Revisiting Jorge Grau’s atmospheric 1974 horror film The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, one might wonder what happened to that once oh-so-familiar English landscape of Victorian hospitals with puke green walls and high, vaulted ceilings; Mini Coopers and Norton motorcycles in the days before seat belts and motorcycle helmets became compulsory; desperately arty, well-spoken middle-class photographers taking night-time, desperately arty black-and-white photographs of the fauna near their country homes, whilst their troubled wives prepare a hit of junk in the potting shed at the bottom of the yard; and, most noticeably, streakers (Yes, what on Earth did happen to streakers?). On the other hand, the prevalence of face masks in the film’s opening sequence – which The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue uses as an index of the pollution in the city landscape from which protagonist George (Raymond Lovelock) escapes to a countryside made even more dangerous by invasive modern technologies – seems frighteningly prescient in the era of Covid. Additionally, the film’s warnings about the unfettered use of technology and the impact of this on the environment feels just as relevant today as it did in the 1970s; and its juxtaposition of urban and rural space has a perpetual relevance in British culture.
Admittedly, Christina Rossetti’s 1857 poem ‘A Better Resurrection,’ quoted at the head of this article, is the product of her deeply Anglican worldview: a validation of the theme of resurrection in the New Testament, framed in references to the pastoral landscape of England. However, Rossetti’s pastoralism expresses a profound constant within depictions of the English rural space: its juxtaposition with the absolute, utter, despairing spiritual death, corruption, and negating greyness of urban life, and its (the rural space’s, that is) association with themes of resurrection and rebirth. Think of Milton’s great poem ‘Lycidas,’ for example, or the haunting image of the re-emergence of the past residents of the village in David Gladwell’s Requiem for a Village (1975). These themes also find their expression in The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue.
In Grau’s film, George (Ray Lovelock), the co-owner of an antiques shop in Manchester, flees from the city for the weekend. However, at a rural petrol station, his motorcycle is damaged when Edna (Cristina Galbó) accidentally backs her Mini into it. Leaving his motorcycle with the owner of the petrol station, George rather bolshily takes command of Edna’s car, reasoning that the pair are heading in a similar direction: Edna is travelling to the house of her sister, Katie (Jeannine Mestre), and her husband, photographer Martin (José Lifante). Katie, a heroin addict, has relapsed; and Edna and Martin intend to discuss whether or not to have Katie hospitalised.
Becoming lost on their way to Katie and Martin’s house, George and Edna stop by the Lewis Farm for directions. There, George speaks to the farmer, and sees a new, experimental machine in operation: operated by two technicians from the Ministry of Agriculture, the machine emits a sonic pulse which interacts with the nervous systems of insects, causing them to devour one another. Whilst George is talking to the farmer, Edna is attacked near a stream by a mysterious man (Fernando Hilbeck) who is dressed in a sodden black suit, with a noose hanging around his neck. She flees for help and runs into George and the farmer; the latter jokes that the man who attacked Edna must be Guthrie ‘the loony,’ a local vagrant known for harassing motorists. However, this can’t be: Guthrie, it seems, died a week or so earlier, and his body was found in the river.
At Katie and Martin’s cottage, Martin is attacked and killed by Guthrie – who is one of the living dead, having been inadvertently resurrected by the experimental agricultural machine. Arriving on the scene, a bitter detective sergeant (Arthur Kennedy) immediately assumes that Katie is guilty of the murder; when George and Edna arrive, he treats the couple with outright hostility and demands that they stay in the village.
Determined to get to the root of the matter, George and Edna conduct their own investigations, causing more friction with the detective sergeant. At Southgate Hospital, George talks to Dr Duffield (Vicente Vega) and discovers that there has been a spate of newborn babies who have attacked the hospital’s nurses; George and Dr Duffield begin to wonder if the experimental agricultural machine is playing some role in these unusual events. Later, George takes Edna to the churchyard to prove that Guthrie is dead and hasn’t come back to life, but in the crypt they discover Guthrie’s coffin is empty. The pair are attacked by the zombified Guthrie, who ritualistically brings two more corpses back to life by anointing their eyelids with the fresh blood of the church warden, who Guthrie has killed previously.
George and Edna manage to escape the crypt and run into PC Craig (Giorgio Trestini), who has been ordered by the detective sergeant to follow the couple. This trio take shelter in the church warden’s hut, but when Craig tries to break free in order to contact his colleagues, he is attacked by the living dead. Craig is graphically disembowelled, his body cannibalised by the zombies. On the spur of the moment, George defends Edna and himself with a tilly lamp; this causes the zombies to catch fire, and they expire pathetically.
