The Zombies of Mora Tau/The Dead that Walk (1957) **½
Or maybe it’s just that zombie movies were Edward Cahn’s true calling. The Zombies of Mora Tau is the seventh of Cahn’s 1950’s monster movies to come my way, and while it does fall into the pattern I observed the last time we talked about him (the horror and sci-fi movies he made for American International Pictures suck leper-cock; the ones he made for other companies do not), it also brings a second pattern into focus. With the exception of It!: The Terror from Beyond Space, Cahn’s best work as a director of creature features seems invariably to have involved the living dead in one way or another. In Creature with the Atom Brain, the earliest Cahn film I’ve seen thus far, the undead were the product of modern science; in Invisible Invaders, they were raised from their tombs to serve as hosts for incorporeal aliens from the moon. This time around, the dead walk the old-fashioned way, courtesy of curses and Third-World black magic, and while The Zombies of Mora Tau isn’t quite up to the standard of its sci-fi-inflected cousins, it still represents a pretty decent stab at supernatural horror during an era in which the American movie industry as a whole evinced little interest in that sort of thing.
The opening scene recalls Creature with the Atom Brain in diverging from the then-standard practice of keeping the monster out of sight until the movie is well underway. Jan Peters (Autumn Russell) has just arrived in South Africa, along a godforsaken stretch of coastline (presumably known as Mora Tau) where her great-grandmother (Marjorie Eaton, from The Killing Kind and Monstrosity) has made her home for some 50 years, ever since reports reached her to the effect that her sea-captain husband, Jeremy, presumed dead since 1894, had been seen in the area. Granny’s chauffeur, Sam (Gene Roth, of She-Demons and Earth vs. the Spider), arrives at the dockside to pick Jan up, and he horrifies the girl by barreling right over a man whom they encounter standing in the middle of the dirt road into the jungle on their way to the house. Sam informs his passenger that that was no man. The forests of Mora Tau are infested with zombies, and what Sam ran down in the road was one of those virtually indestructible walking corpses. Jan doesn’t buy it for a second, but here’s something to ponder, assuming that Sam knows better than she does— why would a zombie in Africa have started out being the body of a white man?
Perhaps it has something to do with the legendary shipwreck that has brought the rest of the cast to Africa. The avaricious George Harrison (Joel Ashley) and his even greedier wife, Mona (Allison Hayes, from Attack of the 50-Foot Woman and The Hypnotic Eye), have learned that a fortune in uncut diamonds was the principal cargo when the Susan B. went down just off the South African coast in 1894, and that there has never been a properly successful attempt to salvage the gems. Harrison means to rectify that situation, with the aid of professional diver Jeff Clark (Gregg Palmer, of From Hell It Came and The Most Dangerous Man Alive). Also along for the ride is a historian named Eggert (Morris Ankrum, from Flight to Mars and Kronos), who has been writing a book about the sinking of the Susan B., and who hopes to find the information he needs to complete it with a visit to the site of the calamity. This bunch, too, have a brush with the supposed undead almost immediately upon arrival, for one of Harrison’s lesser henchmen is dragged into the water and strangled by a seaweed-shrouded man to whom several rounds from the boss-man’s pistol do no visible harm.
The unexpected attack forces the salvagers to come ashore in order to deal with the dead man, and they soon enough wind up under Old Lady Peters’s roof. This meeting would have occurred anyway, for Harrison had written to Mrs. Peters arranging to use her home as his landward base of operations, but the circumstances certainly take all concerned aback— all, that is, except Mrs. Peters herself. As you’ve probably gathered, her long-missing husband had been the commander of the Susan B. on its final voyage, and those diamonds lying submerged in 100 feet of water figure prominently in his mysterious fate. Captain Peters and his men didn’t exactly get the stones from the local agent of the De Beers mining company. Somewhere deep in the jungle, they discovered the overgrown ruins of an ancient temple, wherein the diamonds were housed. The details are fuzzy after all this time, but Mrs. Peters says that a fight broke out among the men, and that ten of them— including the captain— were left for dead in the ruins while the remainder brought the diamonds back to the ship. Soon thereafter, however, the supposedly dead sailors returned from the jungle, slaughtered their fellows, and scuttled the Susan B. Six times since that night, expeditions have been launched to recover the gems: from Britain in 1906 and 1928, from Germany in 1914, from Portugal in 1923, from the United States in 1938, and now Harrison and his companions. The previous would-be salvagers did not merely fail in their mission; all five crews were slaughtered to a man by the vengeful zombies of the Susan B., and Mrs. Peters expects Harrison to fare no better. In fact, she’s already had her servants dig graves for each member of the party.
