Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
by Jorge Grau
The story of this film that most nerds should be fairly familiar with. Jorge Grau got producers interested in his style after making films like Violent Blood Bath. Of course Spain and Italy had probably just gotten a hold of Night of the Living Dead in the early 70s and I'm sure Amando de Osorio's Tombs of the Blind Dead was pretty big at the time and so some Italians with money wanted to get a jump on the next big zombie film. They approached Grau with the idea of making Night of the Living Dead in color, but at the time he was preparing to make Bloody Ceremony, a female vampire film that looks like a Spanish version of Suspiria (I've only ever seen the few publicity photos in the Corpses prologue). When he was finished they tried again and Grau's plate was empty and so he went to it with the regular furnishings of an Italian film; a bit of mad science, a lot of zombies, a pessimistic ending and one washed-up American actor.
A man who owns an antique shop (and the most pristine mod clothes I've ever seen) closes up his shop and heads out on his oh-so-cool motorcycle for the country. He passes a lot of people wearing surgical face masks to block out the smog and a woman who runs across the street naked. Cause it's the 60s! Or, it still was in Spain! My guess is no one gave Grau the word that the swinging 60s were called that for a reason. Anyway, George is the man's name and he stops briefly to gas up, which is just enough time for a woman to back her mini cooper into him and crush his bike. George, livid, goes on the attack but Edna (the driver) agrees to take George to his destination. Hers is a little more out of the way and also a little more pressing so George agrees to drive her there first but not before stopping for directions (did I mention he insisted on driving? Well he takes the keys with him when he goes for directions). He goes off and finds a gardening crew implementing a new kind of pesticide. The pesticide uses radiation to work on the bug's nervous system making them want to attack all other bugs in the immediate vicinty. The crew goes all music-man and claim it's the best thing since DDT. George reminds them DDT caused Cancer and so begins George and Edna's tempestuous relationship with men in uniform. As soon as George gets what he needs Edna is attacked by a damp, pale man with creepy red eyes. He chases after her when she flees the key-less car but is, predictably, nowhere in sight when George and the owner of the radiated field come to her aid. Curiously the man she describes sounds an awful lot like a local vagrant who drowned a while back. Hmm...
Well George has just about had it up to here with this girl, but he hasn't seen nothing yet. Well it turns out the reason our soggy zombie friend went missing is because he and Edna had a common destination. Edna is off to this part of the country because her detoxing sister Katie is there with her husband, Martin and together he and Edna are going to cart Katie off to rehab. The plan has her on edge and she decides to sneak into the garage to take that edge off. Martin catches her fixing up a shot and she goes a little berserk, but Martin resolves not to let his wife's habit ruin his evening and sets up a photo shoot on the grounds of their home. It is when Martin has left her unguarded when the zombie attacks Katie. She runs to try and find her husband and then watches in terror as the zombie kills him just as Edna and George pull into the driveway, scaring him off. Enter our washed-up American.
The inspector (Arthur Kennedy) attacks our heros with accusations unfit even for an Italian authority figure. He suggests that Katie, who now looks more distressed than anyone in the world has ever looked, killed Martin and that George and Edna were somehow in on it. He insists they stay in town for questioning, which means they'll have nothing better than do some Sherlock Holmes-ing while the Inspector stares down his nose at them. They go to the hospital to visit Katie, and George happens in on a baby attacking a nurse (this isn't as ludicrous as it sounds). He and the attending physician both begin to feel like mayhap that new radioactive pesticide is responsible. The science works thusly: The radiation works on the bugs tiny little nervous system, causing them to flip out and kill everyone around them, sort of like pouring alcohol on a scorpion. What else has an immature nervous system? A baby's isn't fully formed yet and so have begun acting equally violent. The gears in motion yet? They are for George, but, being one of those types he won't believe it until he's got proof. The two develop Martin's photos and find the assailant who does indeed look a certain dead drunk. That's just when the Inspector shows up and confiscates the pictures and tells them to knock it off. The next line may be why Art agreed to do the film. "You're all the same the lot of you. With your long hair and faggot clothes. Drugs, sex, every sort of filth. And you hate the police." Writing doesn't often get this raw or acting this electrifying.
So, with his face stinging from that official slap he just received George blows his top and drives Edna to the cemetery to prove the dead don't walk about killing folks for pleasure. He'd have a better argument if there weren't a posse of the undead waiting for the radiation to juice them back up. George and Edna escape just barely but a patrol cop the inspector had tailing them gets dealt with rather viciously. The undead crush him with a tombstone and pull his guts out. George discovers the zombies can be stopped by setting fire to them, which the Inspector then hilariously misinterprets as the work of a satanic cult. "...Have you ever heard of...Satanists?" After the attack George tries everything in his power to stop the radiation which he now accepts as the cause for the living dead and Edna tries to get to her sister. Both of their plans would be easy were it not for the inspector and the improved range of the pesticide.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie has problems, alright, big ones, but I love it just the same. My thorough enjoyment of this movie was the first sign that my standards for entertainment had slipped a little from exposure. My pleasure isn't unfounded I swear. This movie would have been utterly unwatchable except for a few things, not the least of which was that it was in the hands of a careful director. He may not have been discerning when it came to dubbing, but handed a mediocre script written as a rip-off, for god's sakes, he delivered something that could have survived on style alone. First and foremost for me is the cinematography. I'm not sure where in Manchester this was filmed but it's absolutely gorgeous. There's a continuing shot of a church on a hill where the cemetery lies. It looks like a painting and it took a few viewings to convince me it wasn't just that. The work done by Francisco Sempere using Grau's carefully composed shots is masterful, ten times that in any other Italian horror film I've ever seen. It predicted the kind of work Emmanuel Lubezki would do with texturing and making film look like oil paintings come to life (not that Sempere was better by any means).
