Zombies of Mora Tau
Starring Autumn Russell, Gregg Palmer, Allison Hayes and Marjorie Eaton
Original working title Zombies of the Ocean Deep
Released March 1957
"Here dwell those nameless creatures who are condemned to prowl the land eternally... the Walking Dead."
Problem is, they don't really prowl. They stiffly propel themselves in painstakingly slow steps, wrapped in old sailor-outfits right out of a Popeye cartoon, garnished with seaweed. And they're slow, just like the progression of the plot.
Allison Hayes (she of the famous Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) is perhaps the most well known member of the cast (though Gregg Palmer, as deep-sea diver Jeff Clark, has a long list of Cowboy work to his credit, in particular 6 films with John Wayne).
Allison isn't put to much use in this film from B-Movie producer-maestro Sam Katzman. She provides snide sneers at her screen husband (Joel Ashley) and at Autumn Russell (her competition in the female victim category), makes a drunken pass at Gregg Palmer's character, lays about on the furniture in the background of various scenes and finally gets turned into a zombie (then she too becomes agonizingly slow).
Diamonds of Mora Tau
The story (by George Plympton and Bernard Gordon) is about a cache of ancient diamonds kept aboard a sunken ship, guarded by it's undead crew. Though these undead sailors can move around underwater (they walk about on the seafloor by way of rather unconvincing camera special effects). The sailor zombies are actually sensibly headquartered in a crypt on the mainland, all bunking together in a single room with a selection of caskets arranged in an orderly line. There are no lids on these coffins, because like a fire department that might get a call in the middle of the night, there's no telling when this crew might have to go out and stop the next greedy diamond expedition that comes along.
And there's been quite a few. When the current expedition appears on this "African coastline" (it's actually Santa Anita, California), the elderly Marjorie Eaton (as Grandma Peters) cheerfully gives everyone a tour of the graveyard, describing the end result of past diamond hunters who crossed the zombie's path.
Slowness of Mora Tau
Gregg Palmer puts energy into his scenes, as does Autumn Russell, but for the most part the cast seems to be moving at a slowed-down pace. There are too many scenes of people walking or running around the old house where Grandma Peters lives, a common signal from a B-movie director that he doesn't have enough story and is just trying to fill time. Some scenes appear under-rehearsed, with too many pauses and gaps between the bits of dialogue, wrecking the appearance of an actual conversation taking place, making it appear that the actors can't quite hear each other clearly. This isn't a problem with Palmer or Russell, though. They're in a serious business of trying to put some life into this glacial movie, which vanishes once they go off screen.
The Lewton connection
Interesting note, the movie starts off with Autumn Russell (as Jan Peters) returning to be with her Grandma, traveling down a forbidding dark roadway (where the car plows over a zombie blocking the road, the nonchalant driver shrugging it off as an everyday occurrence). But this road trip hearkens directly to Val Lewton's I Walked with A Zombie, which starts in a similar fashion with a similar trip and monolog from a driver about the voodoo afoot in the local countryside.*
But that's as far as the comparison goes between Lewton's film and Zombies of Mora Tau, which is plagued with common B-movie problems. Logic doesn't rule this movie script, and most of the plot is an arrangement of chase vignettes for us to look at the statuesque Allison Hayes or Autumn Russell screaming (both she and Hayes are good at this), or the ponderous zombie sailors walking (not quite menacing as they seem sleepy and half-blind). At times, Director Cahn simply sets up his camera to aim square down the set and films the actors like they're doing a stage play, a stodgy look that adds to the general mediocrity.
During the 1950s many a movie used underwater photography as part of the pitch for an exciting film (for example Creature from the Black Lagoon and Boy on a Dolphin) but the under-water photography in Zombies of Mora Tau is apparently faked. Gregg Palmer and Joel Ashley put on deep sea diving suits, but the only parts that look legitimate are when they're being hoisted into or out of the water. Anything in the 'deep sea' department looks like camera work shot through a fish tank, with Palmer and Ashley (and those undead sailors) walking about on a darkly-lit, plain old landlubber movie set.
A few good words
The moody cinematography by Benjamin H. Kline is nice (and doesn't cheat on the night-shots, which is where the bulk of the movie takes place), and the cast is interesting to look at (despite serious gaps in the acting department). The sets are limited and sometimes laughable (like the zombie crypt) and its all re-used repeatedly and from the same camera angle over and over, but it is charming in the way of many old monster films.
The zombie sailors are like prototype extras for the much later Disney Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and the basic plot (cursed diamonds and haunted sailors) is surely reminiscent of those Disney mega-hits. But the writing and directing on Zombies of Mora Tau seems rushed (or lazy) and the slow pacing derails any momentum built up from a good scene. And there are some good scenes.
When Gregg Palmer finally chucks the diamonds into the water (which defeats the greediness he's been battling within himself and also releases the undead zombies to eternity) it at least prevents any obvious pathway to a sequel.
Related: Allison Hayes
*The Val Lewton/Jacques Tournier I Walked with A Zombie is the B-Movie gold-standard when it comes to old Hollywood Zombie films of the black-and-white era, Lewton's film being a literate and well-made Caribbean-voodoo reworking of the Bronte novel Jane Eyre.
Original Page Oct 2015+ | Updated July 2020
Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Movemaking
352 pages - Published by Harry N. Abrams
"This is, quite simply, one of the finest books I’ve ever read about Hollywood." Leonard Maltin
Reproduces in full color scores of entertaining and insightful pieces of correspondence from some of the most notable and talented film industry names of all time—from the silent era to the golden age, and up through the pre-email days of the 1970s. Annotated by the authors to provide backstories and further context. Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Cary Grant, Francis Ford Coppola, Tom Hanks, and Jane Fonda.