March 22, 2011

Ten Dead Men

Zombies of Mora Tau (1957)
Directed by Edward L. Cahn
Starring:
Gregg Palmer as Jeff Clark
Allison Hayes as Mona Harrison
Autumn Russell as Jan Peters
Joel Ashley as George Harrison
Marjorie Eaton as Grandma Peters

The zombie evolution in movie history is a lurching march of ever increasing levels of physical corruption and widening areas of infestation.

In the first zombie movies, beginning with White Zombie (Helperin, 1932) and continuing through early genre entries like King of the Zombies (Yarbrough, 1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (Tourneur, 1943), the walking dead are small in number and of the "traditional" zombie classification; i.e., corpses that have been revived for the purposes of control by an overseer - often a wizard or sorcerer gifted with supernatural powers. The zombies in these early films move as though in a trance, are completely absent of souls or individual will, and display no bodily corruption beyond the pre-existing conditions of their death. They appear lifeless, with coal-darkened eye sockets, a bloodless luminescence or chalkiness, and perhaps milky irises.


Zombie of Mora Tau

The most significant evolutionary step came with Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968); which introduced the concept of a zombie apocalypse. In Night, the undead rose not at the bidding of a mastermind, but as the result of atomic radiation from a fallen satellite. Also, Night introduced the zombie as cannibalistic carnivore and the exponential growth of a zombie population through an infectious bite.

The final, significant development in the zombie ladder of evolution came with one hell of a double whammy: Dawn of the Dead (Romero, 1978) and, more importantly, Zombi II (Fulci, 1979). Both these films featured zombies with profound levels of corporal decay absent from previous movies. Most evident in Fulci's work, zombies decay rapidly as would a corpse exposed to the elements. This trend of physical degeneration has continued to the current day without changing significantly beyond Fulci's maggot-crawling putrefaction. Zombie movies have progressed along the same gore-filled line as have horror films: Splatter has replaced atmosphere. Filmmakers strive for a sense of visceral repulsion, even nausea, which has become the new "scary."

Interesting also is the burgeoning popularity of the zombie genre. After the milestone, White Zombie (still my favorite zombie picture), appeared in 1932, the next ten years saw approximately 19 international films in which zombies, or the undead, played a crucial element. To appreciate the intense appeal of the zombie mythos, one need only compare these humble beginnings to the output in 2010, wherein movie lovers enjoyed the release of over 100 zombie-themed movies within a single year.*

Zombies of Mura Tau falls in the late first cycle of zombie movies and, true to form, the zombies are shambling, inexpressive hulks exhibiting no body rot despite having been dead for many years. Yet, with Mora Tau, one can sense changes in zombie evolution that would be ushered in more fully after Night of the Living Dead. That is, the dead of Mura Tau rise and are driven not by the bidding of an individual or mastermind. In fact, this is the first zombie picture where the zombies have a collective will of their own, separate from a living man or sorcerer. The back story of the zombies of Mora Tau goes like this:

The Susan B., a 19th century trading vessel, took harbor along a forsaken stretch of African coastline looking for supplies. While in port, the sailors discovered a lost temple in the nearby jungle, and within this temple they discovered a golden cask full of uncut diamonds. The sailors stole the diamonds and a ferocious fight broke out among the men over possession of the cask. Ten men were killed and left dead in the jungle - the ship's captain among them. The remaining sailors returned to the ship with the cask. Before the ship left port, however, the ten dead men, re-animated by a temple curse, returned to the ship as the undead, slaughtered the crew, and scuttled the ship in the bay. These ten zombies were then cursed to guard the cask of diamonds from all thieves and fortune hunters for all eternity.

Our story begins a generation later. We find the widowed wife of Captain Jeremy Peters, late of the Susan B., living in an estate on the African coast where her husband's ship sank. The captain's widow (Marjorie Eaton) has been living in Africa since the turn of the century after hearing native rumors of her dead husband being seen roaming the jungle. Over the years, Mrs. Peters has learned of the temple curse and of her husband's walking death. The old woman lives by herself, still dresses in mourning black, and waits for the opportunity to somehow release her sea-bound, undead husband from his terrible zombie curse.

