I am imperfect. I can be overly cynical and incredibly stubborn, and I don’t always listen to people–even people who have demonstrated that they have my best interests in mind. One of the fastest ways to get me to be cynical and stubborn and stop listening is to use the word “zombie” in describing a book, movie or television show. And that, my friends, is one of the places where I get into trouble. I feel like I reached my saturation point on vintage sleaze gut-munchers sometime around 2001, and that attitude kept me from seeing “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie” (also known under the title “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue”) until this year. And yes, all those friends who’d told me it’s a thoroughly excellent movie were absolutely correct. Consider the following to be my effusive apology for not checking this film out earlier!
Directed by Jorge Grau, whose Countess Bathory film “Bloody Ceremony” I’ve gushed about previously, “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie” is one of those magical horror films that is both artful and satisfyingly gruesome in its approach to its subject matter. Antiques dealer George (Ray Lovelock) is on his way to his new home in the English countryside when his (extraordinarily gorgeous) Norton motorcycle is run over by beautiful, pouty moron Edna (Christina Galbo). After some bickering, the two come to an agreement that George will drive Edna to her sister’s house and borrow her car until his (extraordinarily gorgeous) motorcycle can be repaired. But as you may have noticed, this movie is not titled “Two Attractive English Characters Argue for Ninety Minutes,” and things go majorly awry when they arrive at Edna’s sister’s house to discover that the sister’s husband has been savagely killed. The police arrive to investigate and before you can say “get a haircut, you damn hippie,” the youth-culture-hating police inspector has the fashionable pair of city kids pegged as the prime suspects. George and Edna begin their own investigation, and the horrifying truth is revealed: the recently dead are being reanimated and seeking the warm blood of the living to carry on their post-mortem violence. Will George and Edna clear their good names? Will they be able to convince the authorities of the unbelievable truth?? Will that beautiful motorcycle be returned to a state of shiny, black-lacquered repair????
Like all good treasure, this movie requires some patience in its unearthing. The characters are fairly dickish and the setup is somewhat over-complicated, so the first fifteen minutes might feel a little trying. Indulge in a trust exercise: stick with it to the appearance of the first zombie. Its ghastly, sepulchral-slow movements are accompanied by a chilling soundtrack of synthed-together howling and human heartbeats. After the monster reveal, there’s an escalating sense of dread that accompanies every scene, through Edna’s sister’s drug use to the antagonizing police inspector to the revelation of how the zombie plague is spread.
The film dwells equally in the eerie, occult fog of Amando de Ossorio’s “Blind Dead” series and in the nuclear-era political anxieties of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” The zombies are awakened by a high-powered radiation device intended to combat agricultural pests, but new zombies are created through the silent ritual of an undead applying human blood to their eyelids. It’s a remarkably effective combination of scientific hyperbole and fear of the mystical unknown.
Everything is not grim here. The interplay between the handsome young couple and character actor Arthur Kennedy’s hippie-hating inspector provides some moments of humorous social commentary. Kennedy delivers the inspector’s rant against George’s “long hair and faggot clothes” with delicious villainy, but Lovelock’s George is imbued with enough snarkiness that one can sort of see where the inspector’s distaste comes from.
Grau has an eye for arresting images and ghoulish details that add to the film’s creepiness. The locations are stunning–verdant green valleys scattered with cottages, waterfalls and a picturesque church are a stark contrast with the horrible events of the story. An elaborate cold-storage system for the bodies transported from the gloomy Victorian hospital to the Manchester Morgue feels like science fiction. The strained relationship between Edna’s sister and her husband has many uncomfortable textural elements–why, for example, does the husband keep large photos of his wife caught doing drugs in his living room…?
I won’t blame any zombie fans for wondering about when I’m going to get to the grisliness I’d alluded to earlier. Where gross-out FX work is front and center in a lot of zombie movies, “Sleeping Corpses” uses an escalating series of violent setpieces to heighten the horror of the story. The initial death-by-zombie scene is fairly tame, relying on reaction shots and oppressive silence to convey the creature’s inexorable drive for blood. Once the infection has spread to the bodies awaiting transport from the hospital, all of the flesh-ripping excess one might expect of this flavor of horror movie is splashed hideously across the screen.
Any zombie movie worth its salt has at least one “character zombie”–Tar Man from “Return of the Living Dead,” the Cemetery Zombie in “Night of the Living Dead,” and the worm-faced Conquistador in Fulci’s “Zombie.” “Sleeping Corpses” is no exception to this rule, and its rail-thin, head-wrapped, autopsy-scarred ghoul is a fine addition to the ranks of these icons.
For its creeping dread, its nods to hippie culture clashes, its thoughtfully crafted visuals, and its balance of supernatural and scientific themes, I’m going to dub “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie” the most tragically underrated of all zombie movies. Anyone looking for a zombie film that’s about more than over-the-top gore will be gruesomely delighted!