Saturday, October 2, 2010

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974, Jorge Grau)

Originally written 5 November 2008 for The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.

One of the first thoughts that occurred to me after watching Jorge Grau’s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie was how small of a role the undead actually play in the story. Sure, there are some choice zombie attacks, rendered in loving, graphic detail by Grau and his makeup team. But strangely, the zombies seem almost incidental to the storyline. What initially seems to be the story of a battle between the living and the undead becomes something else entirely, which makes the movie more intriguing than a regular zombie thriller.

The story begins fairly unassumingly, as these stories often do, with George (Ray Lovelock) making a weekend trip out to the country. At a filling station, a car backs into his motorcycle, ruining the front wheel, so he gets a ride from Edna (Christine Galbo), the woman driving the car. It’s the beginning of a disastrous day together for the pair- each person has people waiting on him, and at least one of them won’t make it on time. Certainly, George has been inconvenienced by the mishap, but he also seems to take advantage of the accident to get his way. Eventually, they get lost and pull over to ask for directions. That’s when the first zombie shows up, a zombie who we soon see attack Edna’s sister and kill her husband.

After the killing, the movie’s third major character arrives on the scene, a local police inspector played by Arthur Kennedy. From the outset, he makes no bones of his dislike for George and Edna, who he sees as a pair of big-city longhairs. Soon, George and Edna find themselves stuck in a little town awaiting further questioning in the murders. As they wait, they begin investigating the killings themselves, but their poking around arouses the suspicions of the police, especially when more people turn up dead.

Of course, there’s no doubt that the zombies are to blame for the killings. We see the first zombie infect other corpses, who proceed to attack the living all over the countryside. George and Edna’s investigations lead them to a small cemetery, where they are cornered by a trio of the undead. Eventually, they escape with help from a police officer, but the zombies kill and eat the officer and tear apart the cemetery before George sets them on fire. Having been raised on zombie movies that almost invariably follow the Romero rule of removing the head or destroying the brain to stop zombies, it’s interesting to see a movie that was made before this method was universally acknowledged.

But then, what is Let Sleeping Corpses Lie but a movie that was made before the zombie mythos had been fully formed? Understandably, the characters in the film are reluctant to believe that the dead can not only be brought back to some semblance of life, but are actually compelled to kill and eat their victims. This leads to the central conflict of the movie, between George and Edna and the Inspector, whose antipathy towards these outsiders only worsens when he sees the situation on the cemetery. Observing the overturned graves, charred bodies, and half-eaten remains of his officer, the inspector assumes that they’re Satanists and cannibals.

It’s this friction, this constant misunderstanding that takes place between the protagonists of the film and the inspector, that makes Let Sleeping Corpses Lie very much a product of its time. At every turn, the inspector questions the motives of the pair of big-city twentysomethings. At one point, he even tells George, “You're all the same the lot of you, with your long hair and faggot clothes. Drugs, sex, every sort of filth!” He seems to devote more energy to monitoring them than to actually solving the case, having quickly jumped to the conclusion that the two actions are one and the same. And when he finally thinks he’s closed the case, he confidently states that he’ll be treated as a hero. Needless to say, things don’t quite work out that way.

Yet all the while, the real culprit hides within plain sight- a snazzy experimental machine that kills insect with “ultrasonic radiation,” within a five-mile radius, but has the unwelcome side effect of raising the dead within that same range. George catches on to this fairly quickly, but his protestations go unheeded by the people who would blindly defend the establishment rather than keep an open mind about a potential solution. And therein can be found the most timely and despairing aspect of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie- the acknowledgement that the generations might solve their problems if they would only listen to each other instead of pointing fingers. Pretty heavy stuff from a movie in which a woman gets her breast chewed off by a zombie, I’m sure you’ll agree.

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