I am so sick of zombies.
Don't get me wrong, there are still some zombie movies being made that I have enjoyed and there are ways to tell a zombie story that won't make me just roll my eyes and move on. On the whole, however, I am absolutely sick of them and would not complain if horror movies were to declare them off-limits for the foreseeable future.
So when I began putting together my list of HubrisWeen films I declared that I was going to do my damnedest to avoid any film with "Zombie" in the title for my Z film. I quickly began to realize this was a doomed effort.
But then I realized: why not choose a zombie movie that isn't full of Romero-style flesh eaters? Why not choose a film about traditional zombies?
Yes, indeed that proved easier to swallow.
We open with a title card telling us that there exists a "twilight zone" between life and death, and the poor souls trapped in this in-between become--"The Walking Dead!" So that's two hit television shows that didn't exist yet name-dropped in the opening.
As an illustration of what the title card is referring to, we join our heroine Jan Peters (Autumn Russell) as she is being driven to her childhood home in Mora Tau, Africa. I'm not sure what part of Africa but it's whichever coast looks identical to California and is completely devoid of absolutely any black people. Though given this is 1957, I should probably be glad of that.
On the road, Jan spies a strange, shambling figure (Karl "Killer" Davis) covered in seaweed heading towards their car. To her horror, the driver, Sam (Gene Roth), runs the man over without any remorse--breaking a headlight in the process. Sam apologizes to Jan for not stopping, but tells her that her grandmother will explain. Well, Grandmother Peters (Marjorie Eaton) explains that the man was "one of them" and Jan expresses dismay that her mother still believes in that voodoo nonsense. Jan is still skeptical even after, later that evening, she sees her grandmother standing by the launch landing as another man with the same shambling gait walks right past the old woman and wades into the water until he disappears from view.
Mrs. Peters won't be the only believer soon. A ship has anchored off the coast, which proves to be a salvage expedition run by George Harrison (Joel Ashley), who is after some legendary diamonds supposedly found in the wreck of the Susan B, which lies 100 feet below their very position. He has hired professional diver Jeff Clark (Gregg Palmer) to help secure these diamonds. Though Harrison's wife, Mona (Allison Hayes, better known as the titular giantess of Attack of the 50-Foot Woman), would like to invite Jeff to do a complete different kind of diving, if you catch my drift. The expedition's last member is Dr. Jonathan Eggert (Morris Ankrum, here not playing a general), who is along solely because of the legends attached to the diamonds--he's some kind of an anthropologist or some such, and he actually doesn't want a share of the loot.
The group toasts to their luck and, in a truly baffling bit, Mona throws her arms around Jeff and George responds to Jeff's discomfort with, "Oh, can't you take a kiss without making something out of it?" Whereupon Mona plants a big, wet kiss on Jeff and George looks on with a completely inscrutable expression. Is he angry? Amused? Hoping for a threeway? You got me.
At any rate, the crew are properly welcomed to the waters of Mora Tau when a mysterious figure rises out of the water and grabs one of their sailors. Another sailor fires at the attacker and is certain he hit the man, but it's no good. The sailor is fished out of the water, dead. His neck was broken, so at least he wasn't a victim of friendly fire. Naturally, when they put ashore Mrs. Peters and Jan are waiting for them and Mrs. Peters demonstrates that she knows that they lost a man, and furthermore she knows how.
See, Dr. Eggert had written to Mrs. Peters to let her know of their coming, so she got herself ready for the inevitability of their demise. She shows them a graveyard full of impromptu grave markers indicating 1906, 1914, 1923, 1928, and 1938--the years of various European and American expeditions that have come to raid the Susan B and instead found themselves victims of the zombies that guard the cursed treasure. Those zombies used to be the crew of the Susan B, who had found the diamonds in an ancient temple and attempted to make off with them, only to perish and sink under mysterious circumstances. The captain of that vessel was one John Peters (Frank Hagney), and you can guess whose husband he used to be.
Mrs. Peters has helpfully had graves dug for Harrison's expedition and the dead sailor is deposited into one just as Mona falls into another. Terrifying enough on its own, but Mona is suddenly overcome with terror because she is certain the grave was meant to be hers.
