The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue Blu-ray Review
Grau's film, retaining its original 1.85:1 framing, is brought to BD with an amazing AVC MPEG-4 encode from Blue Underground that, quite honestly, blew me away. I've seen so many versions of this film on VHS and disc that I wouldn't have been surprised if this hi-def release had merely been a spruced-up incarnation of one them, but, true to Blue Underground's word, this is clearly a new print taken from the original negative and it has never looked better, or “healthier”, if that's the right expression for an image often filled with the undead in various states of wretchedness.
Print damage can still be seen, though the picture is remarkably fresh and clean-looking. What I couldn't help but notice was the wobbles and judders that occur. It is true that if you look specifically for such things, then you will see them, but even though the majority of these judders are absolutely tiny, the sequence when George and Edna first arrive at the fateful graveyard is rife with jumps and bounces. Once George opens the door to the church warden's room this all subsides, however. Grain is intact, but Manchester Morgue was never really a film that was overly suffused with it in the first place, but this transfer retains the texture well.
One thing is for certain - this image completely wipes the floor with Anchor Bay's SD soft and occasionally blurred presentation.
Now the beautiful scenery that Grau transforms into a nightmare-scape reveals more lush greens, a much deeper sense of dimensionality, considerably greater detail and a vividness that provides a sense of immersion that, apart from its cinematic release, has probably always been denied the film to this degree. The depth of the image is, indeed, very impressive at times. Francisco Sempere's camera prowling up behind Galbo at the river-crossing looks tremendous, as does the three-dimensionality of George coming up the hill to the farmyard gate and then moving into the yard, itself. Shots of the little mini coursing around the country lanes are also energised by the new depth of the transfer. Grau and Sempere have real flair for the composition of their imagery and this disc shows it off much better than ever before. Detail, across the board is much improved, though I still found that things such as blades of grass, the pebbles and stones by the river and the odd half-gnawed remains strewn about the mortuary still lacked finite clarity and sharpness. Though you would really have to be picky to get peeved by this when the stringy latex of the torn breast, the cleaved chest and "stitch-up" design of the zombie in the nappy, and the stream of blood from a grim axe-blow to the head all appear with newly rejuvenated detail.
Grau's Eastmancolor is given a much-needed shot in the arm. That dark red blood, consistent, authentic and nasty, looks wonderful - if you know what I mean. Skin tones are far better than I've seen them before, with lots of detail in the faces and eyes that was obscured in the past. Liver-spots on Kennedy, freckles on Galbo, the black rings around Guthrie's eyes etc. And look at the livid scratches on the dead Martin's otherwise grey/blue face. The separation and clarity on hair is also as keen, with Galbo's lush red cascade and Lovelock's, well, locks, revealing some incredibly sharp detail. And then there's the bright red of the agricultural machine, itself, contrasting nicely with the white smocks of the technicians and the grass of the fields and surrounding hills. Have a look at the bright red/purple sign-post for the church, the one at the foot of the path leading up the hill, and compare it to the washed-out and faded incarnation seen on prior transfers. This great colour palette is consistent, too, with only a couple of minute fluctuations here and there. Even the flames have more life to them, actually suffusing the surrounding frame with a convincing glow that doesn't look so muted and overcast anymore.
Now, black levels are been a common problem with this movie. Certain scenes, most prominently the drama down in the church crypt, have been swamped by shadows that have crushed and squashed detail within them. Well, this does still seem to be the case here, too, although nowhere near as badly. You can certainly see more down in the murk than you could before - the masonry, the woodgrain on the coffins, the debris on the floor and even the blood dripping down the wall - and the blacks appear with greater strength and depth. They aren't the best around when it comes to interiors, but black levels, on the whole are a good deal better than I have ever seen them looking in Manchester Morgue, and they are certainly more robust for the exterior shots, with crisp shadow delineation and shading. Having said this, though, the action outside Katie and Martin's house, when Edna stumbles on to another atrocity, is still problematic, with lots of mist infiltrating the blacks and weakening their appearance.
Edge enhancement, smearing and aliasing aren't problems either, so what you have here is a very fine and honest new transfer that doesn't gloss over things with detracting digital skulduggery and even manages to rectify some of the older niggles with some welcome success.
