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Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti (DO NOT DISTURB THE SLEEP OF THE DEAD) (1974)

[aka Let Sleeping Corpses Lie aka The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue aka Breakfast At The Manchester Morgue aka Don’t Open The Window aka Zombi 3]

“You talk about the dead walking – about cannibalism! It’s unscientific, man!”






  Director:
 
Jorge Grau

  Starring: 
Ray Lovelock, Cristina Galbó, Arthur Kennedy, Giorgio Trestini, Jeannine Mestri, José Lifante, Vincente Vega, Roberto Posse, Aldo Massasso, Fernando Hilbeck

  Screenplay: 
Sandro Continenza, Marcello Coscia, Juan Cobos (uncredited) and Miguel Rubio (uncredited)

Synopsis:  Antiques and art dealer George Meaning (Ray Lovelock) heads north for the weekend on his motorcycle, planning to spend time fixing up the house he has purchased near Windermere. At a service station, where George stops for a drink, a woman named Edna Simmons (Cristina Galbó) accidentally backs her car over his bike. Forced to leave his bike for repair, George accepts a lift from the apologetic Edna. Difficulties arise, however, when the road divides: as George turns towards Windermere, a frantic Edna tells him that she must get to her sister’s house near Southgate as quickly as possible; she offers to let George borrow her car if he will drop her off there first. George reluctantly agrees and they take the Southgate road – only, some time later, for Edna to confess that she has forgotten exactly where her sister lives. The exasperated George pulls over and goes looking for someone to ask directions from, taking the car keys so that the impatient Edna cannot abandon him. At length, George finds a farmer talking to two government scientists from the Department of Agriculture, who are demonstrating to him an experimental device intended for pesticide-free insect control, which emits a high-pitched beam of ultrasonic radiation over a mile radius. George gets into a verbal dispute with the scientists, advising the farmer to send the machine right back where it came from, before getting directions to the Madison place from the farmer. Meanwhile, Edna gets out of the car to stretch her legs and smoke. Suddenly, she notices a blank-faced man in water-soaked clothes nearby. At first his movements are jerky and uncertain; then, as he sees Edna, he comes towards her at frightening speed, arms outstretched. Edna rushes back to the car, then realises the keys are not there. The man lunges at Edna through an open window. She scrambles back out of the car and flees for her life. Seeing George and the farmer, Edna runs towards them, trying incoherently to explain what happened; but there is no sign of a man near the car, and George reacts to her story with scepticism. Hearing her description of her attacker, the farmer comments that it sounds like “Guthrie the Loony”, a tramp who used to hang around the area, except that Guthrie drowned a week earlier. At the home of Martin (José Lifante) and Katie Madison (Jeannine Mestri), the couple have another of their constant arguments. When Katie calms down, Martin, a photographer, leaves her to check on his cameras, which are set up to take a series of night-time nature shots. As soon as he has gone, however, Katie slips into the garden shed, where she begins to prepare an injection of heroin. Hearing a strange noise, like tortuous breathing, Katie looks outside – and is suddenly confronted by the same man who attacked Edna. Smashing a window, Edna escapes and runs screaming for Martin, but her attacker catches up with her. Martin hurries to her rescue, but he is swiftly overpowered and gruesomely killed. The bloody-handed stranger then turns for Katie. At that moment, George and Edna arrive: caught in their headlights, the stranger recoils, and disappears into the night....

Comments:  We live today in a world so awash with zombie movies that it can be difficult to remember that for a very long time, the living dead were the most minor of supporting players in the cinematic realm, even in those films that were supposedly about them. The central concern of such films, made in less secular times, was not flesh-eating, but the loss of the soul; zombies were victims, not perpetrators, evidence of the villain’s power and the threat confronting the hero or heroine. This era ended with Hammer’s Plague Of The Zombies, a film that retains the original concept of zombies as the passive (if deadly) victims of the living, but accompanies it with a significant escalation in the associated “body horror”; as such, it forms a perfect bridge between the two phases of the genre. The era of the modern zombie movie began, of course, with George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, a film whose impact and influence can scarcely begin to be calculated. This low-budget, independent production altered the concept of “the living dead” in ways seemingly irrevocable, but that is only the beginning of its importance. With hindsight, at least for those of us given to thinking in cinematic terms, Night Of The Living Dead seems a watershed in history. There have been many pronouncements, both literal and figurative, made over the intervening decades, about “when the sixties ended”. For me, there always seemed a simple answer to that question: the sixties ended at the instant that Ben took a bullet to the head. After that, nothing was ever the same again.

