Kim Newman on... Zombies of Mora Tau
RT Obscura 10: Lumbering corpses and an exotic setting.
RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his tenth column, Kim explores the mysteries of the walking dead in Zombies of Mora Tau.
As the director of Invisible Invaders, Creature With the Atom Brain and this - not to mention tangential efforts like Curse of the Faceless Man and The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake - the usually unheralded Edward L. Cahn could claim to be the father of the modern zombie film. Not that any of these films are much good, though all are watchable for devotees of 1950s Z-cinema and have flashes of pulp vigour or grue amid Cahn's literally plodding style.
Zombies of Mora Tau -- or The Zombies of Mora-Tau, as the trailer has it -- is a transitional film in its sub-genre. Unfashionably supernatural in an era of radioactive monsters from outer space, it looks back to 1930s and '40s programmers like White Zombie, Revolt of the Zombies and I Walked With a Zombie in its use of magically-reanimated, lumbering corpses and an exotic setting, not to mention a hoary B-picture plot about a motley crew who are after sunken treasure.
However, it shows the beginnings of the physicality of post-Night of the Living Dead zombie cinema (importantly, the notion that zombiedom is infectious): in a few still-striking moments, zombies still keep coming despite being riddled with bullet squibs or having a knife buried hilt-deep in a throat, and there's a wince-inducing bit where sultry, zombified Allison Hayes takes a direct hit in the face from a seemingly heavy candlestick without flinching.
Set in an African coastal region entirely populated by caucasians, the film is all about the undead crew of the Susan B., which sank late in the 19th Century with a fortune in uncut diamonds inside a three-thousand-year-old Egyptian chest in the ship's safe. The zombies spend some of their time in coffins in a mausoleum deep in the jungle (a tiny studio set surrounded by some greenery) and emerge to prowl above and below the water, seeing off successive expeditions in search of the treasure and thereby filling a graveyard with non-walking dead.
Grandmother Peters (Marjorie Eaton, looking ancient though she was only 56), wife of the zombie Captain (Frank Hagney), keeps issuing warnings no one takes seriously even after the casualties start piling up. Jeff Clark (Gregg Palmer), an oily-haired deep-sea diver, has been hired by unscrupulous (and in retrospect unfortunately-named) George Harrison (Joel Ashley) to get the diamonds.