Director: Jorge Grau
Blue Underground

Being one of the earliest European films paying homage to George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, this is also one of the best zombie films ever made (some fans think it's even better than NOTLD). Far more intelligent and well-crafted than any of the Italian gut munchers later inspired by the enormous worldwide success of DAWN OF THE DEAD, this Italian/Spanish co-production was re-released last year by Blue Underground in an edition pretty much identical to that of Anchor Bay’s 2000 single-disc release, but now the company has taken things a step further with this two-disc special edition which bears the British title, as well as a new transfer and fresh extras.

George (Ray Lovelock), an antiques dealer specializing in the occult, hops on his motorcycle and takes off for a peaceful excursion to the English countryside. As he departs the city, we see glimpses of a deteriorating society; dead birds, pollution galore, and listless pedestrians roaming the streets. So numb are these people that a shapely female streaker can't even manage to turn a head. When stopping to get fuel, George's bike is smashed up by Edna (Cristina Galbó) and can't be fixed for a few days. Edna agrees to give George a lift to his destination, but in a moment of untrust and chauvinism, he takes the wheel. Stopping near a lake, George gets out to ask for directions, and Edna is suddenly attacked by a tall, dripping wet, red-eyed man. She gets away safely and when describing her attacker, a local jokes that it sounds like old Guthrie (Fernando Hilbeck), a vagrant (Guthrie in fact drowned himself days ago). Later that night, the two unlikely companions arrive at the home of Edna's sister Katie (Jeannine Mestre), whom they discover outside in a state of shock. Her husband Martin (José Lifante) is found dead and bloodied, and Edna is convinced that it was done by the same man who attacked her. Katie is a heroin addict, so the Police Inspector (Arthur Kennedy) without hesitation believes that she killed her husband in a fit of drugged-out rage. George and Edna are also marked as suspects, and asked not to leave town.

What follows is an adventure of epic proportions, as the young couple confront the living dead while the bigoted Inspector proclaims them as devil worshipping cultists every time a corpse shows up. Arthur Kennedy plays his role with gusto, always displaying loath for the youth culture. "You hippies with your faggot clothes and long hair...and you hate the police, don't you?," he dictates to the shaggy Lovelock. Lovelock (with heavy Cockney accent dubbed in) and Galbó are very likable as the leads. They are decent people who are innocent, but always catching a bad break, moving from one horrifying incident to another.

An Italian and Spanish co-production, THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE was filmed mostly on location in England and interiors were shot in a studio back in Italy. The film relies on careful characterizations, and ultimately builds into a masterpiece of horror, one piece at a time. Jorge Grau's direction is superb, delivering some of the most terrifying sequences ever filmed, most notably the heroes surrounded by the undead in a dark crypt, and the fiery finale which is set in a hospital.

Even though this is a low budget production, it is able to conceal the fact by concentrating on isolated incidents of the dead coming back to life (here, the zombies are born from an experimental pesticide machine, but only Lovelock's character is convinced of this). With crimson flaring eyes and pasty white faces, the make-up on the zombies is ghoulishly convincing, and not overblown. One of the undead is shown straight from an autopsy and is grotesque to boot (and looks remarkably like The Who's Pete Townsend!). The film does not rely on gore to scare its audience, but there are plenty of unsettling images to turn the stomach (a cop has his intestines torn out, a nurse has her breast ripped open, a doctor is axed in the head, etc.), thanks to Gianetto De Rossi's remarkable effects, which still hold up well today.

Blue Underground’s new DVD presentation is a different transfer from their release of 2007, which carried one identical to the 2000 Anchor Bay edition. It’s now been remastered in High Definition from the original camera negative, and the improvement shows, with the film looking as if it could have been shot yesterday. Presented anamorphic in its original 1.85:1 ratio, the Eastman color photography looks more vivid then ever, and detail is excellent – darker scenes are now more discernible than they were in the previous transfer, and the image is crisper and cleaner. This is the uncut 93-minute version, so the content is the same as the old transfer, but the title sequence is different (it’s visually better), now baring the on-screen title, “The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue” and the opening credits are placed differently than in the LET SLEEPING CORPSES... version. Three English language tracks (containing Arthur Kennedy’s real voice) are provided in original mono, Dolby Surround 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. Purists might want to stick to the mono track, but the 5.1 Surround track is a stunner, pronouncing the soundtrack’s eerie wailing and Giuliano Sorgini’s fantastic score to great effect.

Extras on Disc 1 include U.S. radio spots, a poster and still gallery and an original DON’T OPEN THE WINDOW TV spot, all carried over from the previous releases. What is labeled as a “U.S. trailer” is actually a welcomed alternate TV spot, and a great international trailer (under the “Living Dead At…” title) are both new to this release. Disc 2 contains three new featurettes, and one old one. “Back to the Morgue” (45 minutes) has director Grau revisiting some of the actual Derbyshire and Manchester locations with journalist Gian Luca Gastoldi. This includes the river where the first murder takes place, the street where Ray Lovelock takes off on his motorcycle, the hospital (now closed), the cemetery and more. Not only are the locations fascinating to see in the present, but there’s also some great conversation with Grau to go along with it. "Zombie Fighter" (16 minutes) has Lovelock opening his talk with info on his early career, and then he discusses what he remembers about making the film, including his discomfort with riding a motorcycle, and that everyone on the set “worked in harmony.” Despite their characters’ dislike for each other, Lovelock got on well with Kennedy, asserting that they ate and drank wine together often. "Zombie Maker" (17 minutes) is an interview with special effects artist Gianetto De Rossi, who talks about the breast-tearing scene, the red contact lenses worn by the zombie actors, as well as when they got sick eating the not-so-edible artificial blood he concocted for the cannibalistic outbursts. De Rossi would later work on Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE, and the gore effects in that film are also discussed here. The last featurette is the 2000 interview (20 minutes) with Grau as he gives enthusiastic insight on his major cult achievement, and rightly so, comes across as very proud of it. Relating a number of interesting anecdotes, he also tells how he was instrumental on the unforgettable soundtrack, creating a lot of the sound effects, as well as devising the horrible noise that the living dead make in the film (Grau's 2000 brief on-screen introduction can still be seen before the feature).

Though it’s a February 2008 release, Blue Underground’s THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE Special Edition can already be deemed one of the best horror DVDs of the year. Now if someone would only step up to the plate and release Jorge Grau’s other horror masterwork, THE LEGEND OF BLOOD CASTLE (aka THE FEMALE BUTCHER) on the digital format! (George R. Reis)