It sort of demonstrates just how singular George A. Romero’s zombie films are and how much they represent the genre that almost every other zombie film referred to as “nearly as good” is essentially pointless in comparison, even if they truly are relatively good taken in and of themselves. Perhaps in the case of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, it’s merely that the socio-political subtext doesn’t quite register with the same punch as Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead do for American audiences. The 1974 Manchester Morgue weaves a number of then-timely elements into its overall bleak worldview. The purported hero of the film, a hipster dealer of overpriced antique knick-knacks delivering a piece to a customer when the film’s zombie plague begins, is something of a relic himself, as a late member of the Angry Young Man set. His clashes with zombies in the moist, foggy English countryside are only slightly more volatile than his run-ins with the po-po, who take one look at his long locks, sullen attitude, and ominous-looking artifacts in his knapsack and come to the hasty conclusion that it’s he, not zombies, responsible for a string of mysterious deaths. When the bodies began to disappear, they go one step further and brand him a Satanist. To that backdrop, director Jorge Grau adds yet another burgeoning “issue” into the mix: biochemical anxiety. Not so subtle parallels are made with the appearance of zombies and the flipping of the switch on a sparkling, red piece of agricultural irradiation equipment that looks like a combination fire truck and wheat thresher. This minor cult classic has its fans, to be sure, but it never really pays off (at least not politically) on the promise of its opening credits sequence, a nutty little montage in which a number of city residents are seen lunging through crowded streets, dodging close-ups of vehicular exhaust pipes while a buxom woman in an afro wig throws off her trench coat and bounds nude through the traffic jam. This followed by a smash cut to a pair of nuclear reactors. If the implication of the movie’s red machine of death is hardly a match for Romero’s parables of social unrest, at least this film’s opening credits sequence manages to suggest that the goofiness of the era’s political tensions would only stay perky and nubile for so long before aging into drugs and death.
Blue Underground does it again, providing a sharp transfer of a film whose status, at least in England, as a video nasty meant you used to have to see it on shoddy dubs and boots. The red of the central machine of death is punchy, as are the occasional shots of bloody entrails being removed from poor suckers' abdomens. The 5.1 remix is a little thin, but even that sounds a lot better than most of Blue Underground's grindhouse offerings.
The first disc just has a selection of trailers and posters, but the second disc contains nearly 90 minutes' worth of featurettes and interviews to make up the difference. First up is a 45-minute return to the film's shooting locations of Manchester and Derbyshire, with the graying Spanish director Jorge Grau in tow, wearing a fantastic two-buck pair of sunglasses. While they walk through what are actually gorgeous, idyllic stretches of land or bustling, modern cityscapes, the director retells his film's horrible scenes. Manchester is described as a magical city, before the director adds, "and creepy." Also included are two 15-minute interviews with leading man Ray Lovelock and special effects artist Giannetto De Rossi, both speaking Italian. Last is a few more minutes with Grau. Between the four, I still didn't get much in the way of behind-the-scenes trivia (the director notes that the opening credits streaker was an extra).
Despite some satisfyingly gut-busting moments, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue retains a very British stiff upper lip.