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El laberinto del fauno (2006)
The Civil War trilogy continues: from ghosts to creatures
Guillermo Del Toro has made quite a few extraordinary movies: his debut was Cronos, which sadly never got the attention it deserved and should've been added to at least a couple of Hall of Fames. When he released El Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil's Backbone) in 2001 I was under the impression Del Toro had reached a point where he could no longer top himself... or could he?
Mixing personal movies for an in-crowd with movies for a bigger audience with a few personal touches (I'm thinking of Mimic, Blade II and Hellboy), Del Toro is quickly becoming a director one shouldn't avoid. Unless you don't like the supernatural at all...
El Laberinto del Fauno (a.k.a. Pan's Labyrinth) blew my mind, but I was all too aware that Del Toro added so much fantasy in this movie Fauno would not get the praise from audiences Espinazo had received. Initial reports proved me wrong, but these days the grapevine informs me of critical voices. This can only be classified as "a shame".
El Laberinto del Fauno tells the story of a young girl, Ofelia, who is on her way - with her pregnant mother - to her 'new father', Captain Vidal. Vidal is a vicious commanding officer, relentless against anyone he suspects is against him. Needless to say, Ofelia doesn't like him. This brings more worries to Ofelia's mind, which already had trouble coping with the war. El Laberinto is set in 1944, just after Franco's victory. Incapable of facing the real world, Ofelia invents her own. But Ofelia's imaginary world isn't a peaceful world, it's full of mythical creatures and monsters. A mirror world only slightly favourable to the cruel reality.
That is so quite special: at the same time we, the audience, get to see the world through Ofelia's eyes as well as experience a tale which is typical for wartime stories. As protesting against church and state could cost you dearly in times of war, your criticism had to be covered. And what better way to cover them than by creating a fable? The monsters in Ofelia's dream world are perfect representations of church and state, adding a thinly veiled layer to the movie.
The real world is also shown is all its bloody reality: people are tortured and executed in several cruel ways. When I saw the movie several people had to look away during certain scenes, occasionally accompanied by "eek" and "yuck" sounds.
Now, whereas El Laberinto manages to exist on several layers, not every layer will be equally obvious to audiences. El Laberinto del Fauno is the second movie in Del Toro's trilogy about the Spanish civil war. El Espinazo del Diablo, which was set in an orphanage with a ghost and an unexploded bomb, was the first part (2001) and 3993, a ghost story about 'the hostages left to fortune by the past' set in 1990's Spain and with connections with the Spanish Civil War in 1939, will close the trilogy in 2009.
I myself have been trained in literature and movies enough to see the allegories in El Laberinto, but I have heard of disappointed cinema-goers who didn't pick up on what the film is trying to show. That is why I deeply recommend El Laberinto del Fauno, but only after you've seen El Espinazo del Diablo, another Del Toro movie that never got the credits it deserved.
El Laberinto del Fauno is supported by a great cast: Ariadna Gil (Ofelia's mother) and Sergi Lopez (Vidal) should be familiar by now, Ivana Baquero (as the young Ofelia) is a nice discovery. Aside from directing it, Del Toro also wrote the script. The special effects are mind-blowing, even though some will probably look a bit outdated in a few years (filmmakers should always beware of trying the latest technologies). Then again, as this is a fable, it is not that bad when an effect will not look 100% realistically. Is El Laberinto del Fauno a perfect movie? No, almost but not completely. But is it the best and most original movie of 2006? Without a doubt!
The Secret Life of Words (2005)
Not the most social film in the world
I have a feeling this may be one of those movies like 'The Goddess of 1967', a movie people will either love (for its beauty) or hate (and claim it's hollow trash that pretends to be intellectual).
'La Vida' is a movie that's largely based on an oil rig. An explosion has occurred, killing one guy and badly injuring a man who tried to help. The problem is: where can you find a nurse that wants to work on an oil rig? Enter Hanna Amiran, a deaf girl who has worked in a factory for four years without taking a day off. Now Hanna has been forced by the unions to take some time off. Hanna, seemingly unaware of what a vacation is, books herself a stay in a shabby hotel and is eating Chinese food when she overhears a man who's working for the oil company: "Where can we find a nurse that wants to work on an oil rig?" Hanna goes up to him and says: "I'm a nurse."