George and Edna split up, Edna driving back to Katie and Martin’s cottage, and George heading to the farm to destroy the experimental machine. George is captured by the police, however, and interrogated by the detective sergeant – who, having found the burnt corpses in the churchyard, believes George is involved in occult practices. Meanwhile, Edna tries to contact Katie, who is being held in the hospital. Aware that Edna is in danger (before its destruction, the range of the experimental machine had been extended to cover an area that included the hospital, in which a number of dead bodies are awaiting transportation to the mortuary at Manchester) George rushes to Southgate Hospital. However, the detective sergeant is on his way to the same spot and intends to teach George a terminal lesson.
Before making his Erzsebet Bathory-inspired horror film Ceremonia sangrienta (Bloody Ceremony/The Legend of Blood Castle, 1973), Grau entered discussions with Edmondo Amati as a potential producer but baulked when Amati insisted that the film should contain elements of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Ultimately, Grau worked with different producers on Ceremonia sangrienta; however, a short while after that picture was completed, Grau was approached by Amati, who presented the director with a script for a zombie film which Amati described as ‘like Night of the Living Dead but in colour.’ Grau spent some time reworking this script with the intention of giving it a greater degree of realism: he focused in particular on the depiction of the experimental agricultural machine which inadvertently awakens the dead from their slumber. In the original script, this machine was depicted in more exaggerated, fantastical terms, and Grau wanted it to be framed in a much more grounded, believable manner. (This was of course carried over into production, in terms of the design of the machine itself, which appears for all intents and purposes like a normal, albeit vibrantly red, tractor with a large funnel, containing rotating metallic dishes, atop its engine housing).
Written by Sandro Continenza, the script for The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue with which Grau was presented was titled ‘Weekend of the Dead.’ Grau suggested retitling the project ‘The Valley of the Dead,’ and this was the title used during production. However, whilst the film’s audio was being recorded, Amati argued that the title should be changed to ‘Don’t Disturb the Sleep of the Dead’. Grau felt that this was too long, but Amati insisted, and this was the title (in Spanish, No profanar el sueño de los muertos) under which the picture was released in Spain. However, in other territories the film was released under a confusing plethora of titles: in Italy, it was distributed as Da dove vieni? (‘Where Are You From?’), as one of a slew of films with titles that were also questions; in the UK, it was known as The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue or, simply, The Living Dead; in the US, it was released and redistributed under a number of monikers. The most commonly-used US title for the picture is Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, but the film was also known Stateside as Don’t Open the Window and Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue.
‘Drugs, sex, and every sort of filth. And you hate the police, don’t you?’
‘The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But, swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said,
But that two-handed engine at the door
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more’
– John Milton, ‘Lycidas’ (1638)
As the era of Hammer’s Gothicism waned in the early 1970s and British horror’s ‘old guard’ struggled to modernise their narratives, no filmmakers were arguably more astute in observing and commenting on the tensions in English society than some of the European directors who chose to make pictures in Britain – or more specifically, England. (It seems churlish to split hairs and argue the toss, but The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue seems concerned with the specificities of ‘Englishness,’ with all the connotations of that label, rather than ‘Britishness.’) In the case of José Ramón Larraz (whose five British films I discussed for Horrified here) and Jorge Grau, the director of The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, making films in Britain offered a sense of freedom – in terms of subject matter and subversive political content – that couldn’t be achieved back home in Spain, which was still under the grip of the repressive Francoist dictatorship. Working in England, both filmmakers delivered pictures that dealt with profoundly English themes, their narratives rooted in the unmistakeably English landscape, whilst burying in the subtext of these films some sly comments on the inequalities of power and expression, and the appeal of a totalising worldview, that drove the fascist mentality in their shared country of birth. For Larraz, this comes most directly in the form of a pointed line delivered by a character in the director’s third British film, Scream and Die! (1973): ‘A weakness can often be close to cruelty.’ This is, of course, a paraphrasing of Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca’s oft-quoted assertion that ‘All cruelty springs from weakness.’ In Larraz’s films, this fascistic cruelty is frequently enacted in bedrooms and during the act of seduction; the weakness that is its well-spring manifests itself equally in both repression (for example, in Symptoms, 1974) and licentiousness (in Deviation, 1971).
For Grau, meanwhile, a coded critique of Francoist fascism comes in The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue more directly, in the form of the bigoted, spiteful detective sergeant (played by Arthur Kennedy) who judges without evidence and ultimately acts as self-appointed executioner. In interviews, Grau often argued that in films, wickedness is far more frightening to him than violence. If the zombies in The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue represent violence, their atrocities against their living victims seeming instinctual rather than motivated by a particular philosophy, the detective sergeant represents the human capacity for wickedness. (In reference to the zombies, one may remember the line from Scottish screenwriter Alan Sharp, in Robert Aldrich’s Western Ulzana’s Raid – released a year or so before The Living Dead… – in which Burt Lancaster’s Cavalry scout is asked whether he hates the Apaches for the violence they have inflicted on the settlers, and Lancaster replies that ‘It would be like hating the desert because there ain’t no water in it. For now, I can get by being plenty scared of ’em.’).
