Fright Fest: The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974)
Which is better: walking zombies or running zombies? What about the 28 Units of Time series? Do you consider the monsters to be zombies or ragers? These are the two biggest arguments among horror folk about zombie flicks, but I would like to introduce another, for I am a rabble-rouser.
While George Romero invented the modern zombie film in 1968, he also reduced the genre down into a formula ten years later with Dawn of the Dead. The suburban apocalypse, leaving small pockets of survivors, some of whom retain their basic humanity while others revert to savagery and animalistic behaviors. Meanwhile, the rank and file of the undead grows with each passing moment, spreading through cities and towns. In one case, Lucio Fulci’s Zombi, the dead are seen walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, an obscene rag-tag army staggering their way through the five boroughs.
Zombies are the blankest of slates. They look like us, but they are not us. We can, therefore, assign them any symbolic role we desire. In the hands of filmmakers, the undead become the killer inside us. They roam shopping malls as a grotesque caricature of our consumerism. They represent socialism, communism, nationalism, marginalism, oppressed peoples, eve of destruction, tax deduction; it’s endless. They are the perfect foil for foibles.
You’ve seen the movies. You know the beats. It’s rare that one begins watching a zombie film with any hope of new insights or a different take. You are there to watch the dead devour the living. You are there to see arterial spray and intestines. You are there to see the destruction of social contracts and the ruination of the natural order.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But there’s something hollow about these grand scale zombie epics, like World War Z, with capital cities devoid of life as the undead squeeze through alleyways and climb over each other like army ants during a flood. It’s eye candy, like Independence Day or any other CAT 5 production, with not much substance. It’s the scope of these movies that kills them. Horror, even zombie horror, is best when it exists on a more intimate level. Not a giant city, but a town. Not a massive group of people, but a small few.
An excellent example of this kind of chamber zombie film is The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue AKA Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. This Spanish-Italian co-production came out in 1974, when the horror genre was in flux. Zombie movies and demonic possession movies were in abundance, while the Amicus style of anthologies and gothic Hammer horror were losing popularity.
This movie straddles genres, existing as an eco-horror film with zombies. No strange strain from space here; the dead are driven from their graves by radiation from a machine designed to kill pests that destroy crops. The radiation is specific: it doesn’t affect full grown adults, but it plays havoc with infants, insects, and the interred. A hippie art collector and his reluctant companion find themselves in a strange town over a bloody weekend. The police blame them for the sudden rash of murders in town, ignoring all the warnings and pleading that the dead have risen from the grave and are attacking the living.
It makes sense. I would ignore that kind of information, too.
The glory of this film is that there are maybe twenty people in this film. We get to know the characters, and they aren’t all good people. The heroin addict, the stag photographer, the prejudiced police investigator, these are not people you would want to leave your kids with while you grab a bite to eat. And yet when death comes stumbling towards them, we shudder a bit. These aren’t typical faceless zombies. We know them. We may not like them, but they sure don’t deserve that fate.
There’s a lot to love about this movie, but its greatest asset is the atmosphere it creates. There are moments when it feels like English folk horror, set back in the hills with ancient threats rumbling beneath the silent earth. The undead don’t really amass for a full-scale invasion. It’s more like a supply run. But keeping the film’s location isolated and tiny works so well in its favor that it makes zombie movies that play out over a greater landscape feel distant and cold.
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is a strange little film, like a Merchant-Ivory production with gore. That lack of scope, and insistence upon keeping the character list low and the threat level localized, works to the film’s advantage. It is a bloody snow-globe of a film. So much for global pandemics or the undead stomping the terra. Sometimes, when there’s no more room in Hell, the dead just come to town for a weekend.
Jeffery X. Martin is the published author of several stories that are sure to shock, including those in the Elders Keep universe. He also published a fantastic tale in The Black Room Manuscripts. You can find his work, including his latest novel, Hunting Witches, on Amazon’s blood-soaked altar. When Mr. X is not writing creepy mind-benders, he’s the host and/or contributor to several podcasts and review sites, including but not limited to, Popshifter, Kiss the Goat, and the Cinema Beef Podcast. He is a frequent contributor to Machine Mean, reviewing for us The Wolf Man(1941), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), Revenge of the Creature (1955), and Squirm (1976) and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977).
Enter Jeffery’s world of Elder’s Keep in his terrifying new novel Hunting Witches!
Available on Amazon (eBook or paperback)