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by Bill Gibron

25 Oct 2009

“I am not a number. I am a free man”
- Number Six (Patrick McGoohan)

It is the line that leads us into every episode, a reminder of the show’s most obvious and undeniable theme. Unlike other late ‘60s entertainment, lead actor (and series creator) Patrick McGoohan wanted everyone to know that his hour long spy drama was not your typical espionage experience. Like an uprooted and reconfigured 1984, or one of Anthony Burgess’s dystrophic cautionary tales, McGoohan meant to challenge the stifling status quo. Borrowing a little of America’s counterculture creativity, and marrying it to the pop art poetry of his native Britain, the performer embraced the idea of treating the audience as participants, not patsies, in his weekly game of cat and mouse. As a result, The Prisoner became the Twin Peaks of its time, the Gravity’s Rainbow of secret agent science fiction and a stunning television classic. 

Perhaps second only to the original Star Trek in terms of concrete cult status and lingering fanbase frenzy, McGoohan’s gamble remains an astounding masterpiece of mangled mainstream intent. Tired of playing the standard special operative, and realizing that the entire James Bond franchise had upped the anti when it came to such storylines, McGoohan, a UK superstar, decided to completely deconstruct the rules regarding such shows. Instead, he devised a puzzle box of prospective mysteries, filtered them through an inventive framework, and then proceeded to make each episode an illustrated battle between conservative, Establishment ideologies and the personal preferences for freedom, liberty and choice. Even the title held a three-pronged connotation. It created an image that reflected the lead character, his state of mind, and the world(s) in which he lived.

Premises don’t get any more intriguing than this one. McGoohan plays a nameless British intelligence officer who quits his post and prepares to leave town. Just before he’s able to escape, he’s gassed and wakes up in a weird little seaside burg known only as The Village. There, he is referred to by a numeric tag, in this case, Number Six, and forced to report to a Big Brother-like interrogator named Number Two. A captive, and held for the information in his head (the main question being “Why did you resign?”) Number Six learns that there is no fleeing this bizarre, baffling place. Indeed, whenever he or anyone else attempts such a strategy, a large floating orb (nicknamed “The Rover”) is released from the ocean. It tracks down anyone attempting a getaway, and encases them in its opaque elastic shell. Then it’s straight into The Village’s hospital for a little ‘R’ & ‘R’: re-education and re-indoctrination.

From such a foundation, The Prisoner took a multi-level approach to its individual storylines. Ritualistically, we are introduced to a new Number Two each time (creating its own interest level of internal intrigue) and the elusive Number One is always mentioned, but never shown. In each episode, we witness another in The Village’s odd assortment of festivals (art, costume gala), events (elections, speed education broadcasts) and personnel. It’s the final facet that’s the most interesting, since it sets up the biggest dichotomy in the show. Number Six is always viewed as a fighter and a rebel, unwilling to conform to the brainwashing, psychological control and outright attempts to undermine his spirit. By comparing him to people who either love The Village, wish to join him in any plan of escape, or use friendship as a mask to proceed as an agent for the omniscient officials, The Prisoner provides many of its most memorable exchanges.

Indeed, beyond the stunning art design with a great deal of Londonderry air and Carnaby Street whimsy tossed in to increase the arcane factor, and the terrific technological twists (phones are angular and modern, rococo buildings housing elaborate science labs and room sized computers), it is the interaction between people that makes The Prisoner so special. Thanks to the wonderful writers responsible for the program’s intelligent and biting scripts, conversations crackle with meaningful political and social suggestion, while dry Brit wit bubbles beneath all the intrigues and enigmas. Initially, the first few shows stutter a bit in providing us with recognizable hooks to get a handle on. This is partly because The Prisoner was never devised with a wholly linear format to follow. It is also an obvious attempt to keep us squarely in Number Six’s shoes, allowing us to experience the adventure right along with him. Still, in an episode like “Dance of the Dead”, where a washed up body and an available radio are utilized in one of Number Six’s many escape plots, we can feel rushed toward a resolution.