It was not Night Of The Living Dead per se that set off the subsequent zombie explosion, however, but its sequel. Dawn Of The Dead owes its existence to the financing and distribution deals brokered by Dario Argento; but Argento went further than that, making it a part of the deal that he should be permitted to oversee the re-cutting of the film into a form he considered more suitable for European, or at least Italian, audiences. This shortened edit (released then, and available today on DVD, as Zombi: Dawn Of The Dead) is missing both Romero’s social commentary and his sick humour, while the original musak soundtrack has been replaced by a driving score by Goblin; what remains is an action-horror movie, rather than a horror-satire. Opinions about the two versions differ, but in any event, on his home turf Argento’s judgement was proved correct: Zombi was an enormous success in Italy, and spawned an entire sub-industry of films about the living dead that, for better or worse, flourished right through the 1980s.

So, how many Zombi 3-s does that make?

While it is understandable that we should date the modern zombie film from the Dawn/Zombi two-punch and its immediate repercussion, Zombie, there were a few other genre entries in the decade between Night and Dawn, which together comprise the whole spectrum of reactions to George Romero’s seminal effort. Paul Maslansky’s Sugar Hill shows the least influence, in fact none at all, being far more closely related to Plague Of The Zombies, but with – at long last – a black sensibility. The other two American zombie movies of this time emanated from the same director-writer team, Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby, who managed to make both the worst of these films, and one of the very best. Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things features the first frank gut-munching of the post-Romero period – and in colour – but that’s all it has going for it. Deathdream, on the other hand, although its zombie craves blood rather than flesh, is an altogether different proposition, a sharply pointed yet compassionate Vietnam-era allegory that George Romero himself might be proud of. Meanwhile, in Spain, Amando de Ossorio was coming up with an entirely original take on the living dead, in the form of his skeletal Knights Templar, the Blind Dead, who would prove popular enough to inspire a full quadrilogy of films.

Fittingly, the most Romero-esque zombie film of this time would be at least partially attributable to the Italians. Working with Italian-Spanish co-financing, and under instruction to “re-make Night Of The Living Dead, but in colour”, director Jorge Grau certainly followed his orders, but managed in the process to expand in intriguing ways upon the Romero concept of the living dead, and to make a very fine horror movie indeed. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie was not immediately successful, however, not least because of a tortuous cinema and video release history that saw it released and re-released in a variety of cuts and under a multitude of titles – of which I have given only a sampling up above. (The witty elegance of the almost-translation by which this film is now best known is balanced by the sheer witlessness of most of its other titles: for one thing, the morgue is not in Manchester!) Ironically, it was probably the fact that it spent some time on the notorious British “Video Nasties” list, along with every other film made up to that point which featured graphic flesh-eating, that cemented Let Sleeping Corpses Lie’s place in the public consciousness. (It was eventually released in a cut version, and dropped from the list.) However, this film has a great deal more to offer an audience than just its bloodshed, with its gore scenes embedded in a firm bedrock of social commentary – appropriately enough, considering its model.

 

A zombie film by any other name....

The most immediately striking thing about Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is its setting, and the use the film makes of it. While the interiors were shot in studios in Madrid and Rome, the far more important exteriors, which are set in the Lake District of northern England, were shot predominantly in Cheshire and Derbyshire. (And a full thirty-four years before Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, too!) Windermere, where George is headed – he thinks – is certainly real, while the fateful meeting of George and Edna – and George’s motorcycle – takes place somewhere in the vicinity of Levens, Cumbria, or so we judge from the road signs. However, Southgate, the location of most of the subsequent action, seems to be fictional. Many of the early scenes, including the first attack upon Edna by Guthrie, take place against a verdant landscape of rolling hills and dramatic peaks, of rivers and fields. These shots are not merely there for their beauty, however, nor for the contrast they provide to the scenes of violence, but are put to a more unnerving use. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is a fine example of  “the outsider eye”, a phenomenon often noticeable in films made by people new not merely to an area, but to a country; seen from this fresh perspective, well-known landscapes may suddenly seem unfamiliar, or off-kilter. But even Jorge Grau’s tourist’s-eye view of the north of England is not the end of it. An arresting feature of this film is the way that the extraneous characters are progressively pruned away over the length of it. Other than in the opening scenes, there really are no extras, only characters who play a role in the action, however minor that may be; and as we get deeper and deeper into the story, there are fewer and fewer of them. (This has the side-effect of providing us with the most deserted film hospital outside of Halloween II, although in a smallish district clinic, the empty corridors are much easier to believe.) Simultaneously, the Lake District ceases to be simply a beautiful backdrop to the action, and becomes instead almost a participant in it; as the human population becomes more and more sparse, the landscape around grows increasingly ominous, even threatening – as if the land itself was rising up to play a part in the story....

