‘A tide of terror floods the screen!’
Zombies of Mora Tau is a 1957 horror feature film directed by Edward L. Cahn (The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake; Invisible Invaders; Voodoo Woman; et al) from a screenplay written by George H. Plympton (The Phantom Creeps) and Bernard Gordon [as Raymond T. Marcus] (The Man Who Turned to Stone). Also known as The Dead That Walk, it was released by Columbia Pictures. The movie stars Gregg Palmer, Allison Hayes and Autumn Russell.
Watching the workaday Zombies of Mora Tau, produced by the Sam Katzman unit (who provided regular, if largely unexceptional cheapie genre fare to Columbia Pictures) makes one get the strange feeling of having stumbled into a script read-thru or semi-dress rehearsal for a zombie chiller of later vintage.
Ingredients are there: walking dead who not impeded by underwater environments (anticipating Shock Waves, 1975) and the zombie-contagion paranoia twist, that anyone killed by a zombie, rises up again as a zombie themselves, incurable and hostile. Unfortunately, the decidedly desultory execution doesn’t mean much, and those genre mile-markers may just as well have been arrived at accidentally.
Behold coastal Africa, looking like a nondescript deciduous-forest suburban neighbourhood outside L.A. – with no black people insight, by the way. Salvage-diver Jeff Clark (Gregg Palmer) arrives to help assist a search of a submerged treasure-chest of missing diamonds, coveted by George Harrison (Joel Ashley), not the Beatle, one witty critic previously observed, but an obsessed treasure hunter.
Jeff soon learns the whole story; it seems the diamonds are accursed and were originally lost in a lagoon during a 1916 expedition. Thanks to dark magic, the first crew to handle the fortune turned into zombies, who still wander about, doomed to eternally guard the treasure above and below the water.
Further fortune-seekers who have tried to bring up the box were killed by the undead. Summarily interred in convenient crypt (nothing fancy; it looks like crates in a featureless movie-backlot warehouse), these dead sailors in their matelot suits also rise up periodically and defend the treasure. Harrison doesn’t much care, demanding that Jeff presses ahead with a new deep-sea rig.
Blank-eyed, unshaven, staring undead don’t look much worse for wear after being semi-submerged for half a century – just think of how modern makeup artists would have gone to town on such horrors, even on a B-movie budget. But these are old-school voodoo zombies, just stuntmen guys acting like they’re in a trance, creepy only in a few scattered moments.
Modern accoutrements of flesh-feasting, infection or bodily decay are not part of the equation (or the budget). ‘Underwater’ scenes were clearly staged on dry land, with actors moving slowly and lens filters trying to suggest the life aquatic (or non-life, as the case may be).
Zombies of Mora Tau is in cult actress Allison Hayes‘ filmography (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman), a sultry vamp whose curvaceous figure these days would probably be banned by some international laws. As Harrison’s gold-digger wife, she’s part of the big reveal that going zombie is a one-way trip; they never recover and mindlessly turn on loved ones. It would wait for George A. Romero and his kind to bring that detail out more frightfully.
Another performance of note is Marjorie Eaton, a peppery old-trouper type often seen in Miss Havisham-type roles, here as a widow of the first expedition who stays behind in the local zombie-besieged mansion, unable to leave behind her long-zombified husband. She’s the only one who seems to know anything about effective anti-zombie measures. Though nobody pays attention until it’s time for the film to end, which it finally does, but not soon or cleverly enough.
Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES and MANIA
“There are a number of small but annoying plot-holes, such as who might have furnished the zombies with their hidden lair, complete with secret door and stone sarcophagi, or why in the hell it never occurs to anyone to extrapolate from the zombies’ evident fear of fire the seemingly obvious possibility that they might be susceptible to burning.” 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting
“There are other campy moments, but too much dialog and a slow pace hamper the film from being enjoyable even on a kitschy level. I was particularly frustrated with the crew’s absolute denial of the existence of zombies even after they shoot them full of bullets without effect and then witness them walk underwater.” Exclamation Mark
” …despite the slowness of the pace and the fairly mundane plot; seeing all these familiar faces and names kept me relaxed and in a good frame of mind for the movie’s seventy minutes of running time. Sometimes, it just helps to like this type of movie.” Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings
“The movie, which has clearly been shot cheaply and quickly, features a raft of underwhelming performances and a plot that couldn’t possibly be less interesting (this despite the presence of zombies!) – ensuring that only the most ardent aficionado of trash cinema will find something worth embracing here.” Reel Film Reviews
“Bottom line, this film is a very enjoyable romp full of delightful pulp tropes–and adorable bubble effects — that completely falls apart at the very end. But as I said, it’s only 70 minutes long, so it breezes by quickly enough that you don’t really mind that it trips over its own feet in the last 2.” The Terrible Claw
“Cahn’s tone is, more oneiric than sociological for all that, and moments of fairy-tale delight dot the film, from the men trying to rescue Mona from the zombies’ tomb, where the inhabitants march forward like some ungodly line dancing team, to the undead Mona wandering out from her room and casually knifing a sailor to death in his bed.” This Island Rod
“Hello. Weren’t you afraid there isn’t a zombie out here.”
“You old hag! You’re dead already, you just don’t have the good sense to lie down.”
“If only people could find soul and mind when they are alive.”
Cast and characters:
Gregg Palmer … Jeff Clark
Joel Ashley … George Harrison
Allison Hayes … Mona Harrison
Autumn Russell … Jan Peters
Morris Ankrum … Doctor Jonathan Eggert
Marjorie Eaton … Grandmother Peters
Gene Roth … Sam, the chauffeur
Leonard P. Geer … Johnny
Karl ‘Killer’ Davis … First Zombie
Frank Hagney … Captain John Peters
William Baskin … Zombie
Ray “Crash” Corrigan … Sailor
Columbia Pictures (studio) – 1020 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City, California
Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden – 301 N. Baldwin Avenue, Arcadia, California
Black and white
Aspect ratio: 1.85: 1
Audio: Mono (RCA Sound Recording)