By “The Chimes of Big Ben” and “A, B and C” however, we find the dynamic settling in, and except for a strange instance toward the end where Number Six magically changes human form, and acting ability (McGoohan was off filming Ice Station Zebra at the time) for the “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” installment, The Prisoner perfected the art of audience expectation evasion. Relishing the chance to play with both the Village and its residents, stellar episodes like “Hammer Into Anvil” (Number Six avenging the death of a young girl) and “Many Happy Returns” (Number Six thinks he’s made it back to London) also pick apart the approach to the entire premise. Instead of limiting the narrative to the fairytale like location with all its Alice in Gestapoland style, the plots placed our hero in all manner of outside situations (parties, offices, his old haunting grounds) as a means of reconfirming his personality. We are not only supposed to cheer for Number Six, but sympathize with and support his plight.

Thanks to the iconic way in which McGoohan is presented here, it’s impossible to think of anyone denying the character’s emotional and ideological pull. Shot from an angle that suggests a man used to slipping under the radar (from above and downward) and always featuring the performer in a semi-smirk, eyebrow cocked in knowing perception of the situations at hand, Number Six looks both dominant and deceived, a man caught up in a world which he didn’t create, but able to navigate its weird waters with cunning, drive and more than a little moxie. Toward the end of the run, we see our star slowly manipulating the format to force a confrontation between himself and the dreaded dictator of The Village, Number Two. “A Change of Mind” sees McGoohan’s character creating a bond with a female doctor (all the medical staff seem to be women, for some reason) with the intent of thwarting his nemesis. Similarly, “Once Upon a Time” sets up something called the ‘Degree Absolute’ which turns out to be a battle to the death between these long time antagonists.

With American Movie Classics gearing up to offer an update on the series (starring Passion of the Christ‘s James Caviezel and Ian McKellen), A&E has overseen a painstaking remaster of the original series, complete with a stunning Blu-ray release that brings everything brilliant about the show to dazzling life. The extras packed presentation, including new commentaries, making-of featurettes, character and setting documentaries, and a bevy of bonus background gives the Prisoner fan as much context as they could possibly want. With gorgeous imagery, razor-sharp sound, and a load of exciting content, the new format box set answers a lot of questions about the material…except one.

Indeed, the lingering concern that every fan has centers around the identity of Number One. The final episode, “Fall Out”, offers its own somewhat imaginative take on the answer (something about how a famous line in every introduction is read), but many The Prisoner faithful find such a solution unrewarding. The reason for this, however, is understandable. Something strange happened along the way toward a reasonable resolution to all this mysterious spy stuff. McGoohan, who only wanted a very short run to begin with, agreed to a full 13 episodes understanding that ITC executive Sir Lew Grade was only willing to contract for same. Surprisingly, Grade actually wanted two seasons, not just one. By the time the requisite number had been reached for series one, McGoohan was shocked to learn that Grade had pulled the plug. After several meetings, the men came to an agreement. Four more episodes were allowed, with the finale wrapping up the series for good.

That may explain the rushed nature of the resolution, especially when you consider that McGoohan originally wanted to make seven installments total. Besides, it’s hard to labor inside a storyline that keeps delaying revealing to the audience the story’s purpose.  All the techo-babble and pseudo sci-fi speak can only get you so far. At some point, clues have to be clarified and hints explained or fans will fade out. This is why the initial Peaks comparison is so apt. David Lynch designed his ‘90 show around the solution to the question “Who killed prom queen Laura Palmer?” Once revealed, the series lost its narrative purpose. As a result, it turned into an idiosyncratic mess for eccentricities sake. With The Prisoner, the problem was more metaphysical. In the finale, during his speech to a gathering of Villagers, the President of the Assembly says the following about our hero:

“We are honored to have with us a revolutionary of a different caliber. He has revolted. Resisted. Fought. Held fast. Maintained. Destroyed resistance. Overcome coercion. The right to be a Person, Someone, or Individual. We applaud his private war and concede that despite materialistic efforts he has survived intact and secure. All that remains is recognition of a Man.”