Into this somber, dank setting come two factions. The first is the arrival of Jan Peters (Autumn Russell), granddaughter of the Mora Tau matriarch, returning home to Africa to visit her grandmother. The second is a ship full of fortune hunters led by George Harrison (Joel Ashley), who has heard the legend of the Susan B. and wants to salvage the diamonds from the scuttled wreck. Harrison has assembled a team who have come with him to Africa, the principals being his avarice, curvaceous wife, Mona (Allison Hayes); professional, square-jawed diver, Jeff Clark (Gregg Palmer); and writer/historian, Dr. Jonathan Eggert (Morris Ankrum) - who is writing a book on the legend of the Susan B. This crew has by pre-arrangement contracted the use of Grandma Peters house as a base of operations for their off-shore treasure hunting.

The movie begins with the youthful, terribly blonde and wide-eyed granddaughter, Jan Peters, being driven to her grandmother's estate through the back roads of the "dark continent" by family retainer and chauffer, Sam (Gene Roth).

"It's a good thing Africa hasn't completely changed," says Jan, peering out at the thick jungle passing by her window. "I was afraid after ten years you'd be driving me home on a superhighway."

"Not much has changed in this part of Africa, Miss Jan," replies Sam, keeping his world-weary eyes on the road. "Not in ten years. Not in fifty years."

Suddenly a large man, shabbily dressed and covered in seaweed, steps out of the jungle and stands in the road before them, blocking their way. Sam sets his jaw and, instead of swerving, gives it some gas. We hear a soft thump and see the car's occupants jostle.

"Sam!" squeals Jan, "Stop! You hit a man!"

"It wasn't a man," says Sam. "It was one of them."


Jan coming home. (Marjorie Eaton, Autumn Russell, and Gene Roth)

After arriving at the estate, Jan is a naturally a bit Jittery. She explains to her grandmother that they've hit a man, maybe killed him. Sam quickly explains that the "man" was covered in seaweed, that he had moved to stop the car. Grandma Peters simply nods her head, listening to Sam. Finally, she tells her granddaughter that there was no one in the road, that she should just go inside and freshen up. In response, Jan's face goes still. "So you still believe in this Voodoo," she says. "I thought it was all a nightmare from my childhood. I thought everything would be different."

Grandma Peters says calmly, "Later on, Jan, you can decide for yourself."

Meanwhile, offshore, the ship of treasure hunters is about to run into their own problems. As the men aboard the trawler prepare for their first crack at the Susan B., we are introduced to the crew, primarily Mona Harrison, wife of ship captain, George. Mona is busy slinking around an interior cabin in a very tight sweater with the primary men of the venture, sharing drinks and sizing them up by how each plans to spend his share of the diamonds. "Oh, now that's real romantic," she chides Jeff, the diver, her voice shedding layers of sarcasm, after he says he plans to put his money in the bank. She all but pastes herself against him as she speaks, ostensibly to give him a kiss for luck, and gazes up at him with naked lust.

"Your listing to port, Mona," says Jeff. "Your husband's the one over there."

"Oh, can't you take a friendly, little kiss without trying to make something out of it?" snarls George of the sinister, black mustache (George's ego and bluster is so huge, he clearly can't be seen admitting his wife would tear the clothes off Jeff - the hired help - with her teeth if given half a chance).

Jeff gives a shrug of his shoulders, sets his drink down, and squares himself; but before he can move in with manly authority, Mona closes the space like a leopard and locks him in a kiss that sucks the oxygen out of the cabin. George does a slow burn, but still can't comment without looking even more the fool.

"How about me, Mona?" says tall, avuncular Dr. Eggert, forgetting for the moment the rewards of academia. "Don't I get a kiss, too?"


"Listing to port." (Morris Ankrum, Gregg Palmer, Allison Hayes, and Joel Ashley)

"You don't get a share of the diamonds, doctor," says Mona, making things clear.

"But had I known what went with them," counters the doctor, "I would have insisted on a share." Mona gives him a look of carnal reconsideration for this bit of classy smart-assiness, which actually makes the doctor shift his feet around, realizing his wit has written a check he hasn't the resources to cash.