By contrast, the detective sergeant represents a very different sort of cruelty: one that is motivated by prejudice and a repressive ideology. ‘You’re all the same, the lot of you,’ the detective sergeant admonishes George mid-way through the narrative, ‘With your long hair and faggot clothes. Drugs, sex, and every sort of filth. And you hate the police, don’t you?’ This provokes a pithy response from George: ‘You make it easy,’ George says. This encounter between George and the detective sergeant culminates in George mockingly adopting a Nazi salute and declaring, ‘Heil Hitler!’ It’s a moment that hammers home, very directly, the association drawn in the film between Arthur Kennedy’s character and fascism. In the film’s final sequence, the detective sergeant shoots and kills the innocent George following the latter’s pained attempt to rescue Edna from the hospital that has been overrun with the living dead. George’s only ‘crime’ is to be young and allied, albeit very loosely, with countercultural trends via his long hair and beard. ‘I wish the dead could come back to life, you bastard, so I could kill you again,’ the detective sergeant mutters over George’s fresh corpse. Little does this cruel detective, this agent of repression, know how much one must be careful what one wishes for.
In interviews, Grau would often comment on his dislike of the police, and, similarly, unpleasant police officers would anchor his later vigilante thriller Coto de caza (Code of Hunting, 1983). In The Living Dead…, George acts as a mouthpiece for Grau’s anti-police sentiment. At one point, Edna asks George if he thinks the police ‘are right’ (in their claim that Katie may have murdered Martin in the grip of a drug-induced haze). ‘Never,’ George responds sharply before referring directly to the detective sergeant: ‘Especially not ’im.’ George facilitates the theft of a roll of Martin’s undeveloped 35mm film, taken from the camera he was using on the night of the murder, which he believes may contain an image of whoever killed Katie’s husband: he reasons to Edna that it is best for them to steal and develop the film, because ‘The cops never like to admit they’re wrong.’
In casting Arthur Kennedy as the detective sergeant – who throughout the narrative is almost wholly referred to by his title rather than his name, reinforcing the sense of abstract, inhuman authority this character embodies – the producers clearly intended to bestow an element of international marketability upon the project. Here, Kennedy joins a long line of slightly ‘over the hill’ Hollywood actors who found work in European genre films during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, their presence making these pictures easier to sell in Anglophonic markets – alongside the likes of Stuart Whitman, Jack Palance, Christopher Connelly, and Cameron Mitchell.
When Grau met Kennedy, he found an actor who he later described as being ‘in decline,’ drinking heavily and struggling to maintain some semblance of a sustainable income through his work in lower budget European films. Grau sensed a resentment within Kennedy, a profound bitterness, which he encouraged the actor to channel through his performance by suggesting a ‘backstory’ for the character of the detective sergeant in which he had become frustrated with his career and lack of progression within the ranks. Ultimately, Grau argued, this gave depth to Kennedy’s performance, making a character which was, on the page, fairly ‘thin’ and stereotypical into a much more rounded screen presence, giving pathos to his angry rants against young people and countercultural forces.
Like many ‘Eurocult’ productions of the period, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue featured a crew that was eclectically international. Grau, the film’s Catalan director, was assisted by a Spanish director of photography (Francisco Sempere) and script girl (Eva Del Castillo), whilst the production designer (Carlo Leva), editor (Vincenzo Tomassi, who would go on to edit Lucio Fulci’s zombie films), assistant director (Giovanni Arduini), and chief makeup effects artist (Giannetto De Rossi, who would also work on Fulci’s zombie films), were all Italian. The cast was a mixture of Spanish actors (Cristina Galbó, José Lifante, Jeannine Mestre), Italian cast members (Ray Lovelock, Giorgio Trestini), and Anglophonic performers (Arthur Kennedy, Anita Colby). Commenting on the internationalism of the production, and the ‘fish out of water’ nature of many of the Italian/Spanish crew when shooting a film in England, Grau has said that whilst filming on location, the Italian crew members expressed distaste at the local English food to such an extent that they would ask restaurants to cook the pasta and sauces that they transported to the location in a truck.