....which was probably Jorge Grau’s intention. One of the areas in which Let Sleeping Corpses Lie proves a fitting participant in the world of the Romero zombie film is in its various social concerns, specifically the ecological and the authoritarian. Indeed, this film frequently seems less a riff upon Night Of The Living Dead, and more a foreshadowing of Dawn Of The Dead. Its opening sequence is a jarring montage of a world in crisis. The streets are crowded and noisy; traffic is bumper to bumper; the air is polluted; birds lie dead in the gutters. Commuters stand in sheeplike queues, seemingly oblivious to the dirt and chaos around them – except for those few who try to protect themselves from their environment by wearing a surgical mask. In the sequence’s most startling moment, a young woman (who sports an impressive white-girl ’fro) drops her coat and sprints naked across the street. No-one reacts – except one bus driver, and he just seems annoyed that she’s holding up traffic.

This film brought to you by the City of Manchester Tourist Commission.

These opening scenes were filmed in Manchester (as evidenced by the bus to Torkington), and may be set there, too: where exactly our protagonist, George Meaning, emanates from will be a significant issue before the film is much older. The film actually opens with George shutting up his antiques and art dealership and preparing for a weekend in the country. He boards his motorcycle, binding a scarf about his nose and mouth to protect his breathing, and sets out through the crowded streets, weaving in and out of the traffic. As George progresses – slowly – the depressing urban scenes begin to be intercut with shots of rural areas, looking even fresher and greener than in reality, when used in such a way; a refuge from the hell of urban life. Of course, by the end of the film, this impression will have become attended by more than a little irony.

(The other significant thing about the opening sequence of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is how obviously it was an inspiration for the equivalent sequence in Shaun Of The Dead – only here, the dead-eyed, insensible commuters are the real deal....except for that tiny minority of them, slightly more aware than the rest, who actually notice that someone has a camera trained on them. Edgar Wright has also admitted that his contribution to the set of fake trailers that accompanied the release of Grindhouse was inspired by the ad campaign for this film, when it was released – re-released? – under its Don’t Open The Window title.)

"You've got red on you."

Once George has hijacked Edna’s car and cadged a cigarette, he flicks on the radio, where a commentator is complaining about “exaggerated ecological concerns”. Hmm, now where have we heard that before? George snaps the radio off again with a scornful laugh, muttering about the state of the world and forecasting a time when everyone else will be dead and, “Only the scientists will survive!” (Yeah? Cool!) Soon afterwards, George and Edna find themselves caught behind a van on a narrow road; a van from the Manchester Mortuary, on its way to Southgate Hospital, as we later learn. George reacts with impatience, swerving this way and that and hitting the horn, and finally playing chicken to get ahead of it. He wins....this time....

(By the way, that van is the closest we ever get to the “Manchester Morgue” that dominates this film’s alternative titles. According to Jorge Grau, one of the film’s producers was, for reasons perhaps best left unexplored, “Obsessed with Manchester.”)

When the road divides again, George turns towards Windermere, only for Edna to plead with him to go the other way, as her business is urgent. George allows himself to be persuaded, at least once Edna promises he can keep her car after he drops her off and send it back later, but he soon regrets his cooperative impulse when, on a lonely road, Edna is forced to confess that she doesn’t remember the way to her sister’s house. An understandably exasperated George sets out to find someone of whom he can ask directions. Locating a farm, he suddenly hears a painfully high-pitched whine and follows it to its source, which proves to be a large piece of machinery out in the middle of a field. By it stand two men in protective overalls, one of whom is demonstrating the operation of a hand-held device to a local man who will turn out to be the owner of the land.

"And not only will it kill all the insects, but it can also walk the dog, and do your taxes!"

Temporarily distracted from his geographical woes, George moves in for a closer look. When he learns that the machinery is the generator of an experimental system intended to destroy all insects and parasites, he immediately advises the farmer to send it back; Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees. One of the technicians takes umbrage, particularly at George’s accusation that the machinery is just adding to the pollution problem. The whole point, he argues, is that it is non-chemical-based, operating instead via a form of ultrasonic radiation.

While George’s objections are knee-jerk rather than reasoned – the system is (i) machine-based, and (ii) government-issued, and that’s enough for George – he’s right in practice; certainly if, as it seems, this system is unable to distinguish between harmful insects and helpful ones, like pollinators, as the farmers will no doubt discover to their cost. Or at least, they would, if they weren’t about to be given something rather more pressing to worry about....

There are a number of sequences in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie that make explicit visual reference to Night Of The Living Dead, and the encounter between Edna and Guthrie is certainly one of them, deliberately evoking Barbara’s own encounter with the cemetery zombie. As Edna paces by the car, smoking, she suddenly becomes aware of a gaunt figure in wet clothes standing nearby. At first its movements are jerky and uncertain; but then, as it becomes aware of Edna, it walks towards her with a disturbing sense of purpose. Edna hurries for the car, only to realise that George took the keys with him. As she freezes in a moment of blank panic, a groping hand shoots through the open window. Edna struggles out of the car and runs for it, slipping off the stepping stones and into the river before scrambling up the bank opposite, shrieking for help all the while. George and the farmer hurry down to her, but she gets no comfort from either of them. Seeing no-one by the car, George intimates, not that Edna imagined it all, but that she is exaggerating an overly aggressive act of begging into outright assault; while the farmer, hearing Edna’s description of her alleged attacker, chuckles that it sounds like Guthrie, a local tramp....only Guthrie is dead.