As the main symbolic and dogmatic thesis to the show, The Prisoner faced the daunting task of making such a stance seem new, fresh and exciting each and every episode. For some, seeing McGoohan defiant and flip every scene could certainly create a stigma of staleness. Also, there are moments where The Village feels purposefully and pointlessly insane, merely making up new elements to fluster and fool Number Six. Like any series with an ambiguity at its core, The Prisoner rests and falls on its handling and revelation. It did a decent, if not quite definitive job.

If simplicity and easy answers are all you’re looking for in a one hour thriller, then perhaps you should focus your entertainment attentions elsewhere. The Prisoner is more of a sum of its parts than a cleverly considered bit of clockwork creativity. There are slow spots (“Free for All”‘s election element takes a long time getting started) and one extremely odd bit of mindmeld exploitation (“Living in Harmony”‘s take on the Western genre and its archetypes). Still, the energy the series gives off, and the experimental way in which it handled ideas both distinctive (the balloon like bounty hunter “Rover”) and deranged (“A, B and C”‘s use of dream/memory manipulation science) makes it a stand out example of an ambitious series that celebrated its epic ideals and aesthetically challenging execution of same.

And that’s what’s most riveting about this nearly 40-year-old program. The Prisoner defied the corrosion of conformity and mocked institutionalized violence and state sanctioned interference with personal freedom. It celebrated the human being and blasted any society wanting only compliance and control. There were nods to Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the increasingly bitter political process and the “tune in, turn on, drop out” dream of the peace and love generation. For Number Six, and the actor playing him, anything remotely resembling a group or collective conscious was to be considered corrupt and anti-individual. It was as if that famous ‘60s saying – “Never trust anyone over thirty” – was reclaimed and retrofitted by the show to state, “Never trust anyone but yourself”.

In the end, it really didn’t matter who Number One was, which side of the Cold War The Village sat, why enumeration was used to identify the citizenry, or what in the world that killer beach ball really was. The Prisoner was more interested in one’s individual capacity for choice than any future shock folly. In fact, one could successfully argue that this entire experience was a test, a proving ground created to test Number Six’s loyalty and tenacity. If he really wanted to resign from a world loaded with underhanded dealings, back stabbing best friends and governments grasping to one-up each other, how far would such a man be willing to go to prove his point? Would he be willing to challenge every facet of his humanity, including his personality and his soul? Would he allow himself to be locked away, only to champion his desire to be free? The way in which the answer is discussed and discovered is one of The Prisoner‘s best features. It’s what keeps the series timeless…and very telling.

by Bill Gibron

24 Oct 2009

It’s fairly obvious that vision is in short supply in Hollywood. Just look at what passes for art among the mindless mainstream movies that make their weekly pilgrimage to your local Cineplex and see if it’s not true. We live in blank, bland times. But there’s something that goes hand in hand with imagination and daring, a word that many misconstrue as consistent with arrogance, pretention, and ego. Some even use it as an excuse for limiting clear creativity. Yet “audacity” is equally lacking in today’s motion picture landscape. Few filmmakers simply take their ideas and run wild with them. Typically, they simply slink along, looking to make their money before moving on to the next journeyman job.

To put it mildly, Lars Von Trier is not your typical anything. Over a career that has seen him embrace the strictures of the no-frills Dogme ‘95, dabble in TV terror, and defy convention with musicals and haughty historical period pieces, he has avoided easy description as his films have lacked commercial consideration. Now comes Antichrist, a work of unqualified brilliance - and impudence. Some have even dubbed it the most misogynistic movie ever created. Actually, it will probably stand as Von Trier’s masterpiece.