It doesn't help that, shortly afterward, one of the strange men wanders into the bedroom that Jan and Mona are in. Jerry's attempt to physically force the zombie through the outside door nearly gets him killed, but Mrs. Peters shows them the one true way to drive away the walking dead--a lit torch. The zombies are terrified of fire, perhaps, she muses, because it's the only thing that can destroy them. Don't expect anybody to actually test that hypothesis, though.
|Mona, Jan, and Grandmother Peters: Badass.
Meanwhile, to Mona's disappointment, Jerry has taken a shine to Jan. After some painful 1950s flirting, Jan tells him about running down the zombie on the road and he decides they should grab a Very pistol--since if fire scares them, so should flares--and drive out to the scene of the collision to see if the zombie survived. Sure enough, they find the headlight fragments and the footprints of the zombie leading from the direction of the bay to the road...and then on past where the accident should have killed him. Showing some actual sense, Jerry says he'll mark the spot and they'll come back during daylight to investigate further. Naturally, the danger of the night is somewhat undercut by the fact that this sequence is so obviously day-for-night that the couple's flashlights aren't even on!
Unfortunately, when Jerry goes back to the car, the zombie decides it has had enough of just watching them from the treeline and grabs Jan to carry her off. Jerry stabs the zombie in the throat and then just gets slapped away for his troubles. When he comes to, the zombie has gotten far enough into the jungle that only Jan briefly regaining consciousness to scream allows him to follow her kidnapper to a mausoleum in a jungle cemetery. Jan has been laid out on an altar of some sort in the mausoleum, and Jerry is just in time as the zombies rise from their sarcophagi to...do something to her. Well, Jerry uses the Very gun to dissuade the zombies from doing whatever it is that a group of zombies who haven't yet learned to gutmunch would do to a prone victim. He then rescues Jan.
|"Hello!" "Hello! "Hellloooooo!"
The next morning, after having apparently spent all night telling his story to Dr. Eggert, Jerry asserts that he is certain he could find the jungle cemetery again if necessary. But that will have to wait, because it's time for Jerry to make his first dive down to the Susan B. Jerry hits bottom right next to the wreck, and discovers that the safe is easily visible from the outside--but then he's ambushed by a zombie. After a quick struggle, the zombie disconnects Jerry's airhose. (Which, I swear, is accompanied by a toilet flushing sound effect!) And, unfortunately, as Jerry himself already observed: zombies don't need to breathe, but he does.
A word on these diving sequences: obviously, the challenge was that they needed to have the zombies able to attack someone in a diving suit. And since there are no actual walking dead in Hollywood, they had to get around their zombies' need to breathe. Apparently this film's director didn't feel like taking the same path as Lucio Fulci, who hired a stuntman willing to hold his breath and wrestle a shark for Zombie, so the obvious alternative was to film the scenes on a dry set. So, how did they get around the problem of making it look like the diver was exhaling underwater?
By installing a bubble machine in the diving suit.
|Note bubbles emerging from the helmet.
Jerry is hauled up before he completely suffocates and taken back to the Peters house, where Mrs. Peters offers an herbal remedy to stimulate his breathing since the nearest hospital is too far away to help him in time. Mona is convinced that Mrs. Peters is behind all this zombie nonsense that it takes Jan tasting the remedy to convince her it's not poison. Even then, when Jerry comes to and Mona walks in on Jan tending to him, she gets so rude with Jan that George barges in and backhands her. He gets so violent, in fact, that Mona chooses to run out into the jungle to get away from him. To the other characters' credit, they do seem at least disgusted by George's violence even though they don't do anything to stop it.
Night falls, and Mona still hasn't returned. Mrs. Peters tells the others that the zombies have Mona and if they've had her this long, it's too late for her. Still, George, Jerry, Dr. Eggert, and two sailors make the trek to the mausoleum and find Mona lying on her back on the floor. The zombies rise as Mona is carried away and it's only by setting a gasoline fire at the door to the mausoleum that the group escapes. However, Mrs. Peters immediately declares that Mona is dead when she sees the woman's blank stare and shambling gait.