This would be one of those "exaggerated ecological concerns" we've been hearing about.

In the midst of his ecological protest, George did manage to get directions to the Madison house, and he and Edna set off again, sniping crossly at one another. They’re not the only ones with problems, however. We now meet the Madisons, and learn the nature of that “business” that Edna has been equally urgent and reticent about: her sister Katie is a heroin addict, and Martin’s attempt to clean her up by moving her to this isolated area having failed dismally, he and Edna are going to put her into rehab. Seeing Katie calm if depressed, Martin, a photographer, leaves her briefly to check on his camera set-up, with which he is taking night-time shots by a nearby waterfall. As for Katie, no sooner has Martin turned his back than she slips out to their garden shed for a last hurrah. She gets no further than preparing her fix, however, before she hears a disturbing sound, like someone having trouble breathing. The next moment, Guthrie is blocking the doorway of the shed.

You know, I couldn’t tell you the number of horror movies I’ve watched where a girl, apparently strong and healthy and alert, gets confronted by a killer and just sits there, whimpering; yet here we have a shaky, jonesing addict who takes one look at the gaunt figure in her doorway and instantly springs into life-preserving action. It makes you wonder.

Katie snatches up a chair and smashes the window at the far end of the shed, scrambling through it as Guthrie advances. He catches her jacket but Katie tears herself free, running screaming for Martin. She is almost to the waterfall when she trips, and instantly Guthrie is upon her, his hands on her throat. But then the automatic flash on Martin’s camera goes off, and Guthrie staggers back for just long enough for Katie to save herself. Martin runs up and grapples with Guthrie, who easily overpowers him. As they struggle on the ground, Martin grasps a rock and slams it against his attacker’s head, twice. It has no effect, and Martin succumbs....

The bloody-handed Guthrie then turns on Katie, chasing her to the road where, at long last, George and Edna are pulling up. Guthrie is caught momentarily in their car’s headlights, and recoils as if in pain, vanishing into the night as Edna comforts her hysterical sister and George follows the direction of her pointing finger, staring down in horror at what is revealed by that automatic flash....

And where, in clean-living, old-fashioned, non-permissive Southgate, did she get that?

Martin clearly having been murdered, and George and Edna being law-abiding citizens, they call the police.

This proves, to put it mildly, a mistake.

Modern audiences sometimes get impatient with Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, which moves, for its first hour, at a very leisurely pace, and treats its central premise like a mystery, with George and Edna moving from point to point, puzzling out what is going on. There are several issues to be considered here. First, let’s not forget when this film was made, in the early days of the modern zombie film, and at a time when the advertising for a film like this tended to be limited. It is quite possible that audiences knew no more about it than that it was a horror movie, with its subject matter indeed more or less a mystery to them. What title the film was going under that week may also have contributed in that respect. It is also true that the slow build-up finally delivers wonderfully towards the end, when there is a sudden explosion of graphic violence; this the handiwork of Giannetto de Rossi, later on Lucio Fulci’s go-to guy. The most important aspect of the film’s three-act structure, however, is the way that it allows George and Edna to be drawn into a classic scissor-trap, with the zombies closing in on them from one side, and the forces of law and order from the other. It is debatable which of these comprises the greater threat.

Another aspect of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie that might disappoint contemporary viewers, accustomed as most of them are to the sight of the zombie apocalypse, is the very limited number of zombies on display here. It is evident, however, that this is a reflection of a carefully thought-through internal logic: there are only as many zombies here as there should be. After all, the film is set in a rural area, with a more scattered population; deaths, too, are proportionally reduced. But there is another reason that only a handful of zombies rise up here, even with a hospital and a cemetery in the experimental device’s vicinity, one that needs to be considered in light of this film’s various implicit social criticisms: the only dead affected by the ultrasonic device are those still in reasonable physical condition, and still above ground – like bodies in an autopsy suite, or those that simply haven’t been buried; there are no scenes here of the dead clawing their way up out of the ground. We learn of Guthrie that he was left on a slab in the crypt because no-one wanted to pay for his burial. It is easily imagined that the rest of Guthrie’s zombie homies are, like him, the indigent dead, abandoned by an avaricious society, upon which they subsequently revenge themselves.