Hanna is not the most social person in the world. That she's deaf is helpful: if she doesn't want to communicate she turns off her hearing aid. Which makes her an ideal person to work on an oil rig: the captain, the cook, the biologist... all of them are pretty introvert. The thing is: when a new person is brought to the oil rig, they do want to have some social contact. But not Hanna. She's even less revealing to Josef, the man she has to nurse. Josef is badly burnt and because of the fire has lost the ability to see for a couple of weeks. Not being able to see anything, he wants to talk the whole time. Which seems to upset Hanna. She tells him his name is Cora, she lies about the colour of her hair...
Throughout the movie you'll see the secretive layers of Josef and Hanna peel off. And all of it will come to a painful climax long before the movie ends.
One of the other people on the oil rig is Simon (Daniel Mays of 'Funland'), who's sent to study the waves violently bashing against the rigs. In his own time he also studies mussels (which are affected by the pollution) and hopes that one day when the oil has been pumped out of the sea the rigs will be used to make the water cleaner. That is the bit that makes me feel some will dismiss this movie as pretentious nonsense. Hanna's history, which I won't reveal, is also a heavy subject. And yes, maybe this movie wants too much, but Coixet does manage to find a setting to make her story work and enough setting to back it up convincingly.
Maybe the movie ends a bit too positive, but after what we've heard it's okay to lose reality and dream for the best.
Polley and Robbins are very good, as are the rest of the supporting cast. The childish voice-over you hear at the beginning and the end of the movie has raised a couple of questions on internet fora as to which character it is. Some of the comments on those fora made me want to see the movie again. Which, whatever way you put it, is always a good sign.
It's hard to describe this movie as we're not dealing with 'actions', but rather the 'aftermath of actions'. Which is why the movie is both silent and talkative. Which is why we're voyeurs trying to peel off the layers too. The best (and possibly the only) way to describe this movie is by using one word: intense.
Flawed but interesting plus a girl in a bear suit
"Kontroll" (I do not feel the need to translate the title) was the first Hungarian film at the Cannes Film Festival in 20 years. Either the film industry isn't exactly booming there or most films fail to reach a certain standard. I can't say I could name one Hungarian film, so I'm afraid we've neglected the region. I'm sure some good films must've been made there.
Nimrod Antal was the director and it's his feature debut. If you didn't know this, you could tell so by watching the film: a particular giveaway are the continuity mistakes (especially when the controllers chase Bootsie). Another continuity mistake: a subway train enters the station, it looks empty, the doors open and suddenly you find people inside. It's as if we were in an Asian horror film. But fear not, it's just a continuity problem.
Still, I did get the feeling Kontroll occasionally wanted to be an Asian horror film or a clever horror production from Hollywood. It's always a shame, because if you want to be hip, you end up being the opposite: a faker.
I also had a problem with the characters. Whereas I don't feel I always need to like the characters to appreciate a film, here it seems like you should have some sympathy for these controllers, but I just couldn't find any. Sure, they're constantly lamenting on how no one likes them, but give me a reason why we should find them likable.
The biggest flaw of the film (apart from trying to be hip) is the story. Or lack of. Kontroll has a few ideas (some good), put them in a blender and served us the mix. Sure, now we have mashed ingredients and something that resembles a dish, but I didn't think the mix tasted good. There's the story of these controllers (work), the fascinating girl (love), the mysterious deaths (horror). And though they did their best to interweave the elements, something is missing. I didn't feel a unity.
The love story is interesting. The idea of dressing up the mysterious girl in an animal suit is great and it works. Again, more could've been done with this character, but at least here you don't feel you're watching a flat character.
So, should you watch Kontroll? I would say "yes", Like Asia Argento's "Scarlet Diva" this film is an interesting mistake, but it does contain scenes that are worth checking out. If you're in a video store and need to find one more film (or, we try to keep up with our time, have enough GBs left to download another film this month), there are worse options. Yes, you will spot the continuity mistakes (I'm usually hopeless in that department and I spotted them easily). Yes, you'll feel the need to fast forward some bits. But yes, some scenes are nice and you'll enjoy them.
