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Director: Edwards L. Cahn
Starring: Gregg Palmer, Autumn Russell, Allison Hayes, Joel Ashley, Morris Ankrum, Marjorie Eaton
Despite classics like White Zombie and I Walked With A Zombie establishing the walking dead way back in the ‘30s, for some reason they had never been able to rise out of the B-movie mire.
1957’s Zombies Of Mora Tau is no classic, but it’s not cheap trash either. It’s cheap yes, but it’s not trash. Set in a vivid and alien part of Africa, its a rollicking adventure that never fails to entertain. It also introduces one of the finest sub-genres of undead cinema – the underwater zombie.
For the first time in a decade, Jan Peters (Russell) returns to the home of her great-grandmother on the African island of Mora Tau. Meanwhile, a salvage expedition led by George Harrison (Ashley) attempts to recover a cache of diamonds that was sunken offshore aboard the ship Susan B sixty years previously.
Grandmother Peters (Eaton) gives Harrison a warning, that the corpses of the Susan B sailors guard the sunken treasure to this day and have killed anyone foolish enough to have tried to take it before. Refusing to believe her, he begins the salvage, but the old woman was telling the truth. The dead are restless in Mora Tau and they will not stop until their diamonds are returned…
Say what you will about Zombies Of Mora Tau, but it’s not short on atmosphere at least. It sets its stall out early doors, establishing the island as a dark and mysterious place, where zombies are such a part of the fabric of society that their appearance on the roadside is barely registered by the locals.
It’s version of Africa is brilliantly realised on a budget, it’s sprawling jungle feeling hot and oppressive, but it’s the European cemetery that really impresses. Full of the bodies of the unfortunate previous expeditions to find diamonds, it’s wonderfully creepy and feels like a gothic Universal-style graveyard transplanted into the deepest, darkest jungle. It’s stunning and has all the more impact coming in a film that you aren’t expecting so much from.
The underwater scenes are… less convincing. The close-ups are clearly very much not underwater, but it doesn’t matter as they’re dynamic and ambitious enough to carry it through. Zombie Flesh Eaters, Shock Waves and all the rest, it all stated here. Underwater zombies are a gloriously OTT concept and they’re brilliantly effective here at their very genesis.
The ensemble cast is effective too. Palmer and Hayes have good, solid chemistry as the main couple, the heroic diver and the nice girl who takes up with him, while Joel Ashley pitches the avaricious and amoral George Harrison perfectly. He’s an awful human being and we get to see several examples of it before he gets his well-deserved come-uppance.
It’s his wife and Jan’s mum that really steal the show though.
The latter is in the finest horror tradition of the gatekeeper, always ready with a portentous warning that isn’t heeded as much as it should be and she lights up the screen every time she’s on it.
Saying that, even she’s not as arresting as the vampish Mona. A dangerous, highly-sexual and malicious woman, she’s initially just trouble in tight clothes, demanding to kiss other men in front of her husband and generally being high-maintenance.
When she is hypnotised though? Wow. In a scene brilliantly decorated with lit candlesticks surrounding her bed, the power of the supernatural takes her over, compelling her to murder, wielding a knife with a glassy-eyed stare, all while still looking fabulous of course. Allison Hayes is magnificent here and really makes the most of her role. Seeing her not even blink when a candlestick is bounced off her head really rams home just his hood she is.
And what if the actual zombies of Mora Tau? Well, they’re the proper old-school voodoo variety, as in just a random selection of people who are dead. There’s no budget or possibly inclination to make them look too dead here and really there’s no need. We can see the dead walk, right out of the ocean in fact. They work, without being spectacular.
Again, Zombies Of Mora Tau is no classic. What it is though, is enormously fun, with a great and what was, at the time, a very original central concept that would influence filmmakers for decades to come.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy