“This is like The Night of the Living Dead – but in color!” - Edmondo Amati, producer.
This was the second time director Jorge Grau would receive this pitch. For a film which eventually became a classic of zombie cinema, it’s been released under a jaw-dropping number of titles (16), including The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, Don’t Speak Ill of the Dead, and the infamously nonsensical Don’t Open the Window (which inspired Edgar Wright’s ‘Don’t’ segment in Grindhouse), but I’ve always been partial to the tongue-in-cheek Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974). George A. Romero’s immortal classic was released in 1968 and shook the very foundations of the horror genre. Of course, producers world-wide immediately attempted to cash-in. Although Grau was very much a fan of the groundbreaking film, his own interests lay in a very different, but no less gruesome story.
Long ago, I worked with a young lady who mentioned a recurring nightmare involving the infamous Elizabeth Bathory, also known as The Blood Countess. While it may be apocryphal, legend has it that she believed bathing in the blood of young women could restore her youthful beauty. When Grau pitched his take on the Bathory tale (which would eventually be made as Ceremonia Sangrienta, aka The Legend of Blood Castle, 1973), producer Edmondo Amati responded with, “You have to make Ceremonia Sangrienta like The Night of the Living Dead.” Grau scoffed, “They are different.” Obviously, this collaboration wasn’t going to pan out, so Grau passed on working with the producer of Lucio Fulci’s undervalued Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and the hilarious Argoman The Fantastic Superman (1967). Three years later, Amati would invite Grau to breakfast and plunk a script down on the table, making the dubious proclamation written at the top. This time, Grau agreed, provided he could take a more intelligent and nuanced approach to what was essentially a European knockoff of a successful American movie.
Jorge Grau doesn’t often appear on lists of great Spanish filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar or Luis Bunuel, but his steady output, beginning in the early 1960’s and ending around the mid-90's, was full of solid work like The Rash One (1964) and Love Letters of a Nun (1978). He approaches filmmaking from a realistic and analytical standpoint, rather than one of fantasy and suspension of disbelief. He was allowed prep time in order to research his subject carefully. He pored over forensic photos of dead bodies taken pre-autopsy, making the clever decision to have the walking dead retain their own characteristics at the moment of their death. It adds a level of tragedy to an already desperate situation. While Romero’s elegantly simple hypothesis: “When there’s no room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth,” has become legendary, Grau’s method in making the cause of the reanimation man-made was not only original, but downright plausible in its later explanation.
The 4K restoration release by Synapse shows how Grau and cinematographer Francisco Sempere (El Condor, A Bullet for Sandoval) beautifully captured an early 1970’s England as our sarcastic and dickish hero George (Ray Lovelock, Fiddler on the Roof, The Violent Four) closes his antique and modern art store and rides off on his motorcycle. In an extraordinary shot, the camera tracks in on a painting which becomes more sinister as the image becomes clearer. Trippy circular shapes float toward the screen, foreshadowing the ultra-sonic signals which will result in the deaths of many, many people. Edgar Wright’s inspiration from Corpses is evident from the opening scene which, like Shaun of the Dead, depicts various Londoners looking disaffected and somewhat zombified. Even when a nude woman (who is definitely not Robert Opal) engages in a bit of streaking, the response from the various motorists is one of indifference.
In a romantic comedy, the next scene would probably play out as a ‘meet-cute.’ Here, when George stops off to grab a beer and fill up on some petrol (see? I know the lingo), an exhausted Edna (Cristina Galbo, The Killer Must Kill Again), accidentally backs her car into his bike, smashing it. He’s not a complete asshole, but George makes it clear that while his bike is repaired (he warns the mechanic not to “bugger me out”), Edna will be providing the transportation to Windermere, where he’s expected to spruce up his holiday home. “I’ll drive. We don’t want to go there in reverse.” What a prick, but I kinda like him.
Grau and his screenwriters Sandro Continenza (The Inglorious Bastards) and Marcello Coscia (Black Sunday) subtly introduce story elements, including a fancy, high-tech mortuary truck which figures prominently later on. George flips the truck driver off as he passes the slow-moving corpse caravan in a moment of utter assholism. The characterization in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is shockingly strong. So many horror films rely on stereotypical archetypes to get the bare minimum character development, but even small roles like those played by farmers and later doctors and police officers are richly developed and performed. Grau’s realistic approach even extends to seemingly innocuous objects.