Much of the film was shot on location in and around Derbyshire, with locations in Dovedale and Hathersage featuring prominently: in the film’s narrative, Edna first encounters Guthrie by a stream near to the Lewis Farm, a location which reoccurs throughout the film, and this was filmed in Dovedale, in the Peak District National Park. Footage of the village in which George and Edna stay was captured at Castleton, in Derbyshire. (In one scene, a sign directing visitors to the nearby Peveril Castle can be seen fairly prominently within the composition.) Barnes Hospital, in Cheadle, was used as the location for the hospital in which the film’s climax takes place. The opening sequence was shot in the city of Manchester (specifically, John Dalton Street/Deansgate). The location used for the churchyard in which George and Edna become trapped by the zombies was the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels in the village of Hathersage, Derbyshire. During filming at this location, which took several days, the crew began to relax and were seen by locals eating and drinking amongst the headstones; there was some blowback from this incident in the local press, which resulted in the crew being prohibited from filming any more material in the churchyard. Pick-up shots were photographed elsewhere.
The film’s interiors were shot at Estudios Cinearte in Madrid and Cinecittà in Rome. Many scenes feature seamless editing between location and studio work: this is particularly true of the sequence in which George and Edna, and PC Craig, become trapped in the church warden’s hut by zombies; this sequence cuts back and forth between footage shot on location in the churchyard at Hathersage, and the interior of the church warden’s hut which was constructed at Cinecittà. The interior of the hospital was built at Estudios Cinearte, and was convincingly reconstructed from photographs of the interior of Barnes Hospital; the production couldn’t film inside Barnes Hospital, because it was still in use, though it would eventually close permanently in 1999. (Grau considered the exterior of Barnes Hospital to be ideal because its architecture was so identifiably ‘English’ .)
‘Don’t see too many young fellas dressed like you round ’ere.’
‘And all the Arts of Life they chang’d into the Arts of Death in Albion’
– William Blake, ‘Jerusalem’ (1808)
Before production began, the producers (and Grau) considered shooting the opening sequence of the film in Glasgow. (Remember that this was before the ‘Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue’ title, which anchors the setting of the film, was considered.) However, the crew soon realised how far away Glasgow was from the other locations that were being considered for the film. Grau later commented that Manchester had ‘the atmosphere of terror required for the movie.’ (Glasgow’s distance is mentioned in the film: when Edna backs her Mini into George’s motorcycle, the owner of the rural petrol station says that George will have to wait for a new wheel to be shipped from Glasgow; why this wheel would need to come from Glasgow when Norton motorcycles were made in Birmingham is anyone’s guess.) Much of the opening sequence, depicting George’s flight from the city on his motorcycle, was ‘grabbed’ guerrilla-style, the crew capturing spontaneous footage of pollution being belched out of vehicles which are waiting in heavy queues of traffic, and passers-by wearing facemasks to protect against the polluted air. The result is a titles sequence that has the quality of cinema verité, establishing a tone of naturalism that runs through much of the film – including its depiction of the living dead.
The female streaker who memorably runs through the line of traffic whilst making a sign of peace wasn’t in the script, but was added during production; Tomassi applied the Kuleshov effect during editing to crosscut between her display of nudity and footage of bored motorists – suggesting that even her bold act of defiance, and display of her body, isn’t enough to arouse these commuters from the slumber that is their lives. (These urban commuters are perhaps the true ‘living dead.’) As Grau commented later, ‘streaking at that time was a cry for freedom, a request for freedom,’ and the lack of attention the streaker draws suggests that the other characters are ‘completely indifferent’ to her act of protest. This may lead one to wonder: does the concept of ‘streaking,’ its ironic and playful attempt to disrupt the normal course of things, even register in the age of digital media: does sudden, uncalled-for nudity still have the power to shock? If not, what does this say about the slumber of our lives?
George’s reasons for leaving the city seem ambiguous. He encounters Edna at the rural petrol station/garage where Edna accidentally backs her Mini Cooper into George’s motorcycle. He insists that Edna take him to his destination, leaving his motorcycle at the garage to be repaired. However, Edna – who is from London – is heading to see her sister, Katie: Edna and Katie’s husband, Martin, are gathering at the house (described in the script as ‘the Madison house,’ though Katie and Martin’s surname is ‘West’) in order to make plans to have Katie committed as a response to her refusal to kick a heroin addiction. (Katie, it seems, has refused to kick her habit, and has taken to hiding her heroin and ‘kit’ in the tool shed.) When the detective sergeant discovers this, he believes that knowledge of this provided Katie with the motive to kill Martin.