Naturally, the others dismiss the only person who's been around zombies for 50-odd years and take her into a bedroom. She won't close her eyes and go to sleep, so George stops watching for for a minute--and she immediately grabs a switchblade and wanders into the room where the two sailors are sleeping. (In the same bed, I might add, so--hello, sailor!) She stabs one and goes after the other, who woke up in time to escape his fellow's fate. In a combination of very well-made rubber prop and very good sound design (I hope!), the surviving sailor throws a candlestick at Mona and hits her right in the forehead. She doesn't even wince and advances until the others hear his scream and restrain Mona. At Mrs. Peters' urging, the zombified woman is returned to her bed and then surrounded by lit candles.
|"Turn around, bright eyes..."
George is quickly swarmed because, again, he refuses to actually use the torch on the zombies. Perhaps because the "torches" are clearly some kind of reflective plastic meant to simulate a focused flame. George is hauled up safely, and Jeff manages to crack open the safe and extract the chest containing the diamonds. He's then hauled up as well...
...only that chest is a homing beacon. And, in a sequence foretelling so many zombie movies to follow, they swarm the deck of the salvage ship. The torches they have aboard burn down too quickly and the flares run out. The sailors all jump overboard and swim to shore--luckily for them all the zombies are on deck--but George (who was somehow wounded during the dive), Dr. Eggert, and Jerry are trapped in the cabin with the zombies trying to bust their way inside.
Jerry hits on a way to save them all from certain death, not that George is much a fan of it. Jerry fashions a torch, grabs the chest, and hops in the launch to head to shore. George may be convinced Jerry is cheating him, but even he can't deny that the zombies break off their attack to follow the chest. When Jerry lands in the bay and comes into the house, Mrs. Peters helps him to figure out how to open the chest and extract the diamonds--which he hides in Jan's scarf. But Mrs. Peters insists the diamonds must be destroyed to end the curse. Jerry feels that surely selling the diamonds would do just as well, especially in America with an ocean for the zombies to have to walk through in order to follow him.
Oh, but they're already following.
|Diamonds are a ghoul's best friend.
Well, Jerry convinces Jan and Mrs. Peters to leave with him. But when they get to the launch, the zombies return--having somehow figured out that the chest was empty. And now, in what I can only assume is a function of the filmmakers realizing they were almost at the 70 minute mark and needed to cut things short for matinee length, the film just completely drops any pretense of logic.
Mrs. Peters sees her husband standing there in his waterlogged uniform and, seeing her face, Jerry relents and gives her the diamonds to "destroy." This means that Mrs. Peters drops them over the side of the launch into the shallow water of the bay (!) and then Captain Peters suddenly disappears (!) leaving his clothes behind. "I'll never be rich again," Jerry sighs, because apparently no one could ever possibly retrieve diamonds from five feet of water. The End.
So, when the diamonds were under 100 feet of water that could only be reached by experienced divers, the zombies were cursed because somebody could find those diamonds--but when they're in water shallow enough that your average kindergartner could retrieve them, the zombies are finally at peace?! Yeah, the only way that ending makes any sense is if they were trying to wrap things up as quickly as possible and ran out of ideas.
Up to that point, Zombies of Mora Tau is actually a very enjoyable pulp adventure. Not only do you have a pack of creepy zombies, but you have Allison Hayes vamping it up as a femme fatale and Marjorie Eaton being a badass old lady who fearlessly faces down zombies while also not being as reckless about it as all of her male costars--most of whom nearly kill themselves in the process.
And, of course, you can't downplay the fact that this film is rather unique in the realm of zombie lore. These zombies are of the traditional variety: resurrected corpses brought to life by magic or voodoo. However, unlike most traditional zombie films there is no zombie master. These zombies aren't doing the bidding of a mortal villain: they're somehow controlled by those cursed diamonds. As such they're weirdly similar to the Romero-style zombies we all know and are absolutely sick of these days.
Bottom line, this film is a very enjoyable romp full of delightful pulp tropes--and adorable bubble effects--that completely falls apart at the very end. But as I said, it's only 70 minutes long, so it breezes by quickly enough that you don't really mind that it trips over its own feet in the last 2.
Did I mention the bubble machine? Because that's still just so adorable.
Welcome to Day 26, as we bring HubrisWeen to a close. It has been a wild ride and I highly suggest you check out how my compatriots chose to end their journey. (Hint: It's really, really hard to avoid a movie with "Zombie" in its title)
Will we do this again next year? Stay tuned to find out...