When the Spanish filmmaker read the original script, the device which starts the whole mess was a “fantastic machine” that’s meant to kill microbes and protect crops from insects. Specifically, the invisible waves drive the bugs mad and cause them to kill each other. Grau flipped the idea, making the machine an innocuous agricultural piece of equipment that wouldn’t look out of place on any farm. A hilariously huge device that resembles a metal detector with a giant, spidery dish is wielded by a farmer as George rails against the pollutants a machine like that must surely be putting out. Meanwhile, we get our first look at a genuine, bonafide zombie.
George has absconded with the car keys, lest Edna leave him in the lurch, and she wanders along the empty road in the vast, green countryside. There’s an ominous air of foreboding as the score by Giuliano Sorgini ramps up. What’s particularly unique about the sound design is the wailing, animalistic groaning on the soundtrack, provided by Grau himself. It’s eerie and immediately puts the viewer on edge. A tall, shabby looking man stumbles out of a nearby cemetery (of course), soaking wet and looking rather pale. This is, or rather was, a local tramp named Guthrie Wilson. Only problem is that Guthrie drowned a few days ago. Wilson (Fernando Hilbeck, Flesh + Blood, Chimes at Midnight) turns his face toward camera and we’re greeted by a pair of blood red eyes with a soulless black center. He immediately attacks Edna, who rushes to George only to discover Guthrie long gone by the time she looks back.
The plot gets mighty twisty as we’re introduced to Edna’s heroin addict sister Katie (Jeannine Mestre, Count Dracula, The Burned City) and her photographer husband Martin (Jose Lifante, Tiempos duros para Dracula, Baron Munchausen). She’s super pissed about being shipped off to a sanitarium and tries to ease her pain by shooting up. Guthrie must be a favorite of Nancy Reagan because he says “No to Drugs.” Well, he doesn’t exactly say those words. Rather, he chases Katie, who has to smash her way through a window to get away, then he chokes Martin and caves the poor guy’s chest in. Martin was a real fancypants picture-taker too. Had a goddamn cigarette holder and everything.
The cops show up, headed by The Inspector (five-time Oscar-nominee Arthur Kennedy, Lawrence of Arabia, Champion), although he’s referred to as a sergeant on several occasions. Grau described his initial meeting with Kennedy, who arrived halfway through filming. As is often the case, producers will cast an international star (often an American) to “give the cast importance,” so the veteran actor came to basically “class up the joint.” Glau realized that Kennedy was “an older actor who had lost his fame in the American industry.” He'd also begun drinking heavily and the director saw both the actor and the character as “a man in descent.” Utilizing Kennedy’s own personal frustrations, he encouraged the actor to draw on his own experience, concocting a backstory where the inspector very nearly became the minister of the interior but was ultimately denied this high honor. His sense of revenge and anger towards others translates into a supreme hatred for the younger generation, particularly delinquents and shaggy hippies like George, whom he claims are “all the same, with your long hair and faggot clothes. Drugs, sex...every sort of filth. And you hate the police, don’t you?” George doesn’t help his case when he arrogantly retorts: “You make it easy.” Glau describes working with Kennedy as a “wonderful experience.”
The inspector doesn’t believe Katie’s presumably drug-induced tale of a man in black murdering her husband, but George decides to pull “a little imbroglio” by stealing Martin’s film stock and figuring out the identity of the real killer. This doesn’t go over well with the ill-tempered inspector, who remains one step ahead and snags the developed photos. Later, George begins to suspect something’s amiss as he sees an overly aggressive newborn child violently scrape a nurse’s eye. Edna and George decide to get to the bottom of this mystery, literally, by finding Guthrie’s body. Bad move, and what’s worse, PC Craig (Giorgio Trestini, The Beast, Don’t Look Now) is trailing them.