This last, if true, might help to explain one of the more mysterious aspects of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, the exact mechanism by which the dead are risen. In Night Of The Living Dead there is a fleeting reference to the radiation from a fallen satellite, but the film never says outright that this is the reason that the dead are rising. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is far more up-front about the effect that the ultrasonic radiation device is having, but also muddies the waters with details that can only be described as supernatural. George’s suspicions of the ultrasonic waves are actually raised by a bizarre incident at the local hospital, where Katie is transferred after suffering a breakdown following Martin’s death. Having formed an odd friendship with the macabrely jocular Dr Duffield, George is the first on hand when a nurse staggers out of the nursery, her eye all bloody from having been clawed. George helps to subdue the homicidal infant responsible for this injury so that Duffield can sedate it – he gets bitten, or gummed, in the process – and learns that this is the third baby to show these aggressive tendencies, all three of them coming from the same area, well within the one-mile radius of the device’s effect. George tells Duffield about the device, and the doctor is sufficiently impressed to drive out there with him, questioning the technicians about its action. Still defensive, one of the men explains that the radiation works only on primitive nervous systems, like those possessed by insects, causing them to turn homicidal, and to attack and kill each other. The man insists that the device has been thoroughly tested and has no effect on the human nervous system....at least, not that of adults; Duffield, however, begins to theorise about what effect the radiation might have on an undeveloped nervous system, such as babies have....

You know, I always suspected as much....

It is George who later speculates about another possibility: that the nervous system of the dead might also be affected. Here again this film is determinedly logical, as it is only the recently deceased – whose nervous systems have, presumably, degenerated to a point that makes them comparable to those of insects – who prove susceptible. We see no decayed bodies amongst our zombies, only the physically intact.

And then, having provided a perfectly acceptable “science fiction” explanation for its walking dead, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie proceeds to confuse the issue mightily, in a scene both horrifying and strangely touching.

In a stubborn attempt to prove to Edna that her attacker was not and could not have been an undead Guthrie the Loony, George drags her to the cemetery – which is in a pretty sorry condition; presumably the nice people are interred elsewhere – where Guthrie’s body should be in the crypt. (This film having been made in 1974 and not 2004, George crossly describes Edna’s suggestion of the dead having risen not as, “Like something out of a bad horror movie”, but as, “Like something out of a bad paperback novel.”) Needless to say, George is very thoroughly wrong: he and Edna discover not only Guthrie’s empty coffin, but also what’s left of the cemetery’s caretaker. A moment later, the crypt’s door slams shut, trapping the two underground – and then Guthrie stalks from the shadows. George and Edna are swiftly under attack, and as Edna pounds unavailingly upon the crypt door and whimpers helplessly (yes, she’s that type; personally, I prefer Katie the junkie), George snatches up a metal spike and impales Guthrie with it – repeatedly – to no effect. George struggles with the advancing Guthrie and is knocked to the ground. He staggers up and back, shielding Edna – only to find that Guthrie has other matters on his mind. In the fight, another coffin was knocked over, revealing the body within. Moving with painful deliberation, Guthrie reaches out and touches a wall, taking the blood splashed there onto his fingertips; and then, reaching towards the dead body, he touches its eyelids. He moves to a third coffin, repeating the gesture. And the dead begin to rise....

So what is going on here? Certainly this scene implies that blood is playing a role in raising the dead; Guthrie’s gesture is ritualistic, as if he is anointing the other corpses. Later, George will voice an alternative interpretation of what happened in the crypt, insisting, “They transmit life to one another via the blood of the living, like a plague. That’s why they kill.” But in that case – who anointed Guthrie? And how do the dead in the hospital morgue later rise?

(There is, perhaps, a clue in the newspaper article about Guthrie’s death, which makes reference to “religious mania”; but really, this touch just confuses the issue even more.)

Even the dead get lonely....

And there is another odd detail earlier on, possibly another oblique intimation of supernatural forces at work. During the initial investigation of Martin’s death, his camera – which was going off automatically all throughout Guthrie’s pursuit of and attack upon Katie – is confiscated by the police. George, paranoidly convinced that should the photographs inside show anything that doesn’t fit the official theory of the crime, then this evidence will simply “disappear”, has Edna cause a distraction while he steals the camera, intending to get the pictures developed and to see for himself what they contain. He does so, but finds nothing helpful. Mysteriously, the photographs show only Katie; there is no sign in them of Guthrie. It is left uncertain whether the pictures were simply taken at unfortunate moments, or whether Guthrie’s image failed to show up. Edna does suggest the latter, but that might just be wishful thinking on her part, as these pictures, depicting an hysterical and violent Katie, do nothing to help prove her innocence in Martin’s death. And worse: all that George’s interference has achieved, after his protestations that, not only was he not involved in Martin’s death, but that he doesn’t even know these people, is to make him look like a liar, and therefore, in the eyes of Detective-Sergeant McCormick, heading the investigation, guilty.

Not that it really needed that.