A married couple experiences a horrific tragedy when their infant son leaves his crib and crawls out an open window, falling to his death. Overtaking by grief, the mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) spends over a month in a mental hospital while her therapist husband (Willem Dafoe) disagrees with her chemical course of treatment. Removing her from the facility and forcing her to do away with all medication, he feels he can talk her through the pain. When she reveals an unnatural fear of the woods surrounding a cabin in a place called Eden, he decides to take her there.

Initially, she is frightened into a state of near inertia. He finds her anxieties almost comical. Slowly, they begin to probe her wounded psyche. But as her attitude improves, he begins to suspect something sinister. Indeed, she has used her research into historical crimes against women to conclude that the female gender is inherently evil. It’s become her post-motherhood mantra. He believes that is utter nonsense - until his wife turns violent, physically, emotionally, and above all, sexually.

Absolutely stunning in its visual flourishes, horrifying in its aggressive violence, and knowing in its psycho-sexual philosophical bent, Von Trier’s Antichrist is simply astonishing. It’s a structured walk through one woman’s terrifying mental breakdown, a deconstructed cry for relief and understanding. So obsessed with birth and biology that the symbols practically stand up and shout their intent, this is New Age therapeutics as Grand Guignol geek show.

It is obvious what Von Trier is messing with - what happens to a “mother” when she loses that title (perhaps by her own actions, or lack thereof) - and along with the awkward supposition that history has prove the woman wicked, he intends to explore every possible angle of attack. That’s why we get sequences of passion, bloodletting, comforting conversation, and unhinged insanity. In the end, he offers no real conclusions. Instead, we see one couple completely disintegrate over the impact of grief, and wonder what will come next. 

Like Dante’s Inferno, what we wind up with is a literal trip through Hell, a beautiful, beguiling place that holds many horrific truths barely simmering under its lush surface. Several times throughout the course of Antichrist, Von Trier pulls back the curtain to reveal the redolence underneath. Limbs are hacked. Body parts are beaten. We aren’t supposed to take what happens to the characters as being wholly realistic. Instead, the moment they leave their quiet urban apartment and head into this mythic wilderness, the lens purposefully distorts to argue against authenticity. It’s a piece of filmic finesse that happens several times during the story.

Unlike Breaking the Waves, which took an almost documentary approach on a similar subject and theme (human degradation and the females role in same), we get the kind of aesthetic aggressiveness that makes Antichrist another ‘love it or loathe it’ extreme. The prologue with its abundant monochrome slow motion is so remarkable, so hypnotic in its carefully composed presentation that we are instantly taken aback by its power. It’s shockingly handsome. Luckily, the rest of the movie lives up to this opening promise.

Indeed, the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (Oscar Winner for Slumdog Millionaire and previous Von Trier collaborator) deserves considerable praise. There are times when the movie almost stands still, the filmmakers using their incredibly long holds and static shot framing to build a considerable amount of texture and suspense. Of course, there are also handheld close-ups and action elements that tend to forward the film’s intimate, in your face nature. Along with the amazing work by Gainsbourg and Dafoe, Von Trier creates an insular realm where his dream logic and nightmare scenarios can play out - and the results aren’t always pleasant.

Both actors are required to bare everything onscreen - from their bodies to their souls - and they do so magnificently. Some will still be bothered by the narrative’s lack of crystal clarity. Others will take the obvious step and scream ‘hate’. But there is an intriguing middle ground which suggests we are watching Dafoe work through his emotional attachment to his wife and dead child. The violent struggle to resolve same appears to be part of the movie’s motive. The finale foretells his decision.

By delivering a faux horror film that’s as much about the bloodletting as it is about the basis for all human fear, Lars Von Trier provides a statement so profound, so difficult to embrace fully and honestly that Antichrist will leave many confused and angry. It will be seen as a blight, as exploitation disguised as artistic arrogance, all meant to cover up that most typical of complaints against the director - he hates women. But even as it embraces a similar stance and offers up one character’s physical proof of an anti-female agenda (Gainsbourg’s final act is too horrific to even consider calmly), it’s obvious that this movie is merely a meditation on what’s it’s like to give birth, to lose said biological immortality, and wonder if it was such a horrible crime not to care.