In one of the finest sequences of the film, Grau’s careful pacing and structured plot pays huge dividends. Edna and George creep into the crypt and find Guthrie’s coffin empty. No worries, he’s right over there. Wait, WHAT?! Yeah, not only that, but he seems to be the zombie whisperer, because he anoints other dead bodies with blood, reanimating them as well. They barely escape and hole up with Craig in the gravedigger’s room, where the “smart” zombies use a fucking giant cross as a battering ram. These ‘Handbook for the Recently Deceased’ subscribers are definitely more capable than Romero’s more robotic ghouls, but besides the ability to use weapons, their zombie traits pretty much check out. Craig, who seems like a decent chap, left his radio outside and takes a stab at grabbing it. Gunshots to the head have no effect and one of them takes a headstone and smashes it over Craig’s back. I was quite surprised that we get an evisceration scene in a film which pre-dates both Dawn of the Dead and Fulci’s Zombie, but there it is and it is glorious.
The 4K transfer shows the alarmingly accurate darkness of the bloody entrails as the zombies feast on Craig, who disturbingly whimpers as he’s being eaten alive. George is a smart motherfucker and figures everything out, even using fire to ward off the zombie attack. Fire and bright lights were early deterrents way back in the day for zombies, but this trend has pretty much been abandoned in favor of running or just plain old brain smashing. To make things even more outrageous, the inspector and co. find poor Craig’s body, and his assistant suggests George and Edna are “sex-crazed maniacs.” He goes on to pontificate that they’re typical “Satanists” who “vandalize cemeteries and hold black masses.”
George goes off to destroy the machine and Edna has a complete nervous breakdown. She begins hallucinating regular people as zombies, prompting an ambulance to take her to the hospital. Night falls and things get appropriately creepy, with George wandering along a foggy path. Headlights break through the darkness and George is captured by the cops, who have no time for his malarkey. George literally yells “the corpses” three times before the inspector slaps the shit out of him. Somehow, he escapes and in a small bit of lazy screenwriting, he steals a conveniently available cop car.
This leads us to an absolute massacre at the hospital. Edna is recovering, but downstairs, some wild shit is going on. In a beautifully shot sequence, a couple of workers dump a body onto the slab and the camera pans away, following the mortician. He turns and finds the body has disappeared. Well, that’s...odd, don’t ya think? A bit later, we see the aftermath of the attack. This zombie absolutely tore this poor guy to pieces as various body parts are strewn about the white room while it chows down on a bloody spleen. An attack on the night nurse by three male zombies even has a slightly rapey vibe as they tear off her breast and reach down her skirt to yank out her insides. A doctor gets an axe buried in his forehead and Katie gets it as well. Next thing you know, Katie’s stabbing her own sister with a syringe. The zombies enter the room and Edna is clearly fucked, big time.
For one brief, awful moment, I thought George was going to save her. I wouldn’t have minded a hero’s rescue, but while he’s wrapping an axe in gauze and lighting it on fire, the zombies are less than 3 feet from her, so the impossibility of her liberation was practically set in stone. Still, he swoops in like goddamn Argoman and yanks her out, but guess fucking what? It’s too late. Her freaky red eyes give her away and he shoves her back into the now-fiery room. She’s shaking and moaning, reaching out for George. It seems like everything is hunky dory for the rapacious rogue, but we get a bit of the “old having a go at youth” when the inspector viciously guns him down. Kennedy delivers a triumphant line with ironic relish, “I wish the dead could come back to life, you bastard, so I could kill ya again!”
The next morning, a huge crowd gathers and the inspector is hailed as a hero. He has some amusing banter with his associate about apples before heading to the very hotel George and Edna checked into earlier. Very much like the moralistic endings of EC Horror comics or The Twilight Zone, the inspector gets his by a lively but very dead George. How George is actually in the room, I don't know. While satisfying, the kill is quite bloodless. My assumption is that either there was no time to do an elaborate gore effect on Kennedy or possibly the actor didn’t wish to take part in such a gruesome finale. The film ends with a slow, creepy zoom in on the deadly red machine.
The strength of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is in its character work. These people may be flawed and even unpleasant, but they come off as real. They make errors in judgment, but it’s all character-based rather than plot-driven. In other words, their actions drive the plot instead of lazy writers simply forcing people to go from one place to the other in order to move the story along. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is an underrated gem which deserves a place among the classics of the zombie genre.