By the end of Saturday night, we’d watched a total of nine films. Some might say that’s enough zombie films for anyone. But not for the hardcore attendees of Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead. There was still time on the final day, before people had to go home, to get the tally into double digits.
Big Tits Zombie (2010)
We started with a breakfast screening of another of the “guest picks” brought to RotWotLD, Big Tits Zombie. We knew it was going to be bad. And with expectations as low as we thought they could go, it still surprised us with how awful it was.
It made no sense. The humour was so pathetically crude, a 13 year old boy would have found it embarrassingly childish. No-one involved in making it seemed to have any enthusiasm for the project (understandably), and the whole thing was delivered with an air of bored resignation, indicating the contempt for their imagined audience that whoever came up with this pile of shit must have felt. And worst of all, there weren’t even any big tits.
We skipped most of it, watched the final scene in which a character called “Blue Ogre” (a man with blue face paint and a dreadlocks wig) pops up from Hell to resolve everything, then quickly moved on…
The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974)
Back to spaghetti horror. Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti was made in 1974, six years after Night of the Living Dead and four years before Dawn of the Dead, making it the earliest Romero-inspired zombie flick we’ve watched at either weekend.
It’s an odd hotch-potch: an Italian production, made by a joint Spanish and Italian team, and filmed and set in northern England.
The first confusing thing about it is trying to work out what it’s called. The original Italian title translates literally as Do Not Profane the Sleep of the Dead. Its first US release was titled Don’t Open the Window, which is a bit weird because I don’t remember any scene where anyone opens a window or even considers opening a window. Its first UK release was titled simply The Living Dead, which shows how directly inspired it was by Night, but it was later re-titled The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. This is also strange, because although the exterior shots of the morgue were filmed in Greater Manchester, the entire film is set in a fictional Lake District town called South Gate. Which I guess makes it a non-diegetic title. Also, the DVD cover gets the title wrong: there’s no second “the”. Finally, more recent English releases have given it the title Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, which is probably the most appropriate one, because it at least makes a stab at translating the Italian title, and isn’t obviously unrelated to the film’s story and theme. But I like the Manchester link, even if it’s narratively spurious.
So what happens in Manchester Morgue? Well, as seems traditional in Italian zombie films, characters spend a lot of time pottering about, witnessing horrific supernatural events, and carrying on without apparent concern. It struck me as a typically mediterranean attitude. I imagine that if any of the zombie sieges had gone on for long enough, the defenders would fight them off until 1pm, then down weapons for a siesta.
The main character is George, a ’70s hipster who turns up in the Lake District on his Norton motorbike to visit some friends, but gets shunted by Edna at a petrol station, and has to stay the night while his bike is repaired. He checks into a local inn, the Old Owl Hotel. Or, as its office door sign calls it, the Old Olw Hotel:
Before George can get back on his way, he’s caught up with a series of bizarre murders. The local police chief suspects George, obviously, because of his long hair and beard. George thinks that the scientists testing a bizarre machine on a nearby hill – designed to emit nerve-stimulating radiation over a five mile radius which incites crop pests to attack each other – might have something to do with it. But no-one’s interested in his wacky theories!
As we’d grown used to by this point, neither the plot nor the characters’ motivations and decisions ever made much sense. But as a period piece, Manchester Morgue is fascinating. The film was one of the 72 which made it onto the UK Director of Public Prosecution’s infamous “video nasties” list. It’s got some pretty horrible, gory scenes it, but it’s perhaps more notorious for the scene it doesn’t contain: a legendary sequence in which a zombie pulls out someone’s eyeball and eats it, which was allegedly filmed but removed from the final edit. The scene which was supposed to contain it certainly seems as if that’s what the zombie is about to do, but it cuts away just before it happens. However, no copy of the deleted section has ever been found.
As well as gratuitous splatter scenes, Manchester Morgue is filled with gorgeously evocative exterior scenes of the Lake District in all its ’70s glory. Dry stone walls and wooden telegraph poles line the roads which vintage Minis, Rovers and police Volvos whizz down. And the morgue itself, in reality the Victorian gothic red-brick Barnes Hospital in Cheadle, is such a beautiful and gloriously creepy building, that it makes me think the most talented person in the entire production was the location scout.
There was time for one more film before people had to go home, and after a challenging viewing of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, we wanted a sure-fire winner. Luckily, we had Zombieland.
