Movie: Zombies of Mora Tau (1957)

Until recently, I had never seen another zombie movie that captured the weird unearthliness of I Walked with a Zombie.  1957’s Zombies of Mora Tau is not as good as that picture, but it is the only other zombie film I have seen with a similarly dreamlike vibe. 

Adding to that sensation is the locale, though it definitely wasn’t shot on location.  In same way Walked was effective despite not being filmed on a Caribbean island, the African-set Mora Tau feels like someplace “other” even if it is blatantly obvious it was filmed on a studio backlot or somewhere similar.  I found the choice of setting for story unusual, as there isn’t a single Black person anywhere, so why not set it somewhere else?

The story is centered on a lost horde of diamonds.  The area is haunted by the undead crews of previous ships that tried in vain to find them.  Even in death, they still want those diamonds.  So: zombie pirates, and a few decades before John Carpenter’s The Fog, as Kim Newman points out in an entertaining introduction on the blu-ray I watched.

Marjorie Eaton is a woman of advanced years, living in a surprisingly immaculate mansion in the jungle.  She knows all about the diamonds and only hopes they will one day be found.  Something gem hunters probably won’t be too happy about is she will then want the gems destroyed so that her husband, who is among the undead, can finally be put at rest.

I was pleased to see an elderly actress in what is the most important role in this feature.  It’s a more pivotal role than merely what the plot centers around, she is also given quite a lot to do.  Heck, she even shakes her cane at a zombie that walks right past her and into the water.  It’s the first time I’ve even seen an old person shaking a cane accomplish anything.

Autumn Russell plays her granddaughter.  She’s returning to the house she was raised in to visit her grandmother.  Russell is not given much of interest to do here than be in peril frequently.  At least she is appalled when her driver mows down a zombie at the start of the picture.  I found this odd, since she grew up in this area, and so her grandmother doubtlessly had to have warned her of this menace.  Also, I wondered if the driver, after making this snap decision, started hoping the guy he mowed down was a zombie.

Faring much better is Allison Hayes, as the bitchy wife of this expedition’s captain (played by Joel Ashley).  Hayes was mousy and put-upon in The Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, so it was nice to see her ham it up as the polar opposite here.  Ashley’s character’s name is George Harrison which, despite being a likely common combination of names, made me do a double-take every time his name is said.

I was never sure if the outdoor scenes were really shot at night.  If they weren’t, then this is some of the most effective day-for-night footage I have seen.  The walking dead look great in this, especially with their slow gait and lack of reaction to anything but fire.  Heck, one even gets stabbed and just keeps walking with the knife protruding from his shoulder.  Another one takes some punches that look like they actually connect and still does flinch or blink.

I used the term “the walking dead” in that previous paragraph, and I was surprised this movie refers to the undead as such.  I can’t recall any other work calling zombies that prior to the graphic novel of that name.  Another interesting aspect of the undead here is the plot exploits their lack of a need of oxygen, so they can cross bodies of water just by walking on the riverbed. 

The special effects are memorable, especially in those underwater sequences.  It took me a minute to figure out what I was seeing, but what is supposedly in water was doubtlessly filmed in a dry studio.  Bubbles drifting up from diver’s suits are presumably just soap bubbles.  I assume everybody moved slower than normal, with the camera likely over-cranked.

One thing I couldn’t figure out which still nags me is how the undead convert others to the same state.  That is a fate which will befall Hayes, though we never see her get attacked and she doesn’t appear to even have any bites or scratches.  That said, there’s a great moment where somebody chucks a large candlestick at her head and it bounces off with a “CHUNK” sound effect.

There’s a lot to like in Zombies of Mora Tau.  I never believed it was set in Africa, but when you have undead pirate treasure seekers, who cares where it happens?  Paul Simon had to really go to Africa to be inspired to write “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes”.  Here, a character asks, “Now what would I do with diamonds on my toes?”  He could have just watched this movie for the same inspiration and saved himself some effort.

Dir: Edward L. Cahn

Starring: Gregg Palmer (conspicuously absent from this essay), Marjorie Eaton, Allison Hayes

Watched on Arrow Video’s blu-ray box set Cold War Creatures: Four Files from Sam Katzman