Meanwhile, George is heading to nearby Southgate, close to the location of the hospital (which is identified as Southgate Hospital). At varying points in the story, George offers different reasons for heading to Southgate. Initially, he tells Edna that he is travelling there to relax in the cottage he owns, ‘where from Saturday to Monday I listen to the grass grow. Very restful’. Later, he backpedals on this story slightly and offers a moderately different version of events, telling Edna that the house is new and he is to meet some friends there in order to fix it up. Even later in the narrative, after he has been arrested by the detective sergeant – who suggests that the exotic carved wooden statue George has been transporting in his panniers is evidence of George’s involvement in occult ceremonies – George protests that the motive for his journey was to deliver the statue to a shopkeeper in Windermere. The statue is given prominence in the narrative by virtue of the fact that the film’s opening shot is a slow dolly into it (as it sits on a table in George’s antique shop), and we see George’s hands carefully pick it up and place it in his panniers. The statue is clearly depicted as exotic, and seems to have some association with fertility: the statue depicts a near-nude woman kneeling, the fingers of one hand gripping the nipple of one of her swollen breasts. Whether or not it has any occult significance is perhaps a non-question; but it certainly has importance for George, and George’s three slightly different explanations for his journey to the region imbue the character with a level of unreliability.
Particularly astute in the British films of both Grau and Larraz is both directors’ comprehension of some of the tensions and inequalities in English society: in particular, how one’s status and sense of opportunity may be judged simply by an accent and/or the region of one’s birth, and how this judgement limits both respect and opportunity. One of the things that the English language version of The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue gets remarkably ‘right’ is the depiction of the various accents of the characters, and how accent is tethered to the social status of the speaker. Lewis, the farmer, speaks in a slightly gentrified rural accent (with some stereotypically rural phraseology – ‘oo aye,’ ‘it were,’ and so on), which is matched by the similar accent of the owner of the village shop where George and Edna take Martin’s roll of 35mm film to be developed and printed. The two men from the Ministry of Agriculture, however, are depicted as unequal partly because of the manner in which they speak: the younger of the two men has a more coarse, less refined accent; whilst his slightly older counterpart speaks not quite in Received Pronunciation, but certainly with an accent whose sharp corners have been blunted somewhat by education and status.
Meanwhile, Martin and Katie demonstrate the sociolect of the privileged upper middle classes through their emphasis on refined Received Pronunciation. Both of these characters speak ‘well,’ as does Edna, who has travelled to the region from London. This complements the readily apparent, deeply upper-middle-class luxury of Martin and Katie’s home. The other character who speaks equally ‘well’ is Dr Duffield. By contrast, from the content of his dialogue, it seems clear that George is educated, though his vowels have a regional ‘twang’ (and his consonants a snarl) that mark him as from a different class – in the English dub, at least – to the RP of Edna, her sister, and Martin. (We might reasonably assume that, given the era of the film’s setting, George is a grammar school scholarship boy who has perhaps attended university.) As the co-owner of an antiques shop in the city, George is too allied with the Establishment to be a true countercultural figure – though, throughout the film, he expresses values that ally him with some of its causes (such as anti-authoritarianism, and environmentalism). Owing to his clothing, hair, and beard, he is mistaken for a hippie (and therefore discredited) by the detective sergeant – though it is clear that George, a small businessman, is anything but. His accent is hard to place: somewhat vaguely ‘Northern’ but with a hint of the South in it. When he speaks to Lewis, the farmer, Lewis mistakes George for a Southerner: Lewis comments that George must be ‘up from London [….] Don’t see too many young fellas dressed like you round ’ere.’
Despite their social and cultural differences, nevertheless, George and Edna develop a touching relationship. Their initial interactions are spikey: George resents Edna, quite reasonably, for the damage she has enacted against his motorcycle; there also seems to be an undercurrent of class envy bubbling away in their relationship. When they are first introduced, and Edna introduces herself (as ‘Edna Simmons,’ though later in the film the detective sergeant refers to her as ‘Miss Simons’ – not the only instance of a character’s name being confused in the film ), George comments dryly: ‘You look a little like an ‘Edna’’ The joke may or may not be lost on non-British viewers: the name Edna was at the time (and probably for most people still is) associated with stuffy, usually elderly, and devoutly middle-class spinster-types. Even the pairing of the names of George and Edna is quietly comic, though in truth this may be retrospective, perhaps inevitably coloured by memories of George and Mildred Roper (Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce) from Thames Television’s contemporaneous sitcom Man About the House (1973-6): of course, these two characters acquired their own spin-off sitcom, George and Mildred, which began airing in 1976.