The fact is, Sergeant McCormick doesn’t like George, and he’s not backward in showing it. Of course, George doesn’t like McCormick, either; he doesn’t like the police, full stop, any more than he likes the government; and with his chronic case of smartmouth, he likewise isn’t shy about making his feelings clear. So far the two might seem equal. The problem is, George’s only weapon is his mouth. The Sergeant, on the other hand, has a badge and a gun, and he isn’t afraid to use them.

Sergeant McCormick examines the evidence.

McCormick, as we will soon be made painfully aware, carries a sizeable grudge against “this permissive society”, and the young people he considers guilty of destroying its moral fabric. He’s entitled to his opinion, of course; or at least, he is up to the point when he starts expressing that opinion via an abuse of his authority. A comparison between this Sergeant and his brother-in-arms, Sergeant Neil Howie of the West Highland Constabulary, is rather instructive. Both men disapprove of the direction in which society is heading; both have an unnerving tendency to misuse their authority when their personal beliefs are challenged. (They are brothers in another way, too: McCormick takes a moment while examining Martin’s body to abuse a subordinate for not having his uniform completely buttoned up.) The difference is that Sergeant Howie takes this stance only after being pushed; for this Sergeant, this is clearly his default setting. In his opinion, the fact that Katie is a heroin addict explains everything; he makes no attempt to actually investigate the murder, or to explain how this slender young woman managed to inflict such shocking injuries upon her husband, a good-sized man in health and full control of his faculties; injuries that later elicit from the coroner the comment, “I’ve never seen anything like it! The whole torso’s caved in; every bone smashed!” There is no sign of a weapon, nor is Katie in any way injured or bruised; but this matters not to McCormick; after all, everyone knows that the influence of drugs can give unnatural strength. And besides – Katie once modelled nude for her photographer-husband; clinching evidence of her depravity, in the Sergeant’s view. He even interrupts his questions – or rather, his statements – about the murder to flourish a proof-sheet under Katie’s nose, demanding, “Can you tell us what these pictures are all about?” Katie, in shock as well as in withdrawal, has no immediate answer; the Sergeant gives a satisfied smirk. She is a killer; and Edna is a liar; and George---George---

In fact, although it’s Katie he believes guilty of murder, it’s George who really pushes McCormick’s buttons. George and Edna are in the village store, also its photo lab, puzzling over the non-appearance of Guthrie in the stolen photographs when the Sergeant and his men catch up with them. When George asks wearily if he has so much as considered that he might be “barking up the wrong tree”, McCormick has an answer ready:

“Not when I’m dealing with people like you. You’re all the same, the lot of you! – with your long hair and faggot clothes; drugs, sex, every sort of filth!” 

"You're a sadist, and a Satanist, and a murderer, and---ohhhhh, get a haircut, will you!?"

Of course, McCormick doesn’t know what we know: that George co-owns a business; that he works; that he has just bought a fixer-upper in the country; that he is, in every respect, a gainful member of society. And he certainly doesn’t know that when working in his shop, George wears a button-up shirt, a tie, and a cardigan; or that George was dressed like that immediately before setting out for Southgate. Granted, he did subsequently take off the tie – a mistake – and he did substitute a leather jacket for the cardigan – an even bigger mistake. That jacket acts like a red rag on a bull for the people of Southgate. The farmer from whom George asks directions looks him up and down and comments, “Don’t get many young fellas dressed like you around these parts.” He also assumes on this basis that George is, “Up from London”, a misapprehension that George never bothers to correct; yet another mistake. That George himself is a Northerner – an urban Northerner, granted, but a Northerner just the same – just like the people who take such a dislike to him, is yet another of this film’s little ironies. That George must originate from London, that moral cesspool, everyone simply takes for granted. McCormick certainly does; in fact, he takes one look at that leather jacket, and that collar-length hair, and he makes up his mind about George.

And it stays made up. Having ordered George and Edna to stay in town, at the local inn, the Sergeant leaves a message for them there, helpfully addressed to, “The people involved in the murder.” He doesn’t lift a finger to verify George’s statement of his earlier movements – for instance, questioning the mechanic who witnessed the accident that brought George and Edna together. He just assumes that George is lying. Later on, when he comes to believe that George has murdered two of his men, McCormick’s attitude might be excusable – except that it really isn’t any different from the attitude he displays at the outset, when he expresses his antagonism towards George by seizing him by that leather jacket and shouting abuse into his face. In a series of “deductive” leaps that simply make the blood run cold, the Sergeant moves rapidly from considering George an accessory to murder, to believing him a Satanist, a killer, and a psychopath, declining to so much as glance outside his blinkers, no matter how increasingly impossible it is that one man, or even one man and one woman, could be responsible for the escalating wave of violence that is sweeping through the surrounds of Southgate. 