A fine video presentation from Blue Underground, and a strong 7 out of 10 from me.
Regular readers will know how much I despise the ludicrous and totally unwarranted 5.1, let alone 7.1, tracks that some companies saddle-up their vintage product with ...but this time, folks, I am exceptionally happy to report that Blue Underground, defying my expectations, have engineered a DTS-HD MA 7.1 track that is terrific. It may not be precisely the full-on surround experience that such channel exposure would imply, but it is still a thoughtful, engaging and exciting track, just the same.
Now, what you have to bear in mind is that this film, and its already impressive sound design, is not given to wild stingers and bombastic effects that come lurching out of any, or all, corners of the set-up. But what it does do - and does much, much better now that it has a full wraparound quality - is envelope you in the eerie, hugely atmospheric soundtrack that Grau and Guiliano Sorgini created. The diseased “breathing” of the zombies is now much more acutely detailed and laboured, bolstered with clarity and a presence that is truly skin-crawling in its capacity to filter across the room and reach around behind you. The electronic pulses of the score - whether just for the atmospherics or actually utilised to convey the ultra-sound waves of the rogue machine - are wonderfully sinuous, clear and throbbing with vitality. Such effects now drift menacingly around the room, filling the environment and providing tremendous atmosphere. The screeching of car tyres down the country lanes and the slamming of vehicle doors in the vast open air have a firmer and more realistic sound. PC Craig's shotgun-blasts don't have a great deal of aggression, but the revolver cracks at the end possess some energy and weight.
The track is clear and untroubled by pops or crackling. The dubbed dialogue, by definition, is slightly dislocated, but this is par for the course with such films and does not distract in the same way that many other entries in the genre do. Although much of the dialogue is front-and-centre based, there are still some elements of steerage and positioning, such as off-camera screams and shouts and voices emanating from extreme left or right.
Although reputed to have been the first horror film to incorporate a full Stereophonic soundtrack, the film presumably played the majority of theatres in nothing more than mono - and it is this original audio track that, thankfully for purists, is also available as an option on this disc. Now this sounds perfectly reasonable, given its source and limitations, but I have to tell you that I preferred the lossless surround mix, simply because it is able to extend that enormously atmospheric soundtrack so much further and genuinely bring you into the aural environment in a way that the mono simply cannot do.
Blue Underground, true to form, don't skimp on the audio options and we even get a Dolby Digital EX track to sample if you so desire. Personally, I didn't bother with this as it almost certainly matches the older 5.1 mix that many will be familiar with, and I doubt that it will be able to supply as much density as the DTS-HD MA, but at least you've got the option to experiment. In all, and I didn't expect to be saying this, I think that Blue Underground have done a good job with this audio transfer. They've kept the mono and the new remix is actually quite satisfying.
A 7 out of 10 from me, folks.
Jorge Grau, looking a lot like Danny DeVito, supplies a familiar introduction to the film ... and comes across rather stupidly, to be honest. Going on about the “happy moment” that we gore-fans all want and trying to be evocative just makes him seem like your granddad attempting to cool in front of your mates. Thankfully, we can put this down to just inept editing, because, as we shall see in the lengthy location revisit/interview with the director, Grau is actually finely articulate, amusing and up-to-snuff with the production he undertook thirty-five years ago.
Possibly the best extra feature that we get comes next with the 45-minute-long Back To The Morgue, which allows us to accompany Jorge Grau and some Italian journalist on a tour around all the locations used in the film. Now, folks, although this starts off a little bit awkward and somewhat hokey - the interviewer doesn't seem to be listening to the answers that Grau is giving and Grau hasn't really warmed to his task - but once they both get into the swing of things, this surprisingly comprehensive, and subtitled, retracing of steps actually becomes a very fine and detailed retrospective making-of. We get to visit the river-crossing, the Old Owl Inn, the villages and lanes, George's shop - as it is now - in Manchester, the decrepit and condemned Southgate Hospital (which the pair actually appear to trespass onto) and, naturally, that graveyard. It is here in the graveyard that Grau shows us the alleged resting place of Little John, the very tourist spot that caused the film crew some degree of trouble back when a gaggle of sightseers caught them, in a break from filming, quaffing cans of coke, munching butties and generally lounging about amidst the tombstones - the incident making headline news about them defiling the grave. Ironically, this is the very thing that the film's Sgt. McCormick assumes that George and Edna have been up to. Along the way, we hear about the Italians bringing their food and cooking their own meals because they couldn't stand our Northern cuisine. Grau talks about his cast, the story, and its ecological stance, the effects and the fact that it took the money men several years to actually convince him to make the film, their overwhelming desire just to copy Romero's Night Of The Living Dead. Well, I enjoyed seeing the locations again - I've actually found the spot of the river-crossing myself a few years ago, and now really feel the urge to go back and explore further.