When our heroine argues that she’s afraid of Nature, that it’s “Satan’s Kingdom” on Earth, her husband translates that as a simple statement of self-loathing. For more than 90 minutes we’ve watched as she acts out on such irrational, apocalyptic ire. By the end, Antichrist suggests that almost anything is survival - except, perhaps, the battle within. It’s one cosmic war that never produces an actual victor.

by Bill Gibron

24 Oct 2009

The disconnect between two people from similar cultural backgrounds. The pain of relationships breaking up and/or never happening. The wonders of a city lost in a strident class crisis. A single day of sex, drugs, soul searching, and music. This is the universe of Micah, the “second best” aquarium technician in all of San Francisco. A one night stand at a party has turned him from a fiery community activist and racial advocate to a combination hopeless romantic and unbearable cynic. The object of his (dis)affections is Joanne, the enigmatic gal pal of a white museum curator who appears privileged and acts passé. Together, they spend an eye-opening Sunday trying to piece together each other’s past while avoiding any chance at a future togetherness. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and definitely not the Medicine for Melancholy each person appears to need.

As plotlines go, this intriguing title really has little to offer. Micah and Joanne wake from a posh party, intersect throughout the next 36 hours, and then resolve their issues as only two still-strangers can. Somewhere near the back end of the last act, writer/director Barry Jenkins tosses in a random rally of local residents, their call to arms over Bay area rent controls and property price hikes adding fuel to the fires our leads have already lit. There’s also a sequence near the finale where Micah melts down the indie scene into a series of stereotypical human and sonic maxims. But for the rest of the time, Medicine for Melancholy (new on DVD from IFC Films) is a tempting tone poem that never really breaks out into the kind of compelling free verse that would indicate something definitive or dramatic. Instead, it takes its cues from its characters and meanders around a little before slowly fading away.

By using San Francisco as a vital aspect to the story, Jenkins injects a great deal of local color into his mostly monochrome visuals. In fact, he purposely desaturates the print so that the clear contrasts between our two wannabe lovers remain ambiguous and blurred. We visit the Museum of African Diaspora, as well as a gorgeous urban art project consisting of manmade waterfalls and politicized slogans. Jenkins doesn’t do a lot outside of this, painting his pliable travelogues and letting the camera get in too close once Micah and Jo start interacting. One has to credit the filmmaker for avoiding certain formulaic pitfalls. He doesn’t mandate that his temporary paramours quip precociously, or take their emotions to some syrupy level of RomCom ridiculousness. Instead, this is a slice of life carved as carefully and considerately as the delicate balance demonstrated between the couple.

But there are troubles here, problems that pop up like unwanted extras in a crowd scene and keep us from caring too much for anything Micah or Jo have to offer. When dissecting the concept of “interracial” romance, our hero fails to recognize his own obvious attraction to women of light skin tone (in an aside, we see a MySpace post featuring a clearly Caucasian ex). Jo is the perfect antithesis of what he rants about - porcelain features hinting at a mixed lineage that goes totally unmentioned. In fact, the whole “black is black” element doesn’t get a lot of explanation. Instead, Jenkins plays it like a fact when all it really stands as is an assertion. Before long, the debate starts to turn circular and then careless. Because they’re so closed mouthed, Medicine for Melancholy‘s leads create just as much confusion as the man putting the half-completed thoughts in their mouths.