The sexual fencing comes to grinding halt after everyone gathers on deck for the lowering of the launch. As the boat is lowered down to the water line, we see a man (clearly one of them) swimming lazily around in the water, waiting. He lunges up out of the water and grabs a sailor over the rail of the launch. The swabby barely has a second to yelp before he is dragged under the waves. Hearing their comrade's cry for help, all come rushing to the rail. George pulls a revolver and fires two shots into the attacker. "I got him!" hollers George. "Both times!" The shots have no effect, however, and the two vanish below. A few moments later, the sailor bobs to the surface.

As they haul the sailor out of the drink, they discover he is dead from a broken neck. After some hectic discussion, they decide to take him to shore.

Back on shore, Grandma Peters has heard the shots and gone down to the water's edge with one of her many massive dogs. She stands looking out over the water, her dog barking nervously. Inside the house, Jan is preparing for bed when she hears the dog barking. She goes to the window and sees her grandmother. Jan stares into the dark, struggling to see, and realizes suddenly that her grandmother has been joined by another man near the shore in the gloaming. Jane sees her grandmother wave her cane at him, the gesture more a communication than threat; and he walks passed her, moving along the shoreline quickly. It's hard to tell in the dark, but he appears to walk right off into the water.

Jan rushes outside to the water's edge. "Who was it?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," says grandma. "You didn't learn such things in school." Jan, who will remain for most of the film in a wide-eyed state of disbelief and confusion, remarks that it looked like a man, and that he seemed to walk right off into the water.

Grandma Peters speaks while gazing out over the bay. "He came down to watch the ship arrive. I didn't expect them so soon. But after what happened to you on the road, I knew they'd be here tonight."

Right on cue the launch putters to shore, bearing the corpse of the dead sailor and a somewhat haggard bunch of fortune seekers. Dr. Eggert makes the introductions (it is clear that it was the doctor who has made the arrangements to stay at the Peters' home), and it is quickly understood that contacting the police over the murder of the sailor would be useless. There really are no police in Mora Tau, and any sort of law enforcement is days away. Grandma Peters insists that they bury the dead sailor promptly (her urgency suggests that the sailor may return to life, or be somehow turned into a zombie, but this is never made clear). Grandma Peters can't offer anything as fancy as a coffin, cut she can have Sam sew him up in some sailcloth. Jeff, showing sound reasoning, says "Well, he's dead. We may as well bury him. If the police want to dig him up later, that's their concern."

Next, grandma leads the principals to the house via a trail snaking down a hill through the edge of the Peters' estate graveyard. As they enter the yard, waving their lanterns around in the pitch darkness, they see a surprising number of graves, all arranged in neat groups marked by year in ascending order. These are the graves - the many graves - of past diamond hunting hopefuls. Grandma raises her voice like a tour guide and waves a cane at the first collection of markers:

"These are the graves of the first group that came after the diamonds. That was in 1906. They were British." And so it goes, with our troop marching in a line behind the matriarch, gazing around with increasing fear: "This was a German expedition in 1914. Just before the outbreak of war" Again the cane makes a pass. "Another British group tried their luck in 1923. Portuguese in 1928."


The Graveyard Tour - "This was the German expedition in 1914."

"What I want to know," says Jeff. "Is how did they die?"

Grandma turns to look at him, says nothing, and continues. She leads them to the final collection of markers and says, as if in answer, "The first Americans showed up ten years later in 1938."

The grim procession move through a bit of jungle into another, smaller part of the graveyard. Here they look down and see several freshly dug and open graves. "Yours is the sixth attempt to recover the diamonds," says grandma, hobbling along slowly.

Who's graves are these?" asks the blustering George.

"The first is for your dead sailor," says grandma, turning to face him.

After a pause, Jeff smirks grimly "And the others are for the rest of us."

"She's trying to scare us!" snaps George (who wears a silly captains hat as though clinging like a child to a rapidly deteriorating authority). "She wants the diamonds for herself!"

Grandma looks at George for a split second too long. She locks his eyes to hers. "I have learned that no one who comes for the diamonds can be frightened away."