The movie came recommended to me and I don't think it can hold up to any expectation. I'm sure that if I'd found out about the film myself, I might've enjoyed it more. I still wouldn't think it was a great movie though.
In short, "Kontroll" is flawed but all praise to the bear suit.
Orca, the broth that wasn't spoiled
Depending on where you live, Orca is either shown all the time or never it all. The film has an incredibly bad reputation and in fact this does not really come as a surprise: this is a film by Michael Anderson, the director of Logan's Run (another film with a bad reputation). I'll try and explain why I think Orca worked for me.
It is very hard (or even impossible) to label Orca (also known as Orca: Killer Whale). What exactly is this film? It's a drama, a love story, an odyssey, a revenge film and then you haven't thrown in the scientific bits and its flirting with exploitation. Films that can't be labelled are often not very good. Compare it to the proverb "Too many cooks spoil the broth". If you try to flavour your film with ingredients of many genres, you often end up with a dinner that doesn't taste good at all. But just like there are cooks which are able to mingle the weirdest ingredients and end up with a yummy dish, some directors are talented enough to make a film that goes beyond genre conventions. Anderson is such a director. "Logan's Run" and "Orca" are both examples of genreless films. Logan's Run never decides whether it's a sci-fi adventure story or a love drama. Orca, as I mentioned above, has no clue whatsoever of what sort of a film it is. That is what makes the film so fragile. You're not supposed to expect anything when watching the film or you might end up bitterly disappointed.
The first images of Orca are extremely beautiful. We see a couple of orcas making out in the middle of the ocean. The sky is beautifully photographed and it gives you a fuzzy feeling. The first human being we see is Charlotte Rampling, diving and trying to avoid a shark. The sight of Charlotte Rampling is virtually always a sign you're watching a cult movie. In a filmography of over 65 films Rampling has starred in dozens of essential cult films (including the highly controversial The Night Porter). Furthermore, she's a good actress. Rampling's character blocks Richard Harris's attempt to kill the shark. He is a hunter, she is a biologist. Both are intrigued by each other: she would like to know how someone who's always at sea knows so little about his surroundings, he wants to know more about the orca they've seen. Harris ends up catching the female orca and (in one of the most painful scenes of the seventies) it turns out she was pregnant. The male orca is the perfect example of the lover who swears a pitiless revenge.
Though a lot of the scientific mumbojumbo in the film is apparently nonsense that just sounded good, the film's tagline gives you a good sense of what to expect: "The killer whale is one of the most intelligent creatures in the universe. Incredibly, he is the only animal other than man who kills for revenge. He has one mate, and if she is harmed by man, he will hunt down that person with a relentless, terrible vengeance - across seas, across time, across all obstacles."
Though Orca is mainly a revenge film and an almost mythical clash between two heavyweights (Harris and the orca), Anderson's film doesn't just show orca revenging his wife plus man hunting orca. I fear such a film would end up either boring or a rip-off of Jaws. Some have already dismissed Orca as a rip-off, but those viewers obviously didn't pick up on everything else in the film. The characters (even the orca) are not one-dimensional and so their personas are explored. That does stand in the way of a revenge tale, but Orca doesn't care. The film shows how characters cope with being in such a situation and therefore takes time to explore other parts of the characters. If you must, label it as a mythical drama.
The film is also helped by a wonderful soundtrack of Ennio Morricone. Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling are great in their roles and alongside them you have Bo Derek in her debut role (a few years before she'd become a sex symbol with films as 10 and Bolero). Bo Derek turned down the leading role in the King Kong remake, going for a mythical orca rather than a giant ape.
I hope I warmed you up for Orca. When you see it, do not forget this most important advice: do not expect anything. Just sit down and follow the myth. And who knows, you might enjoy it.
