Heaven bless the great Sam Katzman — aka: “Jungle Sam,” for all the low-rent jungle “epics” he produced. About 20 years ago (horrible as this is to contemplate) when I was contributing chapters to film historian John McCarty’s delightfully titled The Sleaze Merchants, I made the case — and won it — for old Sam’s inclusion in the book. This, after all, was the man who gave us the “Monogram Nine” — those amazingly threadbare Bela Lugosi vehicles made at Monogram Pictures between 1941 and 1944. He also brought us the East Side Kids (who twice crossed over into the “Monogram Nine”) movies. And let’s not forget those — Johnny-Weissmuller-is-too-old-and-too-fat-to-play-Tarzan-anymore — “Jungle Jim” movies where the former ape man traded in his loin cloth for khakis and a pith helmet (and still talked like Tarzan). Openly contemptuous of his audience — Katzman once stated that he thought that people who went to his movies must be mentally ill — he was the original schlockmeister hustler.
In the 1950s his major claim to fame — or at least a place in movie history — was the series of B sci-fi and horror pictures (usually directed by Edward L. Cahn or Fred F. Sears) he knocked out for Columbia. I don’t suppose any of them are good in the strict sense of the word, but they’re all entertaining. Possibly the best of the lot is Cahn’s Zomies of Mora Tau, which — while following the template of White Zombie (1932) in broad strokes — established a new kind of lurching dead that was under its own power. Their main claim to fame is that you can back them down with fire, but you can’t kill them — and they’re pretty darn tenacious about claiming some diamonds that belong to them. Thereby hangs the film’s slender plot about some adventurers — and pneumatic bad girl (Allison Hayes of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman fame) — coming the island of zombies to snag these diamonds. Things do not go well for those who are greedy for gain, of course.
The surprising thing about the film is that it’s pretty solidly made. Oh, it’s obvious that the budget was trimmed at every opportunity — check out those dry-land “underwater” scenes — but it looks good. The sets are solid and the lighting and camerawork are very atmospheric. (If you saw it when you were a child, you probably remember it as more gruesome than it is, though.) The acting — apart from hammy Marjorie Eaton as the old woman who knows the score and 1950s sci-fi/horror stalwart Morris Ankrum — is…well, perfunctory, but you don’t go to a picture like Zombies of Mora Tau to witness great acting. No, you come to see zombies — and that’s what this picture delivers.