Gratefully, the tension of this brutal tour (the elder Mrs. Peters need not submit her name this year for the annual Mora Tau Hospitality Award) is broken by a rustling as Mona screams behind them. She has slipped in her high heels and tumbled straight into a grave (and yes, this is foreshadowing). She claws frantically at the sides of the hole, screeching all the while, until the men pull her out. "That grave," she gasps cradled like a child in her husband's arms, "It's for me, I know it!" She faints, and the party moves into the estate house to put her into bed.

Once ensconced in the Peters' home, the film meanders a bit between scenes of the crew diving for the cask of diamonds and the principals fighting off zombie attacks at the home (unlike later films, the zombies in Mora Tau don't come in waves but as single emissaries). Mona is eventually captured by the zombies and turned into one of them; and Jeff, George, and Dr. Eggert track the ten dead men to a crypt on the cemetery grounds (The ten men of the temple curse rest somnambulant in their coffins, all in neat rows inside the crypt, until the call of the diamonds animates them to action). They manage to rescue Mona - or the dead thing that looks like Mona - from the zombie nest and return her to the home.

The moment they walk into the house, leading Mona as though she were sleepwalking, Mrs. Peters demonstrates her usual tact: "She's dead," says the old woman, her voice like an ax hitting the block.

Miraculously, George refuses to believe in this voodoo nonsense despite the fact that during the recent rescue of Mona, he and the others have just witnessed the ten men rise from their coffins. Grandma Peters refuses at first to keep Mona in the house but is persuaded by her daughter, Jan, to let her take a bedroom so she might "recover." That night, naturally, the undead Mona - having adapted the curse of the temple diamonds once zombified - goes on a knife-wielding rampage, killing one of the crewmen in his sleep (the calm, methodical way she sinks her knife into the man's sleeping body has a nice, creepy jolt). After disarming her, the principal players walk Mona back to her bed. As a precaution, Grandma Peters surrounds her bed with candles to keep her bed bound (The zombies of Mora Tau fear only fire).


Crewmen - late of the trading vessel, Susan B.

Finally, Jeff and George, diving as a team, manage to retrieve the diamonds; but by this time their always tenuous partnership completely dissolves and George steals the golden cask at gunpoint. Still imagining he might cure his wife, George leads undead Mona from the house and down to a waiting launch with the golden cask, and Mona follows the cask with the slow steps an automaton. Once they reach the shore, the ten zombies appear from the jungle nearby and begin to advance. While George frantically works at untying the launch, undead Mona (with the same, smooth ease she had knifed the sailor in his bed earlier), lifts the heavy cask off the ground and fractures his skull. Thunk! Mona carries the cask to her Zombie men, and they all melt back into the jungle (Hmmm. Mona and the Zombie Men. The imagination reels).

Meanwhile, we learn that Jeff has done a bait and switch. George was given an empty cask - Jeff still has the diamonds in a pouch, which he jiggles before the small group back at the house, grinning broadly. He wants to get them all to safety, whisk Jan away to New York; where they can live happily forever after on the riches provided by the diamonds.

Grandma Peters argues that the zombies will never stop following them. They will follow them to New York or anywhere else they may take the diamonds (Now that's a sequel I'd buy a ticket for! Jeff and Jan with a pocket full of diamonds, hunted through the streets of New York by a band of ten waterlogged zombies! I'm in!). The curse of the dead men, explains grandma Peters, is that they must follow the stolen diamonds wherever they go - for all eternity . The undead men can only find peace (and here's the beauty part of the curse) when someone of their own free will gives the precious diamonds away, scattering them to the sea, so no one may ever steal them again. This is the salvation for her husband, Captain Jeremy Peters, that the old woman has spent her lifetime waiting for.

Jeff is not persuaded. I'll sell the diamonds all over the city, he argues. They'll be scattered all over the world. What will the zombies do? Canvas every jewelry store on Fifth Avenue? (again - another great scene for the sequel). Grandma Peters refuses to leave, but Jeff tells her bluntly that he will carry her to the launch if he has to. She believes him, and all rush to the shore.

Just as they are ready to push the small boat into the bay, a single zombie appears. He seems particularly wan and haggard, covered in seaweed and wearing a captain's uniform. He stands near the shore and stares at the launch - in particular, at Grandma Peters.