You're Still Not Fooling Anybody: Hate Song of Vengeance
"You're Still Not Fooling Anybody" opens with a clip of Kurt Loder reading out that Mike White's original tackling of QT (he ain't worth to get his name full credited here) was not allowed to be shown at the New York Underground Film Festival. "Who Do You Think You're Fooling?" aptly showed how QT ripped off a lesser known film, "City on Fire". And by ripping off, I mean that Mike White was able to compile 10 minutes of footage from both films and neatly juxtaposing them. Be amazed as the sound from "R. Dogs" is placed on top of the image of "City on Fire" (as Ringo Lam's film is in Cantonese, you can follow the story by reading the subtitles). Fitting like a glove, both films have robberies that go wrong, people shot in the stomach, a revelation about a character's profession and hit men approaching the building.
The MTV news clip included a statement from the so-called director (read: petty thief), saying he would look forward to watching "City on Fire" (original title: "Long Hu Feng Yun"). At this point White's title becomes prophetic: Who do you think you're fooling, QT? Yes, the teens who watch MTV News and haven't seen "Who do you think you're fooling?". But anyone who did see Mike White's short won't believe you.
After the MTV News segment "You're Still Not Fooling Anybody" continues with a split screen with on the left "Pulp Fiction" and on the right a series of films QT plagiarized. Or at least that is White's intention... the problem is that in "Pulp Fiction"'s case QT stole a lot of short scenes from lots of movies. So here we can question whether it is robbery or just a homage. The moment where the suitcase in "Kiss Me Deadly" is opened (the nuclear box of Pandora) is an iconic image in film history, which has inspired many directors: Alex Cox used it in the trunk scene in 'Repo Man', to name but one. That in "Pulp Fiction" a suitcase is opened can be seen as a nice nod to "Kiss Me Deadly", just like the scenes which bear resemblances to a.o. "Charley Varrick" and the cartoon "Three Little Bops". It's a bit more problematic for the Ezekiel paraphrase (from "The Bodyguard") and the adrenalin shot (from "American Boy"): as we are looking at over 30 seconds each of very similar footage, it's likelier to call this plagiarism. QT likes to use nods to other films (from "Kiss Me Deadly" to "Thriller - They Call Her One Eye") and there's nothing wrong with a few nods (the technique of 'sampling' is widely used in movies, music and literature). The title of this review is a nod to "Lady Snowblood" (a film QT plagiarized to the maximum in "Kill Bill"). However, if your film appears to be the same as another film for more than half a minute it may be questionable. When it's ten minutes, it's time someone called the cops.
I don't think "You're Still Not Fooling Anybody" should be seen as a short. In these days of the DVD it looks more like an extra, an appendix, a message to QT that Mike White still isn't fooled and that he still knows his cinematic history as well as QT. You're still stealing, QT, you're still not fooling anybody.
The human calculator vs. the heart of Hollywood
"Stand-In" was shown by the BBC as part of a Bogart season. As someone else mentioned in another comment, that's odd to say the least: while billed third, Humphrey Bogart can't have more than 20 minutes in this movie. "Stand-In" is a comedy. I gather that from the IMDb info and from the collection of moments in the film when I'm supposed to have laughed. I can't say I did. Maybe once or twice. At most.
Nevertheless, I'm glad the BBC showed this Bogart comedy and here's why. Even though the comedy bits may have been funny in 1937 (comedy standards tend to differ from era to era - although I can imagine people not being amused by this at the time either), "Stand-In" also spoofs the movie-making business. It's a bit better at that. They say imitation is a odd form of flattering. "Stand-In" both mocks and loves its subject. Atterbury Dodd is a mathematics-loving efficiency expert who has to investigate why Colossal Pictures is losing money instead of making it. He's the odd one out in town, learning that to every question there is but one answer: "This is the movie-making business." It's obvious from the start that Dodd will learn to respect and cherish the movie-making business, unlike most Hollywood films about the movie-making industry (which tend to treat Hollywood as a shark pool situated in either Sodom or Gomorrah). If you watch carefully, you will learn - just like Atterbury Dodd - that every movie you see is made by thousands of people you don't think about when you're in a darkened room (so always stay in your comfy seat till the credits are over, kids!).