And then there’s the issue of chemistry. Actors Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins are model agency apropos for their parts, each one exuding the kind of iconoclastic radiance the simply story requires. But there’s no sizzle between them, no inherent need for them to be together. Indeed, much of the time, Jo seems to simply be playing Micah for a weekend reprieve from her stuffy, sterile life - and that would be fine, as long as we find the pair perfectly matched. But beyond the exterior, our couple trades in cross-purposes. He’s earthy without being totally bohemian. She’s cultivated without becoming a sculpture. Still, we keep waiting for the moment when their combination brings on the heat. Sadly, it never comes.

Indeed, many in the mainstream audience will look at this obviously independent effort and wonder why the She’s Gotta Have It era Spike Lee doesn’t sue. Others will find it almost impossible to overcome the obstacles of limited plotline, unclear characterization, and dramatic pauses large enough to drive a few dozen cable cars through. San Francisco obviously has many, many problems regarding the gentrification of neighborhoods, and ill-prepared viewers would be carping like crazy had Medicine for Melancholy turned into some preachy social statement. But there’s such a thing as being too inconspicuous. Jenkins needed to turn down the ambience and amplify the action, if only a little. And no, montages of his cast dancing to various underground poptones doesn’t count.

It’s been said that the title is taken from a 1959 Ray Bradbury anthology. That would make sense, considering the science fiction author once said that, in order to create a literary fiction, all you had to do was “find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her around all day long.” That describes Medicine for Melancholy perfectly. Jenkins obviously believes that he’s fostered personalities so complex and personable that we’ll gladly track them as they explore the outer reaches of Northern California and the inner areas of their own identities. Sometimes, he’s absolutely right. At other instances, we stand around like strangers at friend’s function and pray for our chance to exit. This is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. But there’s really not enough here to remain memorable.

by Thomas Hauner

24 Oct 2009

Body Language
AM Only Booking Showcase
The Studio at Webster Hall, New York City
Body Language, a Brooklyn four-piece, played colorful synth pop shaped by Tropicalia climaxes and a compelling lead singer, Angelica Bess.  Saccharine synthesizer lines harmonized three ways, along with bells, forged dreamy melodies under a dance beat.  Though their sound was saturated in electronica, practically all of it was played live on multiple keyboards creating a refreshing live dynamic and a lush full sound many electronic-focused bands couldn’t touch.  Their last song, “Holiday,” showed off more of their melancholy vocals over another strong but ethereal beat.

by Bill Gibron

24 Oct 2009

At this point in its cinematic history, the zombie has been reduced to a journeyman horror workhorse. In a genre that once saw it as a frightmare superstar, rabid fanboy love (and the accompanying desire to show such affection via homemade imitation) has reduced your standard cannibalistic corpse into a hackneyed terror tenet. Gone are the days when the novelty of the creature could carry an entire film. Now, if there aren’t CGI hordes of these flesh craving fiends defying logic and physicality as they sprint across the screen like undead athletes, fright fans groan in disapproval. It will be interesting to see how they greet Jorge Grau’s 1974 old school scary movie The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Also known as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, there’s a lot here that a new fangled macabre maven could love. There is also a great deal to test their post-modern patience. 

While on his way to a holiday in the country, antiquities dealer George has his motorcycle totaled by inconsiderate driver Edna. They strike up a bargain - she will take him to his cottage, if he will first let her visit her sick sister. Lost along the way, they seek directions from a local farmer. He is in the process of using a newfangled government device that kills bugs and other parasites via radioactivity. What they don’t know is that the machine also resurrects the dead. Edna is attacked by a strange man, and when they arrive at her sibling’s, the crazed woman is screaming about the death of her husband. Of course, the conservative police inspector doesn’t believe a word of their story. He thinks the duo are murderous hippies ala The Manson Family, ready to turn his lush part of England into their own killing fields. It will take more than a few hysterics to convince him there’s something more sinister going on. The reanimated bodies tearing up the hospital may be all the proof anyone needs.

