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One of the typically toothless zombie pictures produced in between Val Lewton's atmospheric I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and George Romero's blood-curdling Night of the Living Dead (1968), Zombies of Mora-Tau (1957) was a pedestrian B-movie effort, even by the lower-than-normal standards of quickie Columbia Pictures producer Sam Katzman. Released in many areas on a double-bill with the equally slow-moving The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957), Katzman's zombie picture - directed by Edward L. Cahn - lacked some much-needed pacing and atmosphere, but featured performances by such sci-fi genre favorites as Allison Hayes (Attack of the 50-Foot Woman -1958) and Morris Ankrum (Invaders from Mars -1953) .
Zombies of Mora-Tau begins with a bang, or at least a loud thump: Jan Peters (Autumn Russell) arrives after a ten-year absence to the coastal African home of her great-grandmother (Marjorie Eaton). While approaching the estate, Jan's driver Sam (Gene Roth) hits a man walking in the middle of the road. When Jan protests, Sam replies "It wasn't a man - it was one of them." At the same time, a group of treasure hunters arrive at the location to dive off the coast. It is well-known among salvage ship owners that in 1894, The Susan B sunk off the island of Mora-Tau with a fabulous diamond treasure aboard. The ship owner George Harrison (Joel Ashley) arrives with his sexy wife Mona (Allison Hayes), ace diver Jeff Clark (Gregg Palmer), and the scientist of the group, Dr. Jonathon Eggert (Morris Ankrum). The salvage group immediately clash with Grandmother Peters, who believes that the treasure is guarded by the ten dead crew members from The Susan B, including her own husband. A zombie has already killed one of Harrison's crew, and yet the diving team doesn't believe her story. Grandmother Peters shows them the graves of several previous diamond hunters - A German group in 1914, a British group in 1923, a Portuguese expedition in 1928, and a previous group of Americans in 1938 - all killed by zombies. Apparently always prepared, Grandmother Peters also has fresh empty graves ready to be filled with more adventurers! When Jan is kidnapped by a zombie, Jeff follows them to a jungle mausoleum, where the zombies rest when they are not wandering around underwater. Jan is rescued, and the divers begin operations to recover the diamonds and avoid the zombies.
The exteriors for Zombies of Mora-Tau were filmed at a popular location outside Los Angeles called Baldwin Ranch, located near the Santa Anita Racetrack. The topography there included lakes and patches of dense foliage which could be dressed with minimal effort and passed off as a variety of exotic locales. The interiors for the film were shot on small Columbia soundstages, and that included the underwater sequences. The numerous shots of the divers and zombies fussing over the contents of a shipwreck were filmed, rather unconvincingly, dry-for-wet with a camera positioned to shoot through a stationary fish tank in the foreground!
Speaking with interviewer Tom Weaver (in Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes: Interviews with Actors, Directors, Producers and Writers of the 1940s through 1960s, 1991), leading man Gregg Palmer recalled his role as one "...I'll never forget. The producers hired a bunch of wrestlers to play the zombies and they caught me a couple of times within the film. They would grab me and literally pick me up and throw me against a palm tree! And I could hear my vertebrae just cracking, going down! Then one of the wrestlers would say, 'Come here, Gregg.' I'd walk over to him, he'd turn me around and lift me up and pop my back for me, and put it back into place!" Palmer also explained why director Edward Cahn was known for his lightning shooting speed on the set: "...he knew what he wanted and he always had his shots all lined up. He was once a film cutter, and directors who had film cutting experience know in their heads as they go in just how they're going to cut it and what they need."
The credited screenwriter of Zombies of Mora-Tau, Raymond T. Marcus, was actually Bernard Gordon, using a pseudonym because he was currently being blacklisted in Hollywood. Gordon had only amassed a few screen credits by 1952, when he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee then investigating Communist influence in the entertainment industry. He did not testify, but was named by others who did. Under the Marcus name, Gordon wrote several screenplays during the decade, including other science fiction movies for Sam Katzman, such as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957). For producer Charles H. Schneer, Gordon also wrote Hellcats of the Navy (1957), the only film to costar Ronald Reagan with his future wife, Nancy Davis. Later, Gordon (using Philip Yordan as his "front") adapted a John Wyndham novel into the screenplay for the British production The Day of the Triffids (1962), a vast improvement from the Katzman Columbia quickies he worked on in the 1950s.
Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: Edward L. Cahn
Screenplay: Bernard Gordon (as Raymond T. Marcus), story by George H. Plympton
Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline
Film Editing: Jack Ogilvie
Art Direction: Paul Palmentola
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Gregg Palmer (Jeff Clark), Allison Hayes (Mona Harrison), Autumn Russell (Jan Peters), Joel Ashley (George Harrison), Morris Ankrum (Dr. Jonathon Eggert), Marjorie Eaton (Grandmother Peters), Karl 'Killer' Davis (Zombie).
by John M. Miller