Grandma Peters eyes glimmer in recognition, and she begins to cry. Her voice is cracked and weak. "Captain Peters. Must you go on?" She sits in the launch, completely defeated, her head bowed.

The three others look at one another, listening to the sobs of the old woman. Clearly, this was her final opportunity to see her husband released from his dreadful curse, and she has failed. Finally, and without a word, we watch Jeff surrender to his better nature. His shoulders slump. "All right," he says. He holds out the diamonds, gives them a shake so they rattle. The old woman is so grief torn, she doesn't understand. "Take them," says Jeff. "The diamonds, Mrs. Peters. They're yours. Do what your want with them." By his voice, one can tell Jeff is a bit disgusted with himself for his generosity - even a bit impatient with her slow understanding.

Grandma Peters can't believe it, and she is barely able to speak words of thanks, her voice a thin squeak. She takes the diamonds, carefully measures them from the pouch into her hand, and lets handful after handful of diamonds drop into the water. She is sobbing a kind of whimpering keen. After the last of the diamonds has been returned to the sea, she faces the cursed thing that was once her husband. "At long last," she says. "Jeremy Peters. At long last." Staring at her for just a moment longer, the corporal body of the captain vanishes, and his uniform drops to the ground.


"Captain Peters. Must you go on?"

While Grandma Peters sobs in bliss, Jeff grumbles, "I'll probably never be rich again." He manages a smile and, after gazing at him for a moment, Jan clasps his face and kisses him passionately (The number of B-movies that end with this sort of embrace are legion. This one works particularly well largely because Jeff's "conversion" to good guy seems more a momentary flash of grudging sentiment than lasting, soul salvation - and thus it seems much less cornball). As their kiss deepens, the violins soar and we fade to black.

It's high time to discuss the Good Stuff:

The Good Stuff, Part I: Lightening Flashes From the Middle

Yep, the middle part of this picture becomes a bit static, like an engine revving over and over before it catches; but do keep your eyes open. There are moments that reward. For example, the scene where the principals confront the dead men in their zombie lair is particularly effective, with the ten cursed sailors rising form their coffins like luminous grubworms rising in moonlight. In another scene, a zombie attacks Mona and Jan in the girl's bedroom, advancing on them as they scream. His face is grim and pale, yet somehow imbued with a kind a frantic obsession. Overall, I found the zombies very subtly and effectively handled by director Edward Cahn and his cinematographer, Benjamin Kline. The zombies in many modern films move with the swiftness of jungle cats, snarl and growl like demented dogs, and (of course) drip maggots and teeth. A modern zombie attack is more like a swift, horrible siege whereas the zombies of Mora Tau move with an eternal, unrelenting, unstoppable plodding. One may come tonight. One may come in twenty years. But they will come. Some still night, you will hear a rustling. A siege one may survive. A curse lasts forever.

The Good Stuff, Part II: Bernard Gordon By Any Other Name

The script comes courtesy of Bernard Gordon, working here as Raymond T. Marcus. Gordon often worked during the 1950s, when he could, under an alias. He was a member of he Communist Party and had been blacklisted in 1954 by the dreaded HUAC (House Un American Activities Committee). Producer of Mora Tau, Sam Katzman, made a steady practice of hiring blacklisted talent, often seeking these professionally ruined artists out to offer work under an alias. Katzman used Gordon several times during the writer's exile, with such B-productions as Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (Sears, 1956) and The Man Who Turned to Stone (Kardos, 1957). Never lacking a pair of brass nuts, Katzman considered nothing but the quality of an artist's work or, to look at it another way, what an individual could offer him. For Katzman, employing blacklisted commies (or reputed commies) was a win-win situation: First, it was an opportunity to extend a fat, happy "fuck you" to the HUAC which, by all accounts, gave Katzman no end of pleasure. Second, the blacklist afforded the producer a golden window to pick up some first rate scripts, from some first rate writers, at fire-sale prices. All in all, a pretty sweet setup for all concerned.