Though it is very clear that as the narrative develops, George and Edna become increasingly fond of one another, their relationship is profoundly chaste. There is nary a kiss on the cheek. (They would make the perfect English married couple, you might argue.) In fact, their relationship is probably one of the most touching within Eurocult films of the 1970s, which were often – though admittedly not always – driven by sex, or at the very least an exploitative need to depict sex and, predominantly female, nudity. The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue resists this quite sternly. In fact, aside from the briefly-glimpsed female streaker in the opening titles sequence, the only hint of sex is suggested through the black and white photographs Martin displays in his study: these are documentary-style photographs, barely seen, that show his wife, Katie, jonesing for a fix in the bathroom of the couple’s cottage. In the photographs, Katie is naked, photographed in profile and cowering against the bathroom sink. Even these photographs form a plot point, the detective sergeant using them as evidence of Katie’s motive to kill her husband – because, he reasons, Martin was conspiring with Edna to shop Katie off to a mental hospital. (If the film were to be remade today, there is no doubt that Edna’s theme would be a riff on Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab.’)
George and Edna’s blossoming relationship finds its pay-off in the film’s climax. After the couple have been separated – George questioned by the police following his attempt to destroy the agricultural machine, Edna transported to the hospital – George escapes from the coppers and rushes to Southgate Hospital to save his newfound lady love. George battles his way through the zombies that have now infested the hospital. Aside from killing Dr Duffield, these zombies have disembowelled a female receptionist and (in one of the film’s most oft-censored moments) torn one of her breasts away from her torso before devouring it. George has discovered, via the encounter in the churchyard, that the zombies can be defeated with fire; with this knowledge, he wraps a fire axe in wadding and sets it alight. This allows him to forge a path to the room in which Edna is being kept. He defends Edna against a group of zombies, in the process setting the room alight. He drags her out of the room and embraces her, only to realise – from her unnaturally red irises – that she has already been ‘turned’ and is a zombie. George instinctively pushes her back into the room and the flames that are consuming it, and Edna rather pitifully reaches out for him, with imploring eyes and a deathly gasp. George barely has time to register the impact of this heartbreaking moment, before he is ‘capped’ by the over-eager, revolver-wielding detective sergeant.
‘We can’t even get the government to act on much more serious and concrete facts these days’
‘So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,
Farewell remorse! All good to me is lost;
Evil, be thou my good’
– John Milton, ‘Paradise Lost’ (1674)
Aside from the film’s examination of heavy-handed policing, pushed to the foreground of The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is its criticism of the use of new technologies, tied to the film’s ecological subtext. The use of the zombie film as a platform for social commentary seems in part motivated by George A Romero’s similar methodology in The Living Dead…’s most obvious model, Night of the Living Dead: Romero’s film, of course, has often been interpreted as an allegorical depiction of the tensions in American during the era of Civil Rights and the war in Vietnam. (It’s worth remembering that Grau’s film was made almost a half-decade before Romero’s official sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), and the slew of Italian imitators of that film which often shoehorned blunt-faced social commentary into their splatter-focused horrors, with varying degrees of success.) In the opening sequence of The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, George flees the city whose air is polluted by both vehicles and industry. We are presented with a montage of exhaust pipes and smokestacks; at one point, Grau cuts to a dead bird in the gutter, its presence a symbol of this pollution. (In fact, Grau’s directorial credit is placed over the slow zoom in to this poor creature.) As George exits the city and enters the countryside, he removes the scarf which he has till then used to cover his mouth, its presence an echo of the face masks we see the pedestrians wearing in the city centre.
After George and Edna’s initial encounter with one another at the petrol station, as they head to Windermere/Southgate, they listen to a radio broadcast that focuses on an official report on environmental issues. ‘What rot,’ George comments angrily: ‘Ecological problems ‘exaggerated?” Of course, when we all die, only the scientists will survive.’ This moment foreshadows the major plot point of the film, which occurs when George visits the Lewis Farm to ask for directions to Martin and Katie’s cottage. There, George finds the owner of Lewis Farm, who has permitted scientists from the Ministry of Agriculture to test a new sonic device. This device is intended to target the primitive nervous systems of insects, causing them to turn on one another and kill their peers. George makes clear his feelings about this device, telling the farmer, ‘I’d send it [the machine] right back where it came from and keep the insects and parasites nature’s given you [….] Just another machine to pollute the earth. Till now, at least, this part of the country’s been left alone.’
Later, returning to the site with Dr Duffield, George becomes involved in a spot of verbal argy-bargy with the scientists. ‘Not even DDT was this effective when it first came out,’ one of the men from the Ministry of Agriculture says. ‘DDT causes cancer,’ George reminds him. ‘If you want to go back to nature, why don’t you find yourself a nice Pacific atoll somewhere?’, the scientist asks George. ‘Sure, George responds, ‘All I’d have to worry about then is atomic fallout.’ Walking away, he discusses with Dr Duffield what can be done about the machine. ‘We can’t even get the government to act on much more serious and concrete facts these days,’ Duffield comments, ‘Imagine how much success we would have getting them to act on a mere hypothesis.’ (Plus ça change, eh?)
