THE NASTY FILE The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue
Of the seventy-two films which appeared on the Department of Public Prosecutions’ list of films deemed liable to “deprave and corrupt,” all but one came from countries outside of the United Kingdom. The majority came from the United States; however, a large proportion were European horror films, many of which have since been recognised as classics in the genre.
This regular series sees subtitledonline.com take a look at the continental ‘video nasties’ which brought so much offence and uproar to an island on the fringes of Europe, nearly thirty years ago. In this entry, we look at Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue.
European Horror in the ‘Video Nasty’ Era
In a remote village in the Lake District, a new radioactive pesticide is causing the dead to rise from their graves and unleash terror upon an unwitting, rural community. George, played by Ray Lovelock, and Edna, played by Cristina Galbó, are two young travellers from the city who meet at a nearby gas station, following an accident which leaves George’s motorcycle out of action. The strangers agree to ride in Edna’s car to their respective destinations; however, it is not long before they stop to ask directions.
As George wanders to the nearest farmhouse, Edna is attacked by a pale-skinned, gormless tramp wandering the countryside. She escapes and runs to find George, only to turn round and see her attacker has disappeared.
The couple arrive at Edna’s sister Katie’s house and find her screaming and hysterical, her husband lying murdered in the garden. The police arrive on the scene and the inspector, played with energy and zeal by Arthur Kennedy, is only too quick to point the finger at Katie, played by Jeannine Mestre, and the newly arrived hippies from the city.
As the situation spirals out of control, the couple find themselves caught in the middle; pursued across the English countryside by both the local constabulary and an army of the living dead.
The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue first played in British cinemas in 1975 under an ‘X’ classification following cuts – the nature and specifics of which are seemingly unavailable. Miracle Films had distributed the cut, theatrical release, but it was Video Independent Promotions which released the uncut VHS version under the name The Living Dead. This version found its way onto the DPP list in October 1983, remaining there for eighteen months before being dropped in April 1985.
The shorter, ‘rated R’ American cut had also been doing the rounds in UK video stores under the title ‘Don’t Open The Window’, making it yet another ‘Don’t’ film to grace the DPP’s list.
Network Distribution submitted the film for classification in 1985, but, despite cuts already totalling 1 minute 27 seconds, the BBFC would only classify it following further trimmings of 26 seconds. Manchester Morgue finally received its uncut classification in 2002.
Despite its title and location, Manchester Morgue is an Italian and Spanish effort headed by Catalonian director Jorge Grau. Supposedly the European crew had chosen Manchester due to its apparently exotic-sounding name; however, most of the filming actually took place in Sheffield, the Peak District and, of course, Italy and Spain.
Manchester Morgue pre-dates a lot of the European zombie films which would now be considered instrumental in shaping the genre.
Stylistically, Manchester Morgue begins not unlike the early Hammer films: the Gothic eeriness of a secluded, English town; and the outsiders from the city struggling to keep the locals on their side while battling a pervasive, supernatural menace. The latter half of the film, however, is distinctly European: a grizzly, gory shocker full of disembowelments and creepy, gormless zombies in the style of Lucio Fulci or Bruno Mattei.
In fact, Manchester Morgue pre-dates a lot of the European zombie films which would now be considered instrumental in shaping the genre, such as Fulci’s Zombie Flesheaters (1979), Mattei’s Zombie Creeping Flesh (1980) or even Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (1978). Indeed, for a piece of zombie Euro-schlock, it was years ahead of its time and might be considered Spain’s earliest and strongest contribution to the sub-genre, were it not for Amando de Ossorio’s epic Tombs Of The Blind Dead (1972).
But while de Ossorio’s work is a gothic, expressionist nightmare, Manchester Morgue stands out as a result of its gut-wrenching realism. The film really makes use of its glorious, pastoral surroundings and eerie, desolate settings, and its aesthetic is a result of fine tuned camera-work which makes the landscape come alive; again, not unlike Hammer films such as Plague Of The Zombies (1966).
The landscape certainly is a focal point of the film’s message in that there is a strong, ecological and political subtext; not surprising for a 1970s horror film with hippies as protagonists. It revels in depicting humanity’s arrogance in attempting to control nature and the consequences the unwitting public must pay for careless, governmental policies. This is also further emphasised in the portrayal of the police as an inefficient and violent mob, quick to blame young people for society’s problems, and just as quick to act upon their suspicions.
The BBFC was unhappy about most of the gory scenes in the film and the list of cut sequences includes plenty of guts and entrails, zombies on fire, the killing of a man with an axe, flesh eating and Edna’s zombie tramp, Guthrie, pulling a stake from his neck. As usual, an absolute no-no for the BBFC was sexualised violence which, in this case, takes the form of a hospital receptionist being pulled apart by a group of zombies and having one of her breasts ripped off.
One particular edit has caught the attention of fans over the years and is often confused as an example of inelegant and artistically unsympathetic censoring by the BBFC, which was unfortunately all-too-common around that time. In the graveyard scene, a police constable is disembowelled and eaten by a pack of the living dead. Just as a zombie is reaching down towards the officer’s eyeball, a sloppy edit cuts the sequence, mid-motion. This has led some viewers to believe their copy of the film is missing a classic case of Italian eyeball-violence at the hands of the BBFC, when, in actual fact, no such footage is known to exist. Off-screen violence seems unlikely for such a relentlessly gory film, and so it begs the question as to whether or not there is indeed some footage which, intentionally or otherwise, is missing.
It is difficult to understand why The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue has obtained only a cult following, and has not achieved the same recognition as films like Dawn Of The Dead or even Plague Of The Zombies. It is fast-paced, violent, aesthetically brilliant and one of the most underrated and unappreciated of the European zombie films. In terms of low-budget horror, it has a lot to offer both newcomers to the genre and more seasoned fans, but in comparison to some of the more ineptly-made shockers on the Video Nasty List, it is an inspired masterpiece. Luckily, UK viewers can now enjoy this Nasty in all its uncut glory.
Read each entry in The Nasty File series here.
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