Friday, March 15, 2013

Underrated Horror Gems--"Let Sleeping Corpses Lie"

     Obviously zombies have been a hot monster in entertainment in the past decade or so, after having a comparative lull in the 1990’s.  For example, if you had told me ten years ago that there would be a popular yet gory television show about zombies, that would be watched not just by ardent horror fans like myself, I wouldn’t have believed you.  Hell, Stephenie Meyer is probably halfway through another teenage romance, this time with lame zombies as the “bad boy” du jour.  (And of course I myself used zombies, sort of, for my first ebook.)
     Probably everybody knows about 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” since it started the whole zombies-that-take-over-the-world-by-eating-living-people zombie horror idea that proved to be so completely influential.  But today I’d like to discuss another, fairly old zombie movie—“Let Sleeping Corpses Lie,” a 1974 Spanish/Italian production.  (This is just one of its titles.  Like a lot of European movies, especially Italian zombie films, it went by many other titles (at least 17!), including, “The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue,” “Don’t Open the Window,” and “Brunch with the Dead.”)  Director Jorge Grau admitted that his producers requested a color knockoff of “Night of the Living Dead,” but as knockoffs go it was very solid.  Most of the “Tombs of the Blind Dead” movies predated it, as did “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things,” to name two other notable color ripoffs.
     “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie” (which will hereafter be abbreviated to “Corpses”) is about two travelers, George and Edna, who are thrown together in Northern England’s Lake District after Edna accidently damages George’s motorcycle.  Edna is going to help put her sister into drug rehab.  Strange things start to happen.  Edna is accosted by a weird looking man.  A murder occurs, which may have been committed by this same strange attacker.  Then things get worse—the dead start to return and attack the living, but the local police don’t believe our two heroes.  The ending suggests that the zombie epidemic may spread out and get worse.
     (SPOILER ALERT—PLOT POINTS DISCUSSED UNTIL NOTED)  “Corpses” is certainly not a perfect movie.  It’s fairly slow in the beginning.  Most of the main characters aren’t very sympathetic, including George, who is often arrogant and annoying.  (The police inspector couldn’t be a bigger douchebag, but in doing so he makes for an effective villain.)
     On the plus side, once it gets going it holds the tension well.  The dead tramp stalking scene is good, the cemetery attack scene is darkly compelling, and the hospital scenes at the end are nicely disturbing and grotesque.  Grau really takes advantage of the fact that the film was made in color, with bits of occasionally graphic gore.  Unlike many zombie movies, the scenery is impressive, too—especially the hillside cemetery and the picturesque small town (South Gate) that most of the action is set in.  (Some of it is actually English countryside, but Italy stood in for much of the shooting.)
     People who like to debate what films really mean, and what the movie’s symbolism is will have a field day with “Corpses.”  I hesitate to even call it subtext, since it’s so overt.  Briefly, the movie has an obvious anti-industrial, environmental theme, which is rather Tolkien-esque.  The film contrasts the crowds, the factories, and the pollution of Manchester at its beginning with the sparsely populated, lovely, and green countryside where the rest of the film takes place.  This can be seen in the movie’s explanation for why the dead are returning, too—a new type of agricultural equipment which affects potential insect pests using ultrasonic radiation waves.  So in essence, human’s reliance on harsh technology for growing crops causes a zombie apocalypse—it’s like an extreme conspiracy theory cooked up by a bunch of hippies at an organic food co-op.  The fact that the police inspector (representing rigid, conservative, old authority) doesn’t believe George and Edna (representing youthful open-mindedness, liberalism) until it’s almost too late only reinforces this.  (There is one bizarre exception to this.  At one point, a zombie activates another corpse or two by spreading dabs of blood over their eyes, kind of an obscene bastardization of an anointing.  It’s an odd moment, suggesting an evil magical, ritualistic aspect to the phenomenon.)
     I’m also fascinated by another plot point, which the movie almost glosses over, and as far as I know, is unique in a zombie film.  That is, the ultrasonic waves affect any living things in the area which have simplistic brains and nervous systems.  (For the purposes of the plot, dead adult nervous systems are clearly affected, too.)  This is supposed to mean insects, but in the movie it also affects living human babies.  There’s a nasty scene where a nurse has had her eye gouged by a tiny denizen of the maternity ward.  So, in this movie there are both dead zombies, and living ones.  Which got me to thinking—if you raised a child in this town (with the ultrasonic waves) would they grow out of it, as their nervous systems matured?  And have other animals reacted in the same way?  Surely a dog or cat compares to a baby human’s nervous system complexity, but this isn’t explored.  (Clearly, all of this is very far fetched, biologically speaking, but it IS a zombie movie, so I’m willing to suspend my disbelief.)
     The movie also breaks from the usual method of destroying the brain to “kill” a zombie.  Bullets in the torso don’t work, but we don’t actually see any head shots, so it’s unknown if this works.  Zombies are only destroyed using fire.  Also, there’s a big question unanswered—are the created zombies permanent, or will they “deanimate” if the ultrasonic radiation wave machines are turned off?  Obviously if it’s the latter it would rate as one of the easiest zombie apocalypses to stop ever.
     (END SPOILERS)  Unlike other European horror directors, like Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, Ruggero Deodato, Pupi Avati, and Paul Naschy, to name a few, Jorge Grau never seemed to get much worldwide (and especially American) acclaim.  He had a long career—he directed 32 films, the last in 1994, but only “Corpses” was noted much outside of his native Spain.  Ray Lovelock (George) worked steadily before, and has since, but mostly in Italian productions that also weren’t big in other countries.  Christina Galbo (Edna) was in another moderate hit (1972’s “What Have You Done to Solange?”) but the rest of her career was in smaller Spanish films.  The dreadful police inspector portrayer, Arthur Kennedy, was easily the most famous actor in the movie.  He was a five-time Oscar nominee (no wins), and was in such films as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Peyton Place,” and “Fantastic Voyage,” and he had a small role in the subject of an earlier blog post of mine, “The Sentinel.”
     So, for American audiences, anyway, Grau was a one hit wonder (and even that hit was modest).  But like many one hit wonders, that one hit is pretty cool.  I think that zombie movie aficionados, especially those with a sense of history, will probably find “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie” to be enjoyable.

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