However, as George and Edna come to realise, the device is also having an effect on the nervous systems of newborn babies at the hospital, who are being born with a deeply aggressive streak that causes them to attack the nurses. When George first arrives at the hospital, he encounters a nurse who has been partially blinded by a clawing infant, and he assists Dr Duffield by holding the baby down whilst a sedative is administered to it. (The baby has a piece of string around its neck, which it seems to be clawing at; one wonders whether this was placed there by the crew in order to agitate the infant sufficiently to suggest that it was capable of attacking the nurse.)
It rapidly becomes clear that the experimental agricultural device is also affecting the nervous systems of the dead, bringing them back to life. (George reasons that if the hair and fingernails of a corpse continue to grow past the moment of death, there may be some activity within the nervous system that could be stimulated by the sonic device being tested at Lewis Farm.) Guthrie is the first of such walking corpses, and when George and Edna become trapped in the crypt beneath the churchyard, they witness Guthrie wiping the blood of the groundsman – whom Guthrie has previously killed – onto the eyes of the other corpses there. This ritualistic gesture, which seems like an unholy parody of the Christian act of baptism, seems to resurrect the dead – as George informs PC Craig later in the film when the trio become trapped in the hut attached to the church.
Whilst Edna and George are cornered in the hut, George realises he can dispatch the zombies by setting them alight with a tilly lamp, with the result that, in flames, they crumble to the ground pathetically. After George and Edna have left the scene, the charred remains are discovered by the detective sergeant, who arrives at the churchyard with the magistrate, Perkins (Francisco Sanz). (Grau has suggested significant dissatisfaction with Sanz’s performance, which was a last-minute piece of fill-in casting; the actor is certainly dubbed in the English version with a comically broad regional accent that seems out of tune with his profession.) Perhaps referencing the Manson murders in the States, Perkins asks the sergeant if he has ‘come across any of these “Satanists” in your investigations? They vandalise cemeteries, they profane tombs, and – you know – hold Black Masses.’ Later in the film, this leads the sergeant to suggest that George is involved in the occult after George has been arrested; the statue that George has been transporting from his shop in Manchester is used as ‘evidence’ of this.
George scoffs at this suggestion, of course: ‘I’ve never been to a Black Mass in my life’, he protests before gesturing to the statue: ‘I sell this stuff. It’s not my fault that Christ and the saints are out of fashion.’ Given that the film offers a ‘scientific’ explanation for the zombies, in the form of the agricultural machine, it’s easy to negate any possible supernatural reason for their existence. However, this is to overlook the moment in which Guthrie resurrects the other corpses in the tomb by placing blood on their eyelids – a gesture that is ritualistic, and in itself suggestive of necromancy. Why a walking corpse would be impelled to do this is left unexplained. George tries to rationalise this when he, Edna, and PC Craig are trapped in the hut, telling Craig: ‘They transmit life to each other by the blood of the living,’ George suggests, ‘Like a plague. That’s why they kill.’ Though The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue offers a clear warning about experimental new technologies, and humankind’s effect on the natural world, the film’s depiction of the zombies is significantly more ambiguous than it appears on the surface to be.
Grau’s film is clearly motivated by the paradigmatic shift represented in George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which reconfigured the zombie as a product not of voodoo but of misguided science: rather than the shambling undead whose actions are directed by a houngan (as seen in, say, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie in 1943, or John Gilling’s 1965 Hammer horror film The Plague of the Zombies), Romero re-envisioned the living dead as flesh-eating ghouls, driven by pure instinct to devour the flesh of the living. The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue predated Romero’s own, equally ground-breaking, sequel to Night of the Living Dead, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead – and the proverbial outbreak of European imitators of that film, including the likes of Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979), Umberto Lenzi’s Incubo sulla città contaminata (Nightmare City, 1980), and Bruno Mattei’s Virus (Zombie Creeping Flesh, 1980). However, as a shot-in-ghoulish-colour ‘response’ to Night of the Living Dead, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue was predated slightly by Bob Clark’s Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972).