Now, it is true enough that neither George nor Edna is particularly likeable. Unlikeable leads are, let’s face it, an aspect of a lot of horror films – too many – particularly European horror films (although not just European horror films). However, unlike most of its brethren, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie provides reasons that these two are the way they are. So yes, Edna is whiny and annoying; but she is also bone tired from her drive up from London, to which she attributes the accident to George’s bike. She is distressed and distracted by Katie’s situation, and by the thought of what she and Martin are planning – and that’s before she herself is attacked by Guthrie, and Martin is murdered. As for George, he certainly has an unpleasantly sarcastic and jeering mouth on him, and is more than a little of a sanctimonious know-it-all. But, after all, there’s even more excuse for George’s sour and sulky behaviour than there is for Edna’s whining. Just look at how his quiet weekend in the country has turned out: his motorcycle trashed, his plans hijacked, a helpless woman on his hands, a violently abusive police detective on his case, and the living dead roaming the countryside. I think, don’t you? – that George has pretty good reason to moan and bitch. 

Our "moral degenerate", ladies and gentlemen!

And despite all the mouthing off, it is soon evident that George’s bark is a lot worse than his bite – and in fact, that he would be a lot better off if he were in actuality as much of a dick as he seems to be; if he had insisted on pressing on to Windermere instead of diverting to Southgate, for instance, or if he had not given in to Edna’s pleas to accompany her to the hospital after Katie’s collapse. Later on, as the crisis in Southgate spirals out of control, George manages to evade the police. He then has every opportunity to put as much distance as possible between Southgate and himself, if for no other reason than to provide himself with a solid alibi for when the next inevitable act of violence is committed – but he doesn’t do it. Instead of saving himself, he sticks around, first trying to sabotage the ultrasonic device, then plunging right into the lion’s den – the local hospital, where Edna and Katie are, and where the recently deceased lie in the morgue – in an effort to rescue the women from the horror he knows is coming. In other words, whatever George might say, he tries to do the right thing....and gets the usual horror movie reward for it.

When George and Katie head out for the cemetery to look for Guthrie’s body, McCormick puts one of his men on their tail. Constable Craig arrives just in time to see his quarry emerging from the crypt via a gap near the ceiling, which turns out to be the back-end of an above-ground excavation, possibly some unfinished plumbing work; and he hurries forward to help the screaming Edna up and out. George also freeing himself, they try to run, but find themselves surrounded, Guthrie in front of them, the two newly risen zombies behind. As Guthrie pulls a wooden cross from the ground and moves forward in a purposeful way, George and Edna bolt for the caretaker’s house, while Craig simply stands there gaping until George comes back and hauls him inside to safety. (Again, George may say he hates the police, but....) As the zombies begin to break the door down, Craig seizes a small shotgun and fires both barrels into them through a window; one zombie is hit in the chest, another in the head; neither is stopped. George and Craig barricade the door, and the three trapped people sit down to debate their options, with George realising the truth about the ultrasonic radiation.

Craig:  “I can just imagine the Sergeant’s face when he finds out.”
George:
  “I’d like to be there when he does!”

Then Craig’s radio – dropped outside while he was helping Edna – begins to buzz. Craig insists on making a run for it, so that he can call for back-up; a plan that works about as well as you might expect. And then the zombies settle in for a little snack....

I'm telling you, it's all perfectly logical....

One of the things that most appeals to me about Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is that it is, in its way, such an oddly logical little film; or perhaps internally consistent would be a better way of putting it. This is particularly true with respect to the zombies’ behaviour. You get the feeling, as you watch, that much as Jorge Grau might have admired Night Of The Living Dead, he didn’t much care for George Romero’s refusal to explain his zombies, or account for their behaviour. Grau’s zombies are another matter. First of all, we know they all have a rudimentary nervous system, otherwise they wouldn’t be up and around. We also know that they breathe; we hear them doing so, a horrible, unnerving, rasping sound (one provided, evidently, by Jorge Grau himself). What’s more, these zombies are not just mindless killing machines: they have the ability to think, and to plan, and to work as a team. So it makes sense here, as it so rarely does in zombie movies, that they should also be hungry – showing a distinct preference for the internal organs, the soft, squishy bits, like the liver. And perhaps, George’s theories of “plague” notwithstanding, that is the real reason they kill so often. After all, with just a single victim, there’s only so much liver to go around....

Snack-time over, the three zombies turn their attention back to George and Edna, quickly breaking down the barricade and forcing their way into the house. Earlier, when Craig blurted that, “We have to find some way to defend ourselves!”, George snapped back angrily, “What with? Silver Bullets? Wooden stakes?’ No, but it’s third guess lucky: in desperation, George throws a kerosene lamp at the advancing undead, which shatters and ignites. We’ve seen already that they don’t like bright lights; now we see that they really don’t like fire – and with reason. The three of them go up in a massive blaze, as George and Edna scramble to safety.

