“Quite a few people leave their bodies to science these days.”
A counterculture ecological fable wrapped in the rags of a zombie yarn, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is a film whose reputation precedes it – a reputation cemented, in no small part, by the flick’s designation as a “video nasty” during the boom period of British film censorship. And while that reputation rests heavily on the gore and mild nudity of the picture’s last leg, its scathing portrayal of authority probably didn’t help matters at the time, either.
As a Spanish/Italian co-production shot in the British countryside utilizing at least some Anglophone actors it is, in many ways, emblematic of how European horror pictures were being made in the 1970s, as exemplified by the many, many titles it has been released under over the years. While it’s most commonly known in English as The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, it has also been released as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, not to mention as many as 15 other titles, while its Italian original roughly translates to, “Do Not Profane the Sleep of the Dead.”
Though in some ways representative of a moment, I have never seen another film quite like The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Ostensibly one of a whole host of flicks released to cash in on the success of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead from a few years before – and prefiguring many of the Italian zombie pictures that would stumble from their graves throughout the ‘80s – it actually largely eschews zombies until that gut-munching finale, operating instead as a kind of dread-soaked poliziotteschi, as we watch one of cinema’s most hateful cops harass a pair of travelers who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when the dead rise from their graves as a result of a supersonic device meant to eradicate agricultural pests – like they do.
Even once the zombies finally do shamble onto the scene, the picture remains slow and dreamy but always dripping with atmosphere. Well before we are introduced to our leads (including Italian/English actor Ray Lovelock playing a character who is, himself, quite the asshole, though compared to the cop he seems like Mother Theresa) it is already quite clear that something is very wrong, a cue given to us largely through the film’s cinematography and soundscape, which is riveting and ominous throughout.
All of which is maybe a long way of saying that some, especially those accustomed to zombie pictures that are somewhat more in-your-face from the jump, will find The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue to be drowsy and dull. And they’re not exactly wrong, in this case. It’s just that here, drowsy and dull works, weaving a spell that all the gore and grotesquerie packed into the film’s last act can’t undo. It would make a good double-feature with other dreamy, zombie-adjacent horrors like Messiah of Evil or Zeder, if that gives you any idea what to expect.
In proper Night of the Living Dead fashion, Manchester Morgue also wears its back-to-nature political convictions firmly on its sleeve. Before we hear a single line of dialogue we are treated to shots of the detritus and pollution of urban living – not to mention a sequence of a woman streaking through traffic, which may have less to do with the film’s politics. But then again maybe not, what do I know?
It also puts these sentiments in the mouth of its lead – in part because I think the movie doesn’t realize quite how much we start out hating this dude. Fortunately, in short order, someone comes along who we will hate even more. While The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue may be chiefly concerned with its environmental message, the anti-authoritarian bent it displays when dealing with a police inspector played by Arthur Kennedy may be its strongest theme.
From the moment he stumbles into the action, the officer is convinced of the rightness of his assumptions about the situation, and unwilling to entertain any evidence to the contrary. While the ecological story suggests a distrust of scientific “progress” and profit-driven motives, the inspector represents stodgy, conservative ideals as equally dangerous, if not more so. He dismisses our leads as hippies, tossing out a homophobic slur toward our protagonist’s sartorial choices, and immediately assumes that they’re responsible for the carnage. Eventually, the film even takes on some Satanic Panic overtones, as the authorities struggle to contextualize what they’re seeing within their rigid beliefs.
In the end, after his bullishness has precipitated much of the film’s tragedy, one of the other officers tells him that he’ll be seen as a “proper hero,” to which the inspector replies that hopefully his example will teach people to take a firmer hand in bulldozing over civil rights and enforcing the status quo. It’s a moment as chilling as any zombie action in the rest of the film – and fortunately it comes just before the hateful ass finally gets his unlikely comeuppance in the final reel.
I had never seen this cult classic before the new release of the Synapse Blu-ray, but I’ve since done some online sleuthing and it looks phenomenally better than the previously-available, non-high-def versions.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.