The other thing that gives Grau away as a closet-art student is his handling of the other side of the plot. We have George and Edna fighting zombies, but the thing that gives them the most trouble is the powers-that-be. And before we move from that, the Zombies are created by the government. How's that for student protest logic? Go Jorge! As for the other plot threads, on one side we have George trying doggedly to shut down the radioactive pesticide and paying for it (sort of like Silent Spring, but with Zombies). On the other we have the police breathing down their necks, refusing to listen to them and behaving violently whenever possible. Then there's that opening montage of the city overrun with smog and hippies. If George had stayed to fight it out with naked protest girl he might have been a lot better off (Also, I assume George is some kind of drug-booter or burglar of some kind and that his errand in the country concerns this, but we're never let in on his weekend plans). Grau gives more screen time to the problems with authority than the problems with the undead. This could be because he was making this movie because of interfering studio heads, or because he was from Spain, a country still in the throws of dictatorship. Or maybe he was the only horror director south of Paris with a brain in his head. He couldn't do anything with the script, but what he did with the rest of the money they gave to him.
And speaking of doing anything for money, Arthur Kennedy gives a performance here that would have added a few years to Bela Lugosi's life. From beyond the grave Boris Karloff could look at the publicity photos from THe Snake People with pride knowing he didn't throw in the towel quite so nefariously. Arthur Kennedy plays an Irish inspector, but apparently he didn't have it in him to apply the method to this role (stands to reason, the Italians can really take the fight out of you). The extent to which he feels he needs to act Irish was simply changing the vowel sound of words like "my" and hardening the consonants in "Christ". He simply didn't care and I don't blame him. The Italians got to Kennedy in the mid-60s, but before they got their mitts on him the man had one hell of a damn resume: The Man From Laramie, The Desperate Hours, The Glass Menagerie, High Sierra. He was no Jimmy Stewart but I don't think the Italians had any inkling how bright a flame they were sticking in shit when they forced him into a trench coat for The Tempter, The Dirty Mob, Kiss My Hand, or Taboo Island. I guess it wouldn't have been to much to ask to just die when you've been resigned to Exorcist rip-offs and fake Emmanuelle sequels. Mel Ferrer and Eli Wallach were taken for similar rides but I don't think they felt the sting nearly as bad as old Arthur.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie might not be so cool when I'm thirty, but I gotta tell you, I love this beautiful mess. And don't we all want to make a brilliantly photographed revisionist zombie film? No? That's just me? Whatever, more for me. It's been my dream ever since I saw 28 Days Later for the first time and discovering that someone had done a tremendous job with the concept 30 years earlier was a little like finding out I have an uncle who got arrested for pissing on Nixon's shoes. It does the heart good to see your dreams come true before you had them. Like what would it look like if David Cronenberg ever made a zombie film...?
by David Cronenberg
See how I did that? Somewhere between Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and Dawn of the Dead were David Cronenberg's takes on the zombie genre. He got the ball rolling with Shivers, his first proper film but Rabid owes a greater debt to the films of George Romero. Plot wise we're closer to Crazies territory, but Romero is Romero. See if this sounds at all familiar: In a rural out-of-the-way place a virus begins killing people and resurrecting them with a hunger for human flesh that soon moves into the big city impacting hundreds of people. Pretty run-of-the-mill, right? Well, it wouldn't be Cronenberg without something icky and biological and in this case it's a phallic stinger that springs out of Marilyn Chamber's armpit after too much experimental cosmetic surgery following a motorcycle crash. Chambers plays Rose, the victim of a motorcrash along with her boyfriend Hart. The accident occurs conveniently just a few miles away from a clinic offering a new kind of plastic surgery. With Hart's consent they operate. The stinger emerges when she awakens from her induced state of sleep following the operation and it comes with an increased sex drive. We don't actually see much of the sex, but we know what's up. She uses her sexuality to escape the confines of the institute and makes her way to the nearest metropolitan area. People begin springing from every corner of society with symptoms which are something like rabies mixed with cannibalism (which is close enough to zombie for me). Not soon after the whole city (Toronto) is quarantined by men with guns, hazard suits and gas-masks. Hart and one of the men who worked at the clinic named Murray Cypher go looking for Rose because they know something the rest of the world doesn't: she's the ma-genitor of the epidemic.