So while as a comedy, "Stand-In" sucks and as a movie about the movies it is interesting, the pivotal reason to see the movie is the combination of Leslie Howard (Dodd) and Joan Blondell (Miss Plum). Not only does she educate him about the movie business, she also triggers him in another way: just like Dodd slowly realizes movies are made by people (not units), Miss Plum makes him realize he is merely a calculator in a human form rather than a living creature. Combine that idea with a chemistry that works and you have a movie that is still very watchable, even if you don't feel like laughing.
Joshû 701-gô: Sasori (1972)
The exploitation series that could
The "Women in prison" film is a subgenre with a nasty reputation and a devoted fanbase. Usually it's nudity and cruelty galore with a plot barely thin enough to veil the only reason to watch the film is to see the sadist and lesbian (or possibly the lesbian sadist) scenes. Whereas it's true that there are a few good prison films, most of them are only in it for the exploitation. Which is not necessarily a bad point: after all, most blockbusters are only in it for the explosions.
My first Female Convict movie was "Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41". Purchased as it was released in a series of cult films, most of them were excellent enough to convince you to buy the ones you'd never heard of. To my disappointment the movie turned out to be a sequel, the second film in a series of four starring the ravishing Meiko Kaji as Prisoner 701. One year later Kaji would star as Lady Snowblood in the eponymous films that 'influenced' Tarantino quite a lot whilst shooting "Kill Bill". The Female Prisoner tune "Urami Bushi", written by the director and sung by Kaji, was used in both Kill Bill volumes.
Shunya Ito, director of Female Prisoner 701, directed only 8 movies in 26 years, surprisingly few if compared to the output of other Japanese directors such as Koji Wakamatsu and Seijun Suzuki or if you look at the visual flair displayed in Ito's films. Three out of the eight movies were Female Convict films.
If you haven't seen a W.I.P. (women in prison) film before or don't like the edgier films, "Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41" (the second one) is the one to go for. It's the most regular film of the series: most of the sequel takes place out of the prison and follows a group of escaped convicts who try to stay away from the guards who're chasing them. It may still be an exploitation film, but it's not really a W.I.P. film. But never mind your difficulty to find a label for the film: just file it under 'good'.
"Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion", the first film, is definitely exploitation, though it must be said it's a classy exploitation film. Sure, the film may start with an escape attempt by Matsu (Kaji) and another prisoner, but one doesn't have to look further than the titles to see this is exploitation cinema: naked women running up and down stairs whilst being watched by guards. But whereas there are a few traditional exploitation scenes (and some of those are pretty nasty), the film never gets tacky.
Visually a masterpiece (impressive visuals and sets), a strong lead, an excellent director, beautiful settings... this is one of the best exploitation films you'll get to see. If you are too afraid to venture into the dark waters of exploitation cinema, watch the sequel first. You won't know why Matsu is seen as such a threat to the prison or why she's imprisoned, but apart from these details you won't be deprived from an enjoyable ride and find yourself hungry to see the other three films. And if you dare, go straight to "Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion".
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
On October 10th...a Quest for Revenge is done over again
"Kill Bill vol. 1" in the IMDb's top 100 (right now it holds position n°56) is the biggest joke of the year. The only Tarantino film that should be allowed into the Top 100 is "Kill Bill vol. 2", in my opinion the first time Tarantino did more than steal from other movies.
The line between reference, homage and plagiarism is pretty thin indeed. When I first saw "Kill Bill 1" I thought it was a good film with lots of references to Quentin's favourite movies, the first Tarantino film that I could enjoy. Yet I was more hopeful for the second installment.
At the time I was surprised as to how many goofs I'd spotted in the film. I knew some were deliberately in there, but some were indeed mistakes. At the time I was able to enjoy lots of references.
