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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Jorge Grau: Unsung Pioneer of the Undead

The history of zombie cinema that I've been putting together lately has led me to explore and rediscover several of the milestone films in the genre recently. And one that I've come to marvel at has been a movie most commonly known as The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (although it also goes by the names Don't Open the Window and Let Sleeping Corpses Lie.)

I've marveled at it so much in fact, that I've come to regard as one of the most underrated and undercelebrated pictures in modern horror history. Let's think about this. The movie, directed by Spanish expatriate Jorge Grau in 1974, was directly influenced by George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Yet it came out years before Romero's own sequel, Dawn of the Dead.

And although Dawn of the Dead is most often regarded as the movie that brought extreme zombie gore into the horror mainstream, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue had already done it. And in color, too. In fact, it was Grau's specific intention to take the horror of Night of the Living Dead and make it more explicit, capitalizing on color film to take it to the next level. In short, it would seem in a way that Grau beat Romero himself to the punch.

So why then, is The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue not regarded in quite the same light as Romero's films? It's certainly an excellent horror movie, and even contains a social message, much like Romero's films are usually hailed for having. What did Romero have that Grau didn't?

For one thing, Dawn of the Dead is a sprawling horror epic, giving the illusion of a much grander scale, unlike Manchester Morgue, the action of which is less ambitious, and more like Night of the Living Dead in its close-quarters intimacy. Dawn of the Dead also has more memorable individual performances overall, even if Fernando Hilbeck as Manchester's Guthrie is more terrifying than any zombie in Dawn.

And let's be frank here. Dawn of the Dead also had the Romero name to give it momentum. The director's reputation based on the mainstream classic Night of the Living Dead from a decade earlier turned Dawn of the Dead into an anticipated and high-grossing event. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, by contrast, was a strictly grindhouse flick that attained cult status in later years. Had Dawn of the Dead not had the Romero name, it might've been relegated to the obscure grindhouse circuit as well.

Jorge Grau's highly entertaining chiller was clearly ahead of the curve, the only zombie picture made between Night of the Livng Dead and Dawn of the Dead that truly embraced Romero's "rules" and the template he set up and did something interesting with it. It's an underappreciated gem, and for any fan of modern horror--and zombie flicks in particular--a must-see.


Mr. Karswell said...

Also essential Grau viewing is Ceremonia Sangrienta (1973) aka Countess Dracula. A really awesome film about the Countess Bathory:

I wouldn't say it's as good as Manchester Morgue but it's pretty damn close!

B-Sol said...

Thanks, I'd heard a lot about it, but never seen it. Grau himself speaks about it in the interview that's on the Manchester DVD.

gord said...

I was so close to buying this movie this weekend, but it was $40. So I instead went for Re-Animator with the groovy highlighter syringe.

Anyways, I'll have to check out 'Manchester' ASAP it seems.

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