Monday, July 23, 2007

Ed Cahn & Bernard Gordon

I watched a film recently which that pleasantly surprised me. Surprise after surprise met me when I delved deeper into its history. The film, Zombies of Mora Tau, 1957, directed by little known B genius Ed Cahn should be a lot better known than it is. Cahn made dozens of B pictures in his lifetime, not the least of which is Invisible Invaders, which the second half of this review will concern. Cahn was, as others have suggested, a successful version of Ed Wood, making sci-fi, westerns and war pictures, garnering at least decent commercial success. Among his 124 credits as the man in the chair we have Creature With The Atom Brain, Invasion of the Saucermen, and It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Cahn, though not exactly Marcel Carne was talented enough to occasionally make a film whose weaknesses were easily overlooked in favor of it’s strengths, which given their subject matter were often considerable. One such example of his competence and strong style was Zombies of Mora Tau, which I found simply because it had the word 'zombie' in the title. More interesting still is that when it ran on TCM it was side by side with another film from around the same time called The Man Who turned To Stone, which matched Zombies for it’s charm, and workmanlike quality. I found out soon after that that their similarities could be explained by the fact that they shared a writer: Bernard Gordon. Gordon was a screenwriter for universal who was blacklisted two pictures into his career; he was turned over to HUAC by his boss William Alland. He wrote much of his body of work under the pseudonym Raymond T. Marcus. Gordon deserves props for being the first screenwriter to propose that zombies beget other zombies and for showing us an extemporaneous 50s movie romance that makes sense. Cahn deserves similar praise for bringing two wholly original zombie films to the screen while the world waited for George A. Romero.

Zombies Of Mora Tau
by Ed Cahn

A woman visits her aunt in an African coastal town where she lives in a mansion with her serving staff. She's greeted by all kinds of weird; her chauffeur runs a guy down en route to the house and everyone seems real keen on forgetting the whole thing ever happened; the closest thing resembling an explanation from the couple driving is that the man was one of “them”. Meanwhile out on the water, a band of aquatic scumbags celebrate the commencement of a plan to steal diamonds from the wreckage of a forgotten ship. Legend has it in fact that the men who drowned guard the wreckage to keep scavengers like our square-jawed heroes away from the goods. Pretty straight forward stuff: the men encounter the zombies and our heroines in the manse. The zombies are pretty well done, technically that is. They remain partially enshrouded in darkness for a good deal of their screentime and some of the shots of them emerging from the jungle and the sea were pretty cool. As for Gordon’s script, the behavior of his characters is believable under the circumstances and the aforementioned romantic subplot is hardly romantic and helps move things along. After all, if you were rich, wouldn’t you ask the most beautiful women you knew to marry you?

Invisible Invaders
by Ed Cahn
In this movie, zombies are again in the limelight, but this time it’s something more ominous than a vendetta. This time the dead walk the earth because Aliens are taking over the world. They first inhabit the body of a scientist (John Carradine) who warns his old partner that things better change or some stock footage of the apocalypse will roll in. It’s up to three scientists and John Agar to hole up in a bunker and see what reveals the aliens beneath the dead skin. Ok, plot’s kind of…cool? Silly? I don’t know, but, that’s not why I watch these films (though a good one never hurts and the bad ones always do). I watch these films to see the zombies (and the racism). The zombies are pioneer zombies; out of the jungle, in business suits, turning man against his brother, wounds still fresh. They can even be kind of creepy. Fancy that. Present in Invaders is just about everything Romero would use in Night, Dawn & Day of the Dead, save for the idea of Zombies turning people into Zombies. Military complex, holing up in a small space to hold over the crisis and turning against one another in the process, leaving safety for ill-fated rescue attempts, zombies in plainclothes. The only difference here is that aliens are bringing about the trouble directly in Invaders. We're never quite sure what causes them in Night, though there are some pretty strong overtones of science-gone-awry. But that's talk for another day. At least John Agar is coy about his idea of courtship.

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