This is an hour and ten minutes of stilted, idiotic dialogue and very poor acting that together end up hilariously funny, although not by intent.
We have scientists/doctors on a South seas island checking radiation fallout from an atom bomb and treating the native population for plague (“Let’s try Formula X37.”). The scientists/doctors are very boring and talkative, and spend a lot of time explaining plot points.
The natives have just killed off one of their own, who vowed his revenge. “I shall come back from Hell and make you pay for your crimes!” The very Caucasian-looking chief (nice conch shell ornaments) and medicine man (bear claw headband) have wrongly accused the murdered man of killing his father, the previous chief. (The current chief speaks with a New York accent and most of the natives speak in fractured English.)
The ex-chief’s son is buried in a stand-up wooden coffin, knife still in his heart, with a voodoo doll, 2 large bones, and some seeds thrown in on top. Then these words are spoken portentously, “breethee pooro capu, zumu clova negatoro.” No translation provided.
Soon enough we hear from Hell as a stump starts growing out of the grave site and turns into a tree, containing the same plunged in knife - and a heartbeat. The natives recall a previous Tabanga (Creature of Revenge) that grew out of a murdered man’s grave and was released from the ground by a bolt of lightning and went on a killing spree until it disappeared (probably in the quicksand).
The scientists are advised that the Tabanga should be destroyed before it gets loose and starts killing. But the medicine man has more sinister designs and creates a concoction that when applied to the roots will allow him to control the Tabanga and its killing. He’s too late, however.
The scientists are intrigued by the heartbeat and want to study this creature, so they cut it free from its roots and bring it back to the lab where it’s chained onto a table. The move doesn’t go well and the pulse weakens and suddenly death is imminent (“The pulse is weak! It’s dying!”). Tina Carver wants to save it while Tod Andrews wants to throw it in quicksand. “Couldn’t we try to energize the adrenal gland with an electro-resister?” Classic cure.
Instead, the doctors set up an IV that pumps Formula 447 into the creature for 8 hours to revive it. One of my favorite small scenes in this movie is the brief camera panning of the laboratory after the scientists have left, with the IV in place. It scans the room as it is and moves to the clock which is at 10pm. The clock is then fast forwarded to 6am and the camera scans back over the laboratory revealing the results of the last 8 hours. Complete with a monkey on the loose and a snake on the overhead lamp, the room shows the effects of the IV drip.
The tree monster was not only revived but also had the strength to break out of his chains and reek havoc on the laboratory. Now they’ve done it. Tabanga is loosed upon the island. “I just wanted it to live, not to destroy!” Ah, too late.
Tabanga’s first activity is to break up the funniest cat-fight you will ever see and we watch his first revenge kill, death by quicksand. The next victim suffers death by squeezing, and the next by being branch-stabbed. All good stuff.
The movie draws to its inevitable conclusion with our damsel in distress needing rescue and falling in love with her rescuer, whom she had previously rebuffed, inconceivably not falling for his approach: “Don’t you want a husband and children, like other women?”
Tabanga is a lumbering tree stump that won’t burn, from which bullets bounce off, and has a face resembling a bull dog with the lower jaw constantly quivering. You don’t get to see him in motion until 47 minutes into the film, and it’s a thing of beauty to behold. He has suitable, eerie music to accompany his strolls. His visage and the quicksand deaths are very likely burned into the memory banks of 1950s children.
One final note is necessary regarding Linda Watkins who plays an Australian widow running a trading post. She is particularly annoying and I think all viewers wish Tabanga had thrown her into the quicksand before this 80 minutes of campy fun ended. This is a must-see for fans of 1950s-1960s "horror" films.