RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his tenth column, Kim explores the mysteries of the walking dead in Zombies of Mora Tau.
“The walking dead? You believe in them?”
“And so will you … before the week is out!”
As the director of Invisible Invaders, Creature With the Atom Brain and this – not to mention tangential efforts like Curse of the Faceless Man and The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake – the usually unheralded Edward L. Cahn could claim to be the father of the modern zombie film. Not that any of these films are much good, though all are watchable for devotees of 1950s Z-cinema and have flashes of pulp vigour or grue amid Cahn’s literally plodding style.
Zombies of Mora Tau — or The Zombies of Mora-Tau, as the trailer has it — is a transitional film in its sub-genre. Unfashionably supernatural in an era of radioactive monsters from outer space, it looks back to 1930s and ’40s programmers like White Zombie, Revolt of the Zombies and I Walked With a Zombie in its use of magically-reanimated, lumbering corpses and an exotic setting, not to mention a hoary B-picture plot about a motley crew who are after sunken treasure.
However, it shows the beginnings of the physicality of post-Night of the Living Dead zombie cinema (importantly, the notion that zombiedom is infectious): in a few still-striking moments, zombies still keep coming despite being riddled with bullet squibs or having a knife buried hilt-deep in a throat, and there’s a wince-inducing bit where sultry, zombified Allison Hayes takes a direct hit in the face from a seemingly heavy candlestick without flinching.
Set in an African coastal region entirely populated by caucasians, the film is all about the undead crew of the Susan B., which sank late in the 19th Century with a fortune in uncut diamonds inside a three-thousand-year-old Egyptian chest in the ship’s safe. The zombies spend some of their time in coffins in a mausoleum deep in the jungle (a tiny studio set surrounded by some greenery) and emerge to prowl above and below the water, seeing off successive expeditions in search of the treasure and thereby filling a graveyard with non-walking dead.
Grandmother Peters (Marjorie Eaton, looking ancient though she was only 56), wife of the zombie Captain (Frank Hagney), keeps issuing warnings no one takes seriously even after the casualties start piling up. Jeff Clark (Gregg Palmer), an oily-haired deep-sea diver, has been hired by unscrupulous (and in retrospect unfortunately-named) George Harrison (Joel Ashley) to get the diamonds.
Extra trouble brews in the shapely if shrewish form of Harrison’s wife Mona (Hayes), a former waterfront hostess (and we know what that means) who makes several plays for the manly hero in front of her older, obviously seething husband. Dr Jonathan Eggert (Morris Ankrum), an archaeologist, never quite gets round to stating the obvious fact that the chest no one cares about is probably more valuable than the diamonds inside it, and Jan (Autumn Russell), the old woman’s granddaughter, does a fainting blonde good girl act for contrast with Hayes’ dark, busty zombie bitch.
As in many vintage zombie (or mummy) movies, there’s a problem in building up suspense in that the slow-moving monsters would seem ludicrously easy to get away from. We keep being told they’re invincible to anything but fire, but — though flares and candles are used to keep them at bay — no one thinks to set light to them. The low production values mean that several times a flare gun is used to hold the crew back by having the gun fired offscreen, then bringing up studio lights to convey the effects of flares we haven’t seen. Either the budget didn’t run to actual flare cartridges, or famously cheapskate producer Sam Katzman didn’t want to pay the extra insurance premiums for setting fires on the set.
Allison Hayes (of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman fame) and Morris Ankrum are iconic figures in 1950s genre films, but aren’t at their best here: Hayes comes across like a mean-spirited, low-rent Jane Russell knock-off (though she’s marginally creepy as the nightgown-clad killer zombie) and Ankrum (usually ramrod-stiff generals) is uncomfortable with the mild lechery he is required to express most of the time.
The plot, frankly, is stupid. Why are these zombies so intent on guarding the treasure in the first place, and how come they disappear (literally — the Captain’s empty clothes fall down) when Jeff throws the diamonds into three feet of water as if that made them harder to find for future money-grubbers than they were in the sunken ship’s safe? It’s now available on DVD in the Sam Katzman Icons of Horror collection, along with The Giant Claw, Creature With the Atom Brain and The Werewolf.