Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Derbyshire Dead

THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE (1974)

Guthrie (Fernando Hilbeck) enjoys a liver in a film which has been released as BREAKFAST AT MANCHESTER MORGUE, LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE and DON'T OPEN THE WINDOW.

IF you are looking for a connection between the undead films of George A. Romero and Lucio Fulci, Catalonian director Jorge Grau's THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE acts as that bridge. This cult Spanish/Italian oddity can also be viewed as one of those releases - similar to Alfonso Cuaron's CHILDREN OF MEN (2006) and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's 28 WEEKS LATER (2007) - that sees our green and unpleasant land with a quirky yet lovingly distant eye. The film isn't set in Manchester - though there are glimpses of Deansgate and John Dalton Street - most of the film is shot in various locations around Derbyshire. Like many foreign filmmakers, what Grau finds is a stuffy environ on the verge of chaos and, in this sense, THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE is a worthy successor to those other extraordinary views of a decaying country, the 1971 releases STRAW DOGS and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

The film begins as George (Ray Lovelock), an antiques dealer, has his motorbike damaged at a gas station by Edna (Christine Galbo), a nervous woman en route to her sister Katie (Jeannine Mestra)'s farmhouse in Southgate. While giving George a lift, Edna is attacked by a recently drowned homeless man Guthrie (Fernando Hilbeck), when the antiques dealer is asking directions from Ministry of Agriculture scientists who are field-testing experimental ultrasound equipment to rid crops of insects. These sonic tremors, however, have begun to revive the recently buried dead. The couple arrive at the farm to see Edna's brother-in-law Martin (Jose Ruiz Lifante) killed by Guthrie, where bigoted Irish Police Inspector McCormick (Arthur Kennedy, sporting a typically colourful accent) takes one look at George's long hair and beard - and the obvious signs of Katie's heroin addiction - and comes to a much more straightforward conclusion.

Vito Salier as the autopsy zombie haunting the halls of Southgate Hospital.

Grau's film is arguably the first colour treatment of the generic possibilities from Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), while also anticipating the Pittsburgh-based director's developing social criticisms. McCormick despises any form of non-conformity - hippies, drugs, et al - placing the blame for the spiralling events squarely on our young leads. The idea that the police might pose as much of a threat as the zombies is rather apt considering that the film was released at a time when the UK constabulary were something of a law unto themselves. This uncompromising view of the Manchester police force will strike a chord with anyone who remembers that city's notorious Chief Constable James Anderton, who conducted a personal fatwa against pornography and one accused AIDS victims as "swirling in a cesspit of their own making." There is also a staunch pro-environment message; as well as the radioactive bug zapper, we see shots of nuclear power plants, crumbling buildings, gloomy riversides and rundown hospitals - suggesting a world dying under the influence of crass corporate and industrial practices.

THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE is more sedate and low-key than Romero, channelling a steady accumulation of incidents and detours enveloped by a genuinely weird soundtrack of unnerving hums and distorted breathing. There are oddball elements - a busty female streaker, with two fingers held aloft in the traditional peace sign, jogs through traffic attracting little attention from the jaded motorists; the notion that the zombies can “create” members of their brood by the application of blood to the eyelids - but since Grau keeps everything else grounded, we buy their overall non-believability. In the satisfying twist ending, when the undead George takes revenge on McCormick, Grau asks the viewer to align with the zombies as a retributive force that needs to be unleashed.