A zom-com from the post-2004 surge of zombie popularity, Zombieland is a well-written, well-made and thoroughly enjoyable film. It doesn’t have the brilliance of Shaun of the Dead, or the garish charm of Braindead, but it’s a worthy addition to the canon, and eminently watchable.
There are great performances from all the leads: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin (plus an awesome surprise cameo). Their characters are all interesting and flawed in different ways, but still likeable. They display the basic level of competence you expect from zombie survivors, while at the same time they have plausible human weaknesses which get them in trouble, but make you like them more (instead of making you shout, “why are you doing that, you idiot!?” at the screen, like Fulci’s characters). There’s a good mix of funny jokes, and awesome zombie-slaughtering action.
I like Zombieland a lot, and it was a good high on which to end the main part of RotWotLD, which had by now included eleven full films.
The Dead Next Door (1989)
All the guests had gone, but RotWotLD wasn’t over yet. I still had a pile of ironing, and one more DVD to watch: The Dead Next Door.
As filming and distribution technology became cheaper in the 1980s, there was an explosion in amateur and semi-amateur film-making. This presaged the even greater creative boom enabled by the internet in the 2000s, of which the shoestring budget visionaries of the ’80s, like Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi were the forerunners. Jackson and Raimi broke through to mainstream success, but there were many others who achieved amazing things within the constraints they had, and who have been largely forgotten except by small bands of hardcore cult cinema enthusiasts. However, during the ’80s and ’90s these films were a staple of the home rental scene, and copied and borrowed by many more. They were undoubtedly a huge influence on the next generation of amateur film-makers, who have digital cameras, Macs and Youtube at their disposal.
One of these pioneers was J. R. Bookwalter, writer and director of The Dead Next Door. Bookwalter was a college drop-out from Akron, Ohio, when he befriended Sam Raimi in the mid ’80s. Raimi, who was just starting to enjoy success with Evil Dead II, agreed to fund Bookwalter with $125,000 to make his own zombie film. It was one of those glorious opportunities when crazy ambition and random capital combine. The Dead Next Door is therefore basically a home movie (it was shot on Super 8) with an unusually large budget.
Set five years after the zombie apocalypse, it tells the story of Zombie Squad, a specialist police unit who seem bizarrely unprepared and inept at their supposed specialism. After roughly a third of the film is spent establishing the premise (and killing off 50% of the squad through easily avoidable zombie attacks), the remaining team sets off on a mission to retrieve a particular sample from the source of the zombie outbreak. Things go about as well as you’d expect for the bumbling incompetents upon whom humanity’s last hopes have been pinned.
The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and it’s a constant mystery why the characters seem to be learning (or failing) basic lessons in zombie survival as we watch, despite having already survived five years of the pandemic. The writing and acting are fairly poor, and the grainy Super 8 footage doesn’t do the film any favours. But the inventiveness is impressive, and the gory effects are much better than you’d expect from an amateur production. Compared to slick Hollywood films, it’s really bad, but compared to its low budget peers, it’s actually pretty good.
There’s a good analysis of the film in this episode of the No-Budget Nightmares podcast, a series which discusses amateur horror films. The enthusiasm of the reviewers for The Dead Next Door, its technical achievements, and its entertaining stupidity, is rather infectious.
One of the highlights of the weekend for me was tweeting about The Dead Next Door, and noticing that I was being retweeted by J. R. Bookwalter himself.
Influential but forgotten, cheesy, low budget gore: The Dead Next Door was a fitting conclusion to Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead.
Coming up next…
The original WotLD featured 10 films. The sequel, RotWotLD, packed in 12.
So, have we exhausted all the possibilities for zombie film marathons? Are there any zombie flicks left worth watching? Will the Weekend of the Living Dead series be a trilogy?
I think we need a break, at least for a while. The Gates of Hell films, especially, have sapped any enthusiasm for another zombie marathon in the near future. So the next event will probably be on a different theme. There was definite interest in a “Worst Films of All Time” weekend, featuring such classics as Plan 9 from Outer Space, Troll 2 and, of course, The Room. And on a smaller scale, a viewing of the Back to the Future trilogy would be appropriate later this year.
But there is one notable absentee from the films covered in the first two weekends: Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy. We haven’t watched 28 Days Later, either. And I’m sure I could dig out a few more obscure ’80s splatterfests. So stay tuned for…
Weekend of the Living Dead III: Armchair of Darkness