, they relate interesting—and at times hilarious—stories centered around De Rossi’s time working within the U.S. film industry, his contributions to Fabrizio De Angelis’ KILLER CROCODILE (1989) and its woeful sequel, plus his unexpected return to the fore with Alexandre Aja’s HIGH TENSION (2003). The film’s cool European trailer and an assortment of TV and radio spots conclude the extras.
Enclosed in an eye-catching Steelbook featuring original cover art by Wes Benscoter (the package comes inside a slipcover illustrated with some of the promotional artwork used on TLDAMM’s foreign releases), this exemplary set also includes a DVD copy of the Blu-ray as well as a 15-track (29m59s) soundtrack CD of Sorgini’s memorable score. An 8-page booklet with an essay from Nicholas G. Schlegel, Ph.D., and extensive restoration notes from Synapse’s very own Don May, Jr. is also included, as is a poster reproduction of Benscoter’s artwork. As greatly appreciated as the beautiful packaging is, though, it’s Synapse’s superior restoration, which goes far above and beyond all usual expectations, that makes their edition of this Euro-horror gem one of the year’s absolute finest releases! Order it from Synapse Films or DiabolikDVD.