Consider the following bit of script from the Gordon typewriter:

Early in the picture, Jan pleads with Jeff to leave, to give up the search for the diamonds, before others are killed. The risks, she says, are just not worth it.

Jeff: "Oh, yes it is. If those diamonds are worth half what they're cracked up to be, my share may come to a million dollars. That's a lot of loot."

Jan: "What is it worth if your dead?"

Jeff: He laughs. "Look, Ms. Peters, I may be a dumb diver, but I got an A in arithmetic at PS 81. That's in New York. And this is the way it figures: Usually as a diver I make one hundred bucks a day, and if I'm lucky I work three days out of every week. That's fifteen grand a year. You know how many years I'd have to work to make a million? Sixty seven years."

Jan: She stares at him flatly. "You better go back to school and learn how much sixty years of life is worth; or fifty or twenty - or even ten."

Good stuff from Mr. Gordon. Solid as a rock, even if he was a commie bastard.

The Good Stuff, Part III: Allison Hayes and Others

Director Edward Cahn gets some good, or at the very least committed, stuff from this troop of actors - something the director was known for during his long and nearly forgotten career (Creature With the Atom Brain, 1955; and The She-Creature, 1956; being my Cahn favorites). Here, old pros Morris Ankrum (who always played a doctor, scientist, or military figure) is on hand as Dr. Eggert; as well as one of my favorite B-movie character actors, Gene Roth (He played the sheriff in Attack of the Giant Leeches - Bernard Kowalski 1959). Particularly good as well is Marjorie Eaton, who pulls out all the stops as the weathered-by-hopes matriarch, Grandma Peters.


Mona - On deck (Allison Hayes)

And finally, the B-movie legend, Allison Hayes (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Juran, 1958) contributes her presence. She is very good in Mora Tau, dominating every scene she gets close to. Hayes was such a big personality, her terrific body and terrific personality eating up the 1950s B-scene; that I would kill for an authoritative biography. The actress, who died in 1977, appears to have been universally liked by all who remember her.

Once, during one of director Roger Corman's infamously grueling and often hazardous shooting schedules (Gunslinger, 1956), Hayes, soaking wet and cold from working in rain and mud, turned to Corman and said "Tell me, Roger. Who do I have to fuck to get off this picture?"** Corman laughed out loud. Suffice to say, if I had my time machine, first stop would be Hollywood circa 1954 just so I could ask Hayes for her phone number. My guess is that her response, whichever way it went, would be worth the trip.

* Zombie Movie Data-Base (www.zmdb.org)
** Corman, Roger. How I made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost A Dime. New York: Random House, 1990


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10 comments:

  1. Very well done! All the details covered. I like the font they use in the trailer too.

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  2. Allison Hayes, oh my my my. Although if I had a time machine that that was attuned to past Corman starlets, I'd have to go with Beverley Garland. I somewhat remember this film as having a nice vibe of pre-code (EC) comics. Will be on the lookout for it. Thanks as always, Mykal.

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  3. KW: I like that font, too. In fact, I love a lot of this 50s sci-fi typefaces.

    Tim: A fellow certainly couldn't go wrong with Beverly Garland! . . . or Yvette Vickers, or Sally Todd, or so many of those B-movie stars from the 1950s.

    Still, my heart belongs to Allison.

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  4. I need to see this. I like Morris Ankrum, who I know mostly as a good second banana in many B-westerns.

    Good article as usual.

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  5. Albie: Ankrum is one of those handful of character actors that simply make 50s B-movies what they are. Great actor - always solid.

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  6. i obtained the Sam Katzman box set mostly for The Giant Claw but was pleasantly surprised by Zombies Of Mora Tau. anything with Allison Hayes is worth watching but the movie has a lot going for it. i gotta say it though- Night Of The Living Dead featured ghouls, not zombies, as do all the films made in it's considerable wake. why they're called zombies is beyond me.

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  7. Prof.: I thought ghouls pertained to living beings that ate the dead? I'll have to give that some more thought, and what a peasant subject to ponder for an evening! Thanks for commenting and giving brain food for thought!

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  8. Thanks, Lolita! You're pretty stylish yourself!

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  9. Allison Hayes is easy on any zombie's cold, dead eyes. Mine too!!

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