If you’re looking for the missing link between George Romero’s zombie epics and his splattery Italian copycats, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue might just be that absentee connection. Combining the American ideal of suspense and social commentary with the Mediterranean love of all things gross and gory, Spanish transplant Jorge Grau was given a simple mandate by this eager backers - create a commercially viable color rip off of Romero’s 1968 black and white Night. With a long list of credits including recent genre efforts Penalty of Death and Bloody Ceremony (both from ‘73), the filmmaker was provided a hefty budget and the run of Cinecitta Studios. With some location work in England, and the growing emergence of Italian special effects, Grau gave his audience more than they bargained for.

Indeed, the main thing you notice about Manchester Morgue is the anti-counterculture screeds from American actor Arthur Kennedy. Attempting a passable Irish/Scottish brogue, and looking like your typical Establishment goon, the former Hollywood star repeatedly rails against, hippies, drugs, youth, long hair, non-conformity, and anything else that comes into his button down mind. He is backed up by some local bureaucrat that uses his preoccupation with the occult to accuse the newly arrived city slicker suspects of Satanism. It’s a weird juxtaposition. On the one hand, you have the typical zombie dramatics - dark night, groaning and heavy breathing, the sudden appearance of a reanimated corpse. But by placing the blame squarely on our hero and heroine, Grau gives his movie a touch of necessary realism.

There is also a staunch pro-environment message here as well. The radioactive bug zapper, its five mile range bringing the recently deceased back to life, is part of a multilayered look by Grau at that time tested standby, man vs. nature. At the beginning, when George is riding around London on his motorcycle, we see shots of nuclear power plants and dirty, decaying buildings. This is not the slick, high tech city circa 2008. Instead, Manchester Morgue suggests a metropolis dying under the influence of crass corporate and industrial practices. There’s even an overheard radio broadcast later on that supports such a view. Our lead also loves to chide the workers running the big red atom smashing pest controller. His shouting matches over the effect on the land - and later, the local corpses - provide the film with a solid bedrock of beliefs.

But for most horror fans, it’s gore that delivers the most perverse pleasure, and Manchester Morgue doesn’t disappoint. While you have to wade through 80 moody minutes to get to the sluice, Grau gives in to our basic bloodlusts. We get axes to the head, disemboweling, lopped off breasts, several bites to the neck, and enough walking ghouls to infect even the most cynical fan with a good case of the heebie jeebies. When you combine this material with the film’s already pea soup thick tone, it becomes a very unsettling experience. Like most great fear flicks, we get the distinct impression that anyone can die at any time. And since Kennedy is simply jonesing to deliver a little conservative comeuppance to the two ‘long hairs’ he feels are responsible, we get double the threat.

But The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is really centered on style and approach. Grau doesn’t give in to the temptation to merely imitate Romero. He avoids the documentary dynamic that made Night so memorable, and instead seems to channel a great deal of Hammer’s horror ideal. Similarly, the film is not fully Italian. Instead of completely painting the cinematic canvas red, this director explores character, hot button issues, and religious symbolism as a way to make his monster mythology more believable. There are oddball elements interspersed here and there - the opening London travelogue with the occasional mysterious figures in the background, the notion that the zombie can “create” members of their killer brood by the application of blood to the eyelids - but since Grau keeps everything else grounded, we buy their overall non-believability.

Thanks to Blue Undergroud’s exceptional new transfer (bright and basically flawless in the new Blu-ray format) and attention to added DVD content (we get interviews with Grau, star Ray Lovelock and F/X artist Gianmetto De Rossi), The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is poised to be rediscovered by a new generation of terror aficionados. And it definitely deserves the chance, if for no other reason than to show how the entire subgenre changed and mutated to fit the current social and political clime. Instead of feeling dated, as some ‘70s films find themselves, there’s a timeless quality to what this movie accomplishes. By looking to the past while focusing on the present, Grau gives us an experience to contemplate for decades to come. It’s a dark and very disturbing vision. It also proves that, when done right, zombies can still be the creepshow kings. It’s a lesson many post-millennial moviemakers could definitely learn. 

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