I'll admit it, I almost forgot to include Jorge Grau's 1974 film LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE. Not because I'd overlooked it--unlikely, since it's not only one of my favorite zombie films--but because I thought I'd already reviewed it. I suppose these last few weeks of suffering through dreck like MY DEAD GIRLFRIEND and ZOMBIE STRIPPERS have led me to believe I'd worked through all the good films.
Also known under a slew of alternate titles--BREAKFAST AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE, DO NOT SPEAK ILL OF THE DEAD, and DON'T OPEN THE WINDOW, among others--CORPSES bears the distinction of not only being arguably Spain's best contribution to the zombie subgenre, but as one one of the first films directly influenced by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Unlike later imitators who were content to be mere rip-offs, Grau used Romero's classic as a starting point, a point of reference for his own movie. And the results, though not as well-known as Romero's, are just as successful.
I don't really want to start a compare-and-contrast of CORPSES and NIGHT, since each movie stands on its own merits, but as we'll see there are quite a few parallels that enrich the CORPSES viewing experience.
Most notably is that Grau gives a fairly specific, pseudo-scientific explanation for the zombie outbreak; with a nod to the eco-horror films of yore, an experimental pesticide technique using ultrasound waves that somehow revives the dead while killing off insects and vermin. (This also helps Grau pay homage to '50s sci-fi movies like THE BLOB, where the heroes can't convince the authorities of the outlandish situations they face.) This reason is also incorporated into the story, rather than being breezed over as a plot-starting gimmick.
As for the story itself, CORPSES eschews Romero's trapped-in-a-box scenario for a more detailed and nuanced plot that emphasizes mystery as much as horror, and a slightly deeper character development. (Please don't read any of this as a knock against NIGHT or Romero; I'm simply pointing out differences in approach, not extolling one at the other's expense.) And like its fellow countryman TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, CORPSES uses a bucolic pastoral atmosphere to astonishing effect, particularly in the first reveal of the living dead, a sequence of beautifully executed tension; yet Grau never allows the mood to hamper or slow the story's pace.
(And while we're on the subject, I can't help but wonder if Grau chose a setting of lush beauty as a subtle ecological comment--note the contrasting prologue, as star Ray Lovelock flees an urban environment of noise and pollution--or if he put the grotesqueries of the living dead's attack against a placid backdrop to heighten the horror.)
Like Romero, Grau keeps his heroine (Christina Galbo, in a lightweight, borderline-irritating role) ineffectual for the duration of the movie, even subjecting her to a grim end at the conclusion--though Barbara never suffered the indignity of becoming the undead. What's more interesting is Lovelock's character George; standing in for Duane Jones, he replaces NIGHT's racial tension with generation-gap conflict as he clashes with Arthur Kennedy's fascist detective. With his "long hair and faggot clothes," it's obvious that he can do no right in Kennedy's eyes, and though his own fate echoes that of Jones's, it's still a foregone conclusion from their very first meeting. (Their relationship suggests what kind of threat the hippie movement posed to the European status quo, but certain aspects of Lovelock's character--his aforementioned appearance and fey demeanor imply a homophobic undertone as well.) While his death doesn't have quite the same resonance, at least Lovelock gets to come back and get his revenge--a denouement that diminishes its impact further.
Aided immeasurably by a distorted electronic score and a use of unusual sound, LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE ranks among the most accomplished zombie films of all time, and might even be a contender for the best non-Romero zombie movie ever made. Any fan of the living dead who has not seen it has a glaring omission in their horror education, one they should rectify immediately. Those who have seen it should watch it again, just for the hell of it.