Thursday, 14 January 2016

Zombies of Mora Tau (The Dead that Walk) - review

1957 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

'In the darkness of an ancient world - on a shore that time has forgotten there is a twilight zone between life and death. There dwell those nameless creatures who are condemned to prowl the land eternally - The Walking Dead."

Director Edward L. Cahn's oldie worldly African adventure presents somewhat of a dilemma. Undoubtedly an important milestone in zombie cinema, ambitious with a remarkably high body count for a film of its time and ilk, and well-presented and put together, there's a lot to admire. Yet as a whole it just doesn't quite hold together, even taking into account a three-quarters of century shift in cultural appetite. Firmly a serious horror-action adventure the film gets straight to the point, the zombies are front and centre occupying plenty of screen time and action, and deaths come quick and fast; the film does everything right even by today's attention-deficit standards. But this is perhaps it's failing. With a narrative that feels harried, and interaction that while often delightful, more often feels forced and presumptive; the films comes across as just trying that bit too hard without the requisite nuance or subtlety. A scene to scene action film can work but the script has to be tight, cohesive and constantly self-invigorating and sadly The Zombies of Mora Tau fails on all three counts.

It's deepest darkest colonial Africa; not quite Conrad's Heart of Darkness but certainly a jumping off point. Just off the lake shore, a stone's throw from widow Grandmother Peters (Marjorie Eaton) grand colonial house sits the wreck of the Susan B, its cursed diamond treasure, and what should be the corpses of the twenty or so souls that perished as it was returning its ill-gotten gains to the new world. Except the scuttled ship lies uninhabited and the souls who perished aren't at rest. As the preface informed us; they're the walking dead, condemned to prowl the earth and waters, in this case to protect the diamond cargo and punish all who try to claim it as their own.

This is of course is where captain and mission underwriter George Harrison (Joel Ashley) and his crew fit in, as they intend to complete what all else have failed. It's a good story; Harrison, his coquettish wife Mona (Allison Hayes), the target of her wayward affections, lead diver Jeff Clark (Gregg Palmer) and African archaeologist Dr. Jonathan Eggert (Morris Ankrum) take refuge in Granny Peters and her recently returned granddaughter Jan's (Autumn Russell) house, and start to unravel the mystery. Along the way Jan gets carried off into the jungle by a zombie, Mona runs off into the jungle and the men drink brandy, do breakfast,  squabble about who should have what, and and forge ahead regardless of all the warnings.

The zombies are the walking dead, some seven years before The Last Man of Earth, some eleven years before Romero and a full half decade before its namesake series debuted and changed zombies and popular culture forever. Whilst voodoo is mentioned, here though there's no life and death ambiguity, nor, no priest or priestess enslaving the living as eternal servants; the walking dead are dead, are-no-more, ceased-to-be... They don't breathe, have no pulse, have no free-will and no morality. They are shells, echoes of their former selves and one of the first instances of the zombie untethered from another's will. As with other zombie films, there is still of course a guiding drive; though here it's not hunger, reproduction or blood-lust but the curse to ensure the diamonds aren't taken away, which in many ways makes them more akin to draugr, ancient ghouls tasked with protecting their treasure, and a mythology more Norse and Germanic than African. Also, it's the 1950s so there's no gouging or teeth sinking and certainly no unquenchable hunger for human flesh in the efforts to carry out their calling, so the zombies have to resort to strangling, stabbing and punching, though in a way that's still for its time quite dark and edgy. There's also an imperviousness to gun-shots, and other physical damage, with only a weakness to fire, again rather forward thinking.

An important and rather unheralded part of the zombie story, The Zombies of Mora Tau plays around with many tropes that eventually become main-stays. Yet while certainly not a bad film, the effects haven't weathered the passage of time, the script and acting, especially the role of the women of the film; primarily as hysterical victim, wanton floozy or doting or grieving wife all seems rather uncomfortably outdated, and, or hokey. With a set-up, story and narrative that had the potential to be gripping, enthralling and immensely original, that it ended up feeling so laboured, forced, repetitious and most disappointingly, merely adequate is a shame; especially for something so pivotal - 5/10.


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