Film

Don't Open That Door! #27: 'Zombies of Mora Tau' (1957)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: the dead walk, among other things, in Zombies of Mora Tau.


Zombies of Mora Tau

Director: Edward L. Cahn
Cast: Marjorie Eaton, Gregg Palmer, Allison Hayes, Autumn Russell, Morris Ankrum
US release date: 1957-03

Alternative titles: Night of the Swimming Dead; Diamonds Are Forever, and They Ain't the Only Thing

POSITIVES:

Good performances from a decent cast: Marjorie Eaton steals the show.

Well paced—things start early and keep moving throughout.

Inventive story.

Clever and suspenseful underwater scenes.

NEGATIVES:

Zombies are basically expressionless guys shuffling around.

Lame romance (but then, did you expect anything different?).

SYNOPSIS: Uh-oh, we're in Africa again, and you know what that means: zombies and walking dead and all the rest of it. Deer-caught-in-the-headlights-lookalike Jan returns to Africa "after ten years" to find that "nothing has changed"—which means, apparently, that white Rolls-Royce drivers are free to run down pedestrians with impunity. Jan's great-grandma, Scarlett, lives on a rambling plantation named Tara with her sassy housekeeper—wait, that's another story. Anyway, great-grandma explains that the hapless pedestrian was just a seaweed-encrusted zombie from the ocean. Now run along.


Meanwhile, a ship has dropped anchor nearby, its crew hoping to salvage millions of dollars' worth of diamonds from a sunken wreck. Captain George is joined on this voyage by his vampy wife Mona, chief diver Jeff, and perpetually-worried-looking Dr Eggert. With admirable concision, we're only five minutes into the movie and we've already met all the major players and know their motivations and conflicts. All we need now is a healthy dose of zombie mayhem and an ever-spiraling body count.

Zombie mayhem dutifully arrives, as a crewman is pulled overboard by a swimmer who proves impervious to gunshots. The crew head to shore, where they meet great-grandma Scarlett, who has a few secrets tucked away, and Jan, who looks like she wouldn't recognize a secret if she stepped in one. Great-grandma, aka Mrs Peters, takes her guests on a lively graveyard tour, ending with their own graves—dug but as yet not full. A real barrel of laughs, that Mrs Peters. Then we learn a whole pile of secrets, interrupted by a scream: cue more zombie mayhem. Then we learn yet more secrets.

Jan gets carried away—literally—by the weirdness, and Jeff puts up the lamest resistance imaginable, but does manage to rescue her from the Mausoleum of Zombie Doom. This however does not prevent him from taking a few knocks in his next underwater diamond-hunting episode. With all these near-misses going on, it feels inevitable that sooner or later, the zombies will come out on top. But on top of whom? Ah, that's the question.

Best lines of dialogue in the movie: "You old hag! You're dead already, you just don't have sense enough to lie down!"

What gets zonked: A sailor; whole piles of other sailors (by report); a woman; a servant; a guy; a bunch of guys who were already zonked years ago (go figure).

Moral of the story: Listen to your elders.

This reminds me of… …various zombie flicks over the years, starting with 1932's White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi, and Jacque Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie (1943). 1959 would bring the truly execrable Teenage Zombies (which gets my vote for worst movie in history—honest). These walking dead were all vaguely stoned-looking individuals shuffling around; not until George Romero's classic and creepy Night of the Living Dead (1968) would zombies begin to be equated with rotting flesh and an appetite for the living. After that, of course, there would be no stopping the trend.

Did you wonder? What happens to Mona at the end? Hey, inquiring minds want to know. (Just forget this question if you haven't seen the movie yet.)

Somehow their careers survived: Marjorie Eaton (Grandma Peters) would play another crotchety old gal in The Atomic Brain aka Monstrosity (1964); born in 1901, she was not nearly so elderly as this movie suggests. Gregg Palmer (Jeff) had been in The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) and would go on to a lengthy TV career. This was a busy year for Allison Hayes (Mona) who also starred in The Disembodied and The Unearthly; 1958 would bring her her best-known role in The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Autumn Russell (Jan) would play a slave girl in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 classic Spartacus—spot her if you can—while Morris Ankrum (Dr. Eggert) enjoyed a much longer career that includes many of the movies in these columns. Highlights include Rocketship X-M (1950—to be reviewed next week), Flight to Mars (1951), Invaders From Mars (1953), Earth Vs the Flying Saucers (1956), Kronos and The Giant Claw (both 1957). Take five, Morris!


BOTTOM LINE: Pretty entertaining overall, and enlivened immeasurably by Ms Eaton's fiesty grandma.

NEXT WEEK: Rocketship X-M (1950)

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