All that changed last week... when I watched "Lady Snowblood". In my (bold and arrogant) opinion Tarantino has taken just too much out of this film to see it as a reference. Some examples: fight in the snow, dividing the film in chapters, the kill list, the cartoon (images in Lady Snowblood, anime in Kill Bill), the extreme education both the Lady and the Bride had to suffer (and while we're comparing: after seeing "Lady Snowblood", Beatrix's education looked like kindergarten), the big fight in an establishment (okay, the opponents weren't masked, but the next scene was set at a masked ball)... I'm sure I left out a few. As I was watching "Lady Snowblood", my respect for "Kill Bill 1" dropped by the minute. There are way too many comparable scenes for it to be a homage: the nicest I can be is say it's a remake. Oh, and I know that "Lady" and "Bill" aren't the only revenge films out there, but isn't it a coincidence that so many references are out there?
Which brings us to Meiko Kaji, the actress who starred as "Lady Snowblood" and "Female Convict Scorpion" (of which the song "Urami Bushi" can be enjoyed on Bill's soundtrack). It would be unfair to compare Lady Snowblood to The Bride, but life isn't fair, so here we go. While Uma Thurman does her best, a Meiko Kaji she ain't. Kaji had it in her to combine the looks of Venus and Medusa, which is pretty rare. By contrast, Uma Thurman's character resembles the Lady as much as Uma's version resembled the real Emma Peel.
As I mentioned before, I liked "Kill Bill vol 2" better. I know that the dialogues are pretty weak at times (a real problem for Tarantino, by the way), but it's the first time I could see this director do more than make references to films he liked. "Kill Bill 2" is made as an Italian western (Ennio Morricone has vowed to kill anyone who'll still call these films 'spaghetti westerns') and you sort of feel this as you watch the film. The other Tarantinos felt like juxtapositions of references, but in "Kill Bill 2" there's a story, a coathanger, that guides you through the film. If now Tarantino learns how to write interesting dialogues, he actually might be able to make an excellent film. As long as he learns that copying references only works as long as people haven't seen the real deal.
Now it just feels like you've watched "Psycho", the Gus van Sant version.
"I murdered a man..."
The English director Ken Hughes isn't the most known director in the world, though I seem to have watched three of his movies: "Casino Royale" (he was one of the five directors), "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Terror Eyes" (a.k.a. "Night School", an acceptable American take on the giallo phenomenon). Not that I knew this when I bought my copy of "Confession", which I found in the Extreme Sales section of my local megastore. The movie looked okay enough to spend 5 on (especially since it used to cost 30), so I bought "Confession". Also the names of Ken Hughes and Audrey Dalton vaguely rang a few bells. Research post-purchase informed me Dalton also starred in "The Monster That Challenged The World" and William Castle's "Mr. Sardonicus". There have been worse references.
"Confession" sounds a bit like Hitchcock's "I Confess" (released two years earlier), in that both movies feature a murder confessed in church and a priest who's bound by catholic law not to reveal what had been confessed. Even more striking is that both movies have been based on plays.
It would be wrong though to see "Confession" as only a copycat of the Hitchcock movie: only the theme is vaguely similar and the plot develops in different directions. For my money, "Confession" is the better film of the two, an incredibly underrated film which isn't easy to obtain (in 1994 Warner Bros released it on video in the UK, but that's the only version I've seen of the film).
The movie starts with a man confessing he's murdered a man. Why he confesses and why just that scene has been used to start the film will only be revealed half an hour later. After the credits we start with a flashback, where we watch how Louise welcomes her brother Mike who returned from a long stay in the US. Mike is portrayed by Sydney Chaplin who had an interesting career which kicked off with a Chaplin movie in 1952 ("Limelight") but ended with trashy horror like "Psycho Sisters" (1974) and "Satan's Cheerleaders" (1977). Why Mike has returned to England isn't quite clear, but he's always been someone who doesn't like to stay in one place for long. Though this time there might be another reason: Mike gets a phone call from somebody who demands his money. It's not long before somebody dies.
"Confession" doesn't work as a whodunit because we know who the murderer is. More interesting here is how all this affects the relationship between Mike and his family members. Equally interesting is the woman Mike meets in a bar (and how rude he is to her), but it's not completely clear to me what the writers tried to establish with these scenes. All in all this is a good movie and it's a shame the movie didn't get a better distribution.
