“The dead don’t walk around, except in very bad paperback novels”
A Spanish-Italian production shot in both England and Italy, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, (a.k.a Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Don’t Open the Window) reveals its main intentions within its first few minutes, as it treats its audience to shots of a smog-filled city, ominously zooming in on power stations, smoking chimneys, and disinterested drivers stuck in traffic jams. George, an antique dealer in Manchester, is leaving his hometown to travel to the Lake District, and the air he leaves behind him is obviously thick with fatigue. This is the 70s, and director Jorge Grau makes it clear from the get-go that the hippie dream has been replaced with listlessness and cynicism. At one point a female streaker runs across a busy road making the peace sign. Barely anyone looks her way.
On his journey toward greener pastures, George runs in to Edna after she accidentally backs in to his motorbike at a petrol station, and the two are left with no option but to travel together. They lose their way, and whilst asking for directions in a field, George happens upon the Department of Agriculture who are working with a new anti-pest machine which kills bugs using radiation. The presence of the industrial in the countryside is a clear comment on the state of the world at present, as the workers seem oblivious to any damage they may be causing mankind. Of course, it is this unnatural technology, tainting the earth, which begins to raise the dead, and the film is characterized by a bitterness and distrust of all authoritative and legal institutions. The police are ignorant and regressive, and the doctors are unwilling to help. It is left to George and Edna to act as humanity’s last hope.
With some awful dubbing and bad acting, the film could easily be dismissed as yet another piece of zombie fodder, and yet its ability to be both bitingly satirical and downright gory, four years before Romero’s comic book-esque Dawn of the Dead hit the screens, is the reason it is still regarded as one of the best of its genre. It is a well-paced, engaging, funny, and creative horror, that takes the time to re-imagine elements of the zombie myth without twisting things too far. For example, its undead do not show up on camera, have red eyes, and can reanimate other dead bodies by touching them with the blood of the living. Small details such as these are what make The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue memorable.
The finale takes place in a hospital as the recently reanimated dead hunt the living in gruesome force. Pair this with a decidedly sombre conclusion where Edna turns into a zombie and a still-living George gets shot (a fate reminiscent of Ben’s in Night of the Living Dead), and it’s easy to see how this ending may have inspired the final hospital scenes of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond. What is perhaps most interesting about the film, however, is its sudden turn of allegiances as its main “good” characters are all removed and the audience begins to wish a zombie apocalypse upon the remaining humans. This shift is reflective of an overall desire for an overthrowing of corruption. Would it be so bad if the world were to fall to pieces? asks Grau, as we see George return from the dead thanks to the newly repaired, radioactive pest-killing machine, to seek vengeance on a fraudulent police Sergeant. Thanks to brilliant story-telling, we are now on the side of the zombie, staring out at a world full of greed and cold disregard. And we desire its destruction as much as the flesh-hungry living dead.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ 1/2