‘You’re all the same the lot of you, with your
long hair and faggot clothes.’
In 1968, George Romero released Night of the Living Dead, the first modern zombie film and one of the most influential horror films of all time. Oddly though, it wasn’t until his follow-up Dawn of the Dead that we started to see all the (mostly Italian) copycat films emerge. Nowadays of course, you can’t swing an intestine without hitting a low budget zombie flick, but back in 1974 they were few and far between.
Enter Spanish filmmaker Jorge Grau and his masterful gut-munching epic, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (shortened for release on VHS to the more pithy The Living Dead). His film takes a more ecological view of a zombie outbreak, suggesting that it’s a new piece of agricultural technology for killing parasites that causes the dead to rise, making the film almost as much a ‘nature-strikes-back’ film in the vein of Frogs or Food of the Gods as it is a zombie flick.
We begin with Italian genre stalwart Ray Lovelock playing George, the world’s least likely antique shop owner, heading to Windermere to see some friends. There he meets the rather highly strung Edna, who reverses her car over his motorbike. In what is perhaps the least credible moment in the film, George is informed that the nearest spare wheel is in Glasgow, which is almost 200 miles away. You’d think maybe that Manchester, which is half the distance away, would have spare wheels, but I’m no mechanic guys. We’re just gonna have to trust that Jorge Grau did extensive research on the British auto-repair industry before filming.
So far nothing much has happened, but it’s been entertaining. The actors are good, even down to the dubbing and the film looks terrific. George and Edna carry on in her car. Despite insisting on driving, he puts her at ease by saying the immortal words, ‘Look darlin’, you don’t have to worry. I’m not gonna jump you or anything.’ Well, thank goodness for that, he’s a gentleman at least. They meet a farmer who is using the aforementioned ultrasonic technology. It’s strange, despite it having a one mile radius, the user still has to walk around with a colander dangling from a stick, waving it around over the insects to kill them. But I’m not about to let science spoil the fun, because right here is our introduction to Guthrie, the film’s first zombie.
And what an introduction it is! Grau uses subjective camerawork, really creepy heavy breathing and the sinister isolation of the English countryside to create a sequence of genuine unease. When he finally emerges, Guthrie looks for all the world like a genuine corpse. The zombies in this film are, to my mind at least, probably the greatest in any film. Not only are they believable as actual dead people, but the design is just phenomenal too. The zombie with the nostril plugs, the one with the head bandage and autopsy scar, the one with the gnarled hands – every zombie here is memorable, something that cannot be said for, say, Tom Savini’s work on Dawn of the Dead. Of course, that is the advantage of focussing on just a handful of zombies, rather than the hundreds featured in Romero’s later work. The effects here are handled by Giannetto De Rossi, who we will be seeing a lot more of later. Will there be more zombies involved? You bet!
At just about the halfway point, George and Edna visit a church and suddenly the film explodes into life and never really lets up from hereon in. There’s a sustained suspense sequence in the church basement, and the first of the outrageous gore set pieces that are sprinkled sparingly throughout. There’s an odd supernatural element introduced that seems at odds with the ecological explanation given earlier, wherein the zombies can give life to the dead by dabbing the blood of the living onto their eyelids. It’s a strange touch, but Grau has worked so hard to create a gothic atmosphere that it works.
It sometimes feels almost like a Hammer picture, with it’s remote churches, moody English scenery and thick fog. But Hammer films never had a nurse having her breast torn off and eaten, or a nerve shredding shot as good as that of the zombies advancing on the hospital elevator really fucking quickly. Despite occasional funny moments, like George escaping by throwing a towel (No! Not a towel!) into a policeman’s face, The Living Dead maintains it’s grim atmosphere right up until the bitter, ironic conclusion.
I’ll be honest, I may be slightly biased here because I once went on holiday to the Peak District in England and unintentionally stayed in the village where this movie was filmed, but it’s still an exceptional horror film, and one of the best films on the list.