Eco-horror zombie shocker
My videotape of The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue is living proof of how Eurotrash a movie can be: not only do I find myself watching a Spanish/Italian film with an international group of actors filmed in the United Kingdom, I'm also watching the Belgian version: dubbed in French with Dutch subtitles. Yes, in just that one sentence I managed to include half of the European union (well, before the EU as it was before another ten countries joined in May 2004).
Let's try the other Eurotrash test: does the movie own a wide array And, like so many other European films from the seventies, this film comes along with an impressive collection of alternative titles: originally released as "Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti", the film is better known as "The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue", except in the US where "Let Sleeping Corpses Lie" was deemed a more appropriate title.
The working title was "Fin de semana para los muertos" and my Belgian tape goes by the name of "Le Massacre des Morts-Vivants" and the film is also known as "Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue", "Don't Open the Window", "No profanar el sueño de los muertos" and "Sleeping Corpses Lie".
In Italy, the ongoing attempts to cash in on the success of Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" (released as "Zombi" in Italy) resulted in the alternative title "Zombi 3 (Da dove vieni?)", despite "Manchester Morgue" being four years older than Romero's classic. To complicate matters even further, there actually is a real "Zombi 3" (made in 1988) and in the US "Zombi Holocaust" was released as "Zombie 3", so make sure you don't pick up the wrong movie. (On a sidenote: the film Virus has both "Zombi 4" ànd "Zombi 5: Ultimate Nightmare" as alternative titles, which in a way is quite a remarkable achievement.)
"Manchester Morgue" tries to combine the subgenres of a zombie film with that of eco-horror. Even more surprising, the film is rather decent. The director is one Jorge Grau who wrote and directed 30 movies, most of them completely forgotten. Only two films have made the step to video and DVD, the other film being "Ceremonia sangrienta" (Grau's take on the Bathory story which also has an impressive set of alternative titles). None of his films have been released on DVD in Grau's home country Spain. All this makes it hard to say if Grau is a good director or not, but at least we're left with at least one good film.
You've probably seen the leads in other Italian cult classics: Ray Lovelock has played in over 60 films, the best known being "Macchie Solari" (a.k.a. "Autopsy"). Cristina Galbó played in many gialli and sleazy films (I haven't seen "Sex Life In A Women's Prison", but I wanna bet it's a bit of sleaze) of which "La Residencia" (by the director of "Quién Puede Matar A Un Niño?") and "What have you done to Solange?" are the most acclaimed. Lovelock and Galbó are joined by Arthur Kennedy, whose filmography of over 80 films is worth looking up, if only to come across a bunch of classics (incl. "Elmer Gantry", "Fantastic Voyage" and "Lawrence of Arabia").
One of the most startling scenes in this film is the first scene: we see the main character leave his shop and for some reason the camera moves towards a painting and suddenly green concentric circles start flashing before your eyes. And while we're on the subject of flashing: after that first scene the movie treats us to a handful of urban views, one of which is a running woman who's running naked through town. The relevance of this scene is still completely unknown to me.
"Manchester Morgue" is a slow starter, it takes quite some time before Grau gets to the main story of the film: experimental pesticides have a slight side effect of bringing the dead back to life. As mentioned before, this rather silly concept is worked out so well it makes "Manchester Morgue" worth checking out (and not for the reasons you'd usually check out films with improbable plots, like "The Giant Claw"). Less convincing is the subplot that tries to convince us the pesticides also make babies become aggressive creatures. This subplot is downright silly and it's worked out so hastily it makes the movie lose some punch. After all "Manchester Morgue" manages to deliver quite a few punches: some zombie scenes are quite effective and overall the movie has a gritty quality, especially in the last part of the movie. If the combination of a zombie film with an ecological message already seemed a bit weird, you should be warned that Arthur Kennedy's role as a police inspector mainly functions to add a little detective flavour to the movie. At the same time the police angle helps and bothers this movie: it adds a bit of realism to the film, but it also bothers the plot from developing naturally.
"The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue" is an interesting film: it has its failures, but all in all it's astounding a movie that is such a melange of a handful of odd subgenres, manages to work in the end. It may not be a masterpiece, but it's definitely an essential cult classic.