Outside, George comforts Edna, quashing her fears about Martin by pointing out that the ultrasonic device has a range of only one mile, and that his house is at least three away. He then sends Edna back to the Madisons’ house, to tell the police what happened (yeah, if I were George, I wouldn’t want that job either), while he himself goes to, “Take care of that bloody machine!”

"Wait, 'inflammable' means 'flammable'? What a language!"

And that’s that, right? Well, not quite. There are a couple of things that George doesn’t know: first, that Martin is already up and around; and second, that those helpful guys from the Department of Agriculture have succeeded in boosting the emission power of their device, so that it now has a range of five miles....

And of course, when McCormick does finally make it to the cemetery, what does he find there? A dead policeman – disembowelled, and partially eaten – plus three incinerated bodies. He’s prepared at the outset to declare George and Edna a couple of “drug-crazy maniacs!”, but then, thanks to the local Crown Prosecutor, Perkins, who declares, “It looks to me like a pretty typical case”, he alters his opinion and decides that they are Satanists instead, and that this was part of a Black Mass. And while this is going on, poor George is still out there, floundering around, trying desperately to do the right thing, and all the time just getting himself in deeper and deeper; unaware, too, that his arch-enemy has just issued an, “If he resists, shoot!” order....

The measured pace of the first two-thirds of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie really pays off here, as the dead bodies within the hospital rise up, and the film goes into overdrive. It also provides us with one of the most memorable zombies of all time, the “Autopsy Zombie”, who comes complete with jaws tied shut, genitals bound, a deep, crudely stitched incision, and nasal plugs. This gentleman and his companions, Martin among them, cut a swathe through the hospital in set-piece after set-piece of intense, gruesome violence. One by one, the minor characters fall at their hands; literally at their hands: Katie Madison; Dr Duffield; and an extremely annoying hospital receptionist.

Fun fact: in the world of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, the “soft, squishy bits” include the boobies.

Ew.

I guess they really weren't happy with their long-distance carrier....

But George soon turns up, fighting the good fight, and doing it so thoroughly that soon, all that remains is him and a bunch of torched bodies. Which means that there is very little evidence of the truth left, when the Sergeant and his men finally catch up with him. Not that evidence comes into it. McCormick simply empties his gun into George’s body.

Um. I think you’re supposed to offer at least one chance to surrender....aren’t you?

The concluding stages of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie are provocative from two separate perspectives. I have said before that, in its social concerns, this film prefigures Dawn Of The Dead; remarkably, it also manages to prefigure Day Of The Dead. Eleven years after this, George Romero’s misanthropy would have reached such a point that he could conceive a film where the only sympathetic character was a flesh-eating zombie. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie got there first, though, using a zombie to serve up a piece of justice so poetic, it’s positively laureate-grade.

These final scenes do more than that, however, providing simultaneously an intriguing example of the cultural divide in the handling of Sergeant McCormick. Let’s not forget, round about this time, on the other side of the Atlantic, Dirty Harry Callahan was behaving very much like this, breaking laws he didn’t agree with and abusing his authority, and making himself quite the hero in the process. This film, however, is horrified by McCormick’s behaviour, and says so both explicitly and implicitly. It is the Crown Prosecutor, to that point an ally, who speaks up when the Sergeant finally loses his temper and strikes George in the face, bloodying his nose. “I do not approve of your methods, Sergeant,” he comments coldly, as George is taken away to clean up. “The police should never resort to violence.”

“And I disapprove of your methods, Mr Perkins,” snarls McCormick. “If we just had a free hand with these criminals....”

Ah, yes: these dreadful court officials, who insist upon enforcing the law as written.

Remember, children: always wear clean underwear, in case someone raises you from the dead.

When it is all over, and McCormick is being driven away from the hospital in company with his perpetual offsider, Constable Kinsey, the constable (brown-nose that he is) remarks that, “The papers will be going crazy over this. They like you! Looks like you’ll be a regular hero!” The Sergeant cannot hide his satisfaction, commenting, “Justice has been a bit slow in these parts, with all this permissive rot going on. Maybe people learned a thing or two from my example here!”

Did I say that the moral of The Wicker Man was, Be careful what you pray for? It is even more so the moral of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie; particularly when McCormick’s last words to George, delivered as he first kicks, and then stands over his bullet-riddled body, are, “I wish the dead could come back to life, you bastard, because then I could kill you again!”

And so it is that when the Sergeant retires for a rest at the Old Owl Inn, still preening himself on his accomplishments, he finds his room already occupied - by someone upon whom his bullets have no effect; by someone whose hair touches his collar....

I love a happy ending – don’t you?

"Okay, okay - forget the haircut!"

Want a second opinion of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie? Visit The Unknown Movies, The Bad Movie Report, and 1000 Misspent Hours – and Counting.

This review is a part of the B-Masters’ examination of the counter-culture in all its forms:


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----posted 24/05/2009