Unlike Clark’s film, however, with The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue Grau sought to achieve a grisly verisimilitude in the depiction of the zombies; in collaboration with makeup effects specialist Giannetto De Rossi, who as noted above would later work on Fulci’s zombie pictures, Grau consulted numerous post-mortem photographs in order to ensure that the shambling corpses had more than an element of realism to them, in terms of the makeup effects. What results are some strikingly convincing zombies. The film’s dialogue also works hard at dismissing fictional depictions of the walking dead: ‘The dead don’t walk around, except in very bad paperback novels. They’re dead, and that’s that,’ George tells Edna before leading her into the churchyard where the couple will encounter Guthrie and the other zombies. Aside from this, the film deliberately breaks some of the conventions established in Romero’s film: for example, the notion that the living dead can be dispatched by a shot to the head. When PC Craig finds a double-barreled, low-bore shotgun in the churchyard warden’s hut, he fires it at one of the attacking zombies – an elderly woman – and a ‘squib’ in the woman’s hair shows that Craig’s shot is on target. However, the wound has no effect: the zombie continues in her relentless path. The only thing that seems to stop the zombies in this film is fire, as George discovers. The creatures are repelled by it, recoiling from flames instinctively, like animals. When set alight, they expire pathetically, with a sigh and a rasp on the soundtrack to accompany their demise: Grau felt that the zombies should die without pain but with a sense of fear at the flames.
The rasping sound made by the zombies was inspired by Grau’s own experiences of sitting with his recently-deceased father. He was surprised to find that his father’s body made a sighing noise when it was adjusted from a reclining to a laying position. Elsewhere, the ominous groanings of the zombies are accompanied on the film’s soundtrack by a strange sense of distortion, which Grau has compared to an ‘underwater sound’ – and which he says was intended to create ‘an atmosphere’ of otherworldliness. In terms of visual effects, Grau and Giannetto De Rossi worked hard to devise a colour for the film’s blood: this had to be a colour that looked somewhat realistic, whilst also being as dark as possible in order to connect it with the viscous, black blood in Romero’s monochromatic Night of the Living Dead – which was an obsession of producer Amati’s. The overall effect is a film whose cinematic living dead, whilst clearly inspired by those in Romero’s oh-so-iconic horror film, feel very much ‘of their own’ and without direct peers within the subgenre of Euro-zombie cinema.
In the middle of all of this are various bits of business that speak of Eurohorror eccentricity: not least of these is the inn in which George and Edna take lodgings (identified by the wording on its door as ‘The Old Olw [sic] Hotel’), with its strange layout and pet owl that sits on a trapeze in the foyer. (In the film’s final scene, we discover that the detective sergeant has also taken a room in this same establishment, and it is in this room that the zombified George attacks him: this revelation was perhaps motivated by budget but strikes home as incredibly ironic.)
In the UK, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue was distributed to cinemas in 1975, with 1:27 mins of BBFC-imposed cuts. Following this, the film found itself embroiled in the ‘video nasties’ controversy when it was added to the list of prosecutable ‘nasties’ in 1983, following an uncut videocassette release by VIP. In 1985, it was removed from the list of official ‘nasties’ and given a home video classification by the BBFC, with a further 26 seconds of footage removed, on top of the cinema cuts. Eventually, in 2002, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue was granted an uncut home video certificate by the BBFC. Rumours have persisted over the years of slightly different edits of the film, including a European cut in which the opening sequence’s streaker yells ‘Freedom’ as she runs across the road, and various stories of longer, more graphic assemblies of PC Craig’s demise. However, these seem to be little more than myths that have extended from the era of VHS into the reign of digital home video.
Amidst the numerous European horror films either set or filmed in England (including the likes of Paul Naschy’s 1975 Exorcismo, and Lucio Fulci’s Una lucertola con la pelle di donna/A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, 1971), The Living Dead in the Manchester Morgue endures – and not solely because of its association with the era of the ‘video nasty’. Grau’s film is clearly modelled on Romero’s Night of the Living Dead but establishes its own template: its ecological subtext, and its covert denouncement of Francoist fascism, set it apart from Romero’s own sequel to Night… and the various Eurohorror imitations that sprang forth from Dawn of the Dead’s popularity in European markets. There are some moments which clearly allude to Romero’s film, such as when Martin’s zombie reappears at the climax, in the hospital, to claim the life of his wife, Katie: this incident offers a resonant echo of Johnny’s (Russell Streiner) return to claim his sister Barbra (Judith O’Dea), in Night of the Living Dead. However, though driven by the producer’s desire to ape the model established by Romero’s picture, Grau’s approach in making The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue results in a film that has its own distinctive identity, its rural English setting pretty much unique within the pantheon of zombie cinema (aside, perhaps, from the striking opening sequence of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s much later 28 Weeks Later, 2007). Though Grau and the majority of his cast and crew were cultural outsiders, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue gets many things about English culture dead-on, if you will pardon the pun: the use of accent and dialect as indices of social standing; the chaste, quietly resentful nature of relationships between husband and wife, or between lovers. Most tellingly, the film explores a relationship between the urban and the rural, between centre and periphery, that motivates a significant proportion of English supernatural fiction.