This is hardly the sort of thing that the Peak District Tourist Board would advertise though, is it?
Zombie Fighter is a 16-minute subtitled meeting with Ray Lovelock who, among other things, enjoys talking about his time in quaint old rustic England, as well as his singing days and his film and TV career to date. Personable and interesting, it is just a shame that we couldn't get to hear from Christine Galbo, as well, but Lovelock mentions his rapport with her (claiming that he thought she was going through a few personal problems at the time) and how much he admired and got on with Arthur Kennedy. Have a look at the stills that we get to see of Kennedy in this section - in one of them he is an absolute dead-ringer for Jason Donovan!
And then comes another great coup for the disc, a 17-minute interview with the giddily gore-loving Giannetto De Rossi as he relives his experiences with Grau and his first foray into the land of the living dead, the very things, and their handiwork, that he would become infamous for creating so realistically. Nobody, but nobody makes Dead People like Rossi - his poster-boy of the maggot-ridden conquistador from Zombie Flesheaters (the one that takes an enormous, stringy bite out of Auretta Gay's delectable throat) is still my absolute favourite-looking gut-muncher ever! He talks about his design work for Fulci's film and we get to see a few clips of his clay-baked zombies in action, then he goes a little more in-depth on his makeup tricks for Manchester Morgue. A very likeable and amiable guy, De Rossi still gets work today, even supplying the raw claret for Aja Alexandre's marvellous Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance).
A 20-minute interview with Jorge Grau that was filmed in 2000 and utilised on Anchor Bay's previous release is brought into play here, too. Much of the same information is presented - this was the same session as that which produced the weird introduction to the film, as well - so there is very little new to be gleaned from this. But we do get to see joker-Jorge act like a zombie and try to put the frighteners on us, as well as some of the grisly autopsy photographs of bodies that he used as inspirational tools for the film.
The disc is then completed with some familiar theatrical trailers, TV and Radio Spots, as well as short montage of cool posters, stills and lobby cards all set to Sogini's catchy “John Dalton Street” cue from the film.
In all, this is a great selection of features that actually does provide a lot of background to the film and the intentions of those behind it. A commentary would have been great, too, from the likes of Stephen Jones and Kim Newman ... but I guess that's just wishful thinking.
Undoubtedly one of the best zombie films ever made, The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue set the template for the grisly gorefests that would follow, far more than its more famous inspiration ever did. Plus, and this is a crucial part in its continued popularity, it is genuinely frightening. Couple surprisingly good performances with an incisive and intelligent script, throw in some early gut-munching and highly proficient makeup effects from the man who would become synonymous with the grungiest grue in the business, and shoot practically the whole thing on location and in the daylight and you've got a bona fide classic that depicts an England seen through the kaleidoscopic eyes of a foreigner, resonates with the era in which it was made, and stands the test of time. For a cheap exploitationer, that is not bad going.
Blue Underground bring out their Dead with the best AV that I've experienced the film in and, having now watched this disc about three times since it arrived, can assure you that it is a fan-boy's dream. The extras are fine, too. Most aficionados will already have the excellent booklet of notes and review of the film from Nigel J. Burrell, though it is still sad omission from this selection. But it is great to see both Grau and Lovelock reminiscing about their time battling the undead and, especially, to follow the director around those fantastic locations as they are today.
A terrific and highly influential horror film, folks, that gets a surprisingly impressive Blu-ray release. Those in-the-know can't afford to pass this one up.
“It was the corpses, don't you understand? The corpses!”
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £18.57
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