Naturally, the old lady’s story is met with much scoffing— from Jan just as much as from the salvagers. Jeff and the Harrisons think Mrs. Peters is trying to frighten them away so that she can keep the diamonds for herself. Jan thinks her great-grandmother has gone soft in the head from so many years of living like a recluse in the jungle. Only Eggert, who has learned enough about Africa in his studies of the Susan B. incident to know that the Dark Continent holds nasty surprises for the closed-minded, is willing to give her zombie tales any credit. None but the most pig-headed skepticism could survive in the face of what befalls the cast from here on, however. First, one of the zombies intrudes upon Jan in her bedroom, retreating only when Mrs. Peters brandishes an open flame before its face. Then Jeff encounters the undead when Jan takes him out to see the place where Sam’s hit-and-run occurred the night before. The “victim” is still hanging around, and he shrugs off injuries that ought to kill anybody while abducting Jan and carrying her away to the hidden crypt where he and the rest of the zombies make their homes when not actively defending the wreck. Jeff is able to rescue the girl by using his flare gun to hold her captors at bay, but he comes very close to not being so lucky in the morning, when an undead welcoming committee is there to greet him on the seafloor during his first dive. As the zombies make bigger and bigger pests of themselves, even Harrison has to admit that something out of the ordinary is going on, but he still can’t make the connection when Mona is transformed into a zombie herself. Nor does anyone much care to listen when Mrs. Peters prescribes destroying the accursed diamonds as the only way to eliminate the undead once and for all. Somebody had better come up with some anti-zombie measure, though, because the gems function as a homing device, and when Jeff finally succeeds in bringing them up from the wreck, the immediate effect is to bring forth the walking dead en masse to reclaim them.
The Zombies of Mora Tau is a much more important movie than many people realize, one of the key signposts along the road from White Zombie to Night of the Living Dead. Most obviously, it is the earliest zombie film that I’ve seen in which the characters are so mutually mistrustful, and so intent upon pursuing their own narrow interests, that they are unable to respond effectively to the threat posed by the undead. But what might be even more important, The Zombies of Mora Tau seems to have been the first movie of its type in which there are zombies, but no zombie-master— indeed, the undead are not just undirected, but are nearly as unexplained here as they would be in George Romero’s movies. The crew of the Susan B. presumably became zombies because the diamonds they raided from that ancient temple were cursed, but pursuing the line of reasoning any further than that yields only the vague impression that these impossible things are happening simply because the antiquity of Africa can support any horrific mystery. With no witch doctor to guide them and no established real-world mythos for them to abide by, these zombies begin to tap into the same dread of sheer, entropic madness as those of Romero and, even more so, Lucio Fulci. And as in both Creature with the Atom Brain and Invisible Invaders, Cahn gives these zombies a demeanor of mindless implacability that harkens forward to the gut-munchers rather than backward to the ancestral voodoo school— even though The Zombies of Mora Tau explicitly credits voodoo for bringing the dead to life.
Unfortunately, the movie’s significance is not quite matched by its quality. The first half of the film is indeed very good, displaying an eagerness to dive right into the thick of things that was most uncharacteristic of 1950’s horror, but completely characteristic of Edward Cahn’s horror work at its best. Even the underwater scenes are mostly effective, even if they were very obviously not filmed underwater. But as the movie wears on, it becomes increasingly apparent that neither Cahn nor screenwriter Raymond T. Marcus has any clear idea what to do with all of this engrossing setup. 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. Apart from Mrs. Peters (who believes from the very beginning), all of the characters exhibit a maddening lack of consistency regarding exactly how far they’re willing to accept the zombie hypothesis, with Jan’s stance on the issue being the hardest of all to keep track of from one scene to the next. The romance that develops between her and Jeff is never terribly convincing, and the diver’s day-saving action during the final scene comes as a total abnegation of his character as it had been presented to us up to then. For that matter, the whole concluding sequence is both sadly anticlimactic and utterly nonsensical, hinging upon a ridiculously lenient reading of what might constitute the “destruction” of the ancient diamonds— by any honest assessment, the jewels actually wind up more vulnerable to theft than they had been in the hold of the Susan B.! It’s always a sad and frustrating experience to see a movie get off to this great a start, and then progressively fizzle out as the closing credits draw nearer. The Zombies of Mora Tau is still a whole lot better than many 1950’s horror films, though.
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