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Whatever Happened to Horror B-Movie Actress Allison Hayes?



Whatever Happened to Horror B-Movie Actress Allison Hayes

Last weekend, Svengoolie featured the 1957 film, The Undead, as part of his weekly Saturday night show on Me-TV. Directed by the prolific Roger Corman, who just celebrated his 95th birthday, the film stars the late Allison Hayes. The airing of The Undead prompted me to start thinking more about Hayes and her abbreviated career—and the rather unusual circumstances surrounding her death.

For those who are not fans of vintage horror, the name of Allison Hayes might draw shrugs. She was not a household name in Hollywood and never became an A-list star. But for those who consider themselves diehard followers of horror and sci-fi films, particularly those who grew up watching “Chiller Theater” and “Creature Features” in the 1960s and seventies, Hayes is a name that conjures up memorable connotations.

A stunningly beautiful actress who had previously been a model, Hayes earned an early break in her career when she signed a contract with Universal Studios. But she didn’t become known to horror fans until 1957, when she accepted a role as a supporting player in The Undead. The movie was an early effort from Corman, who filmed this low-budget special in a dizzying six days. With money tight (when it is ever not tight with a Corman production?), the creative director took an old supermarket and converted it into his movie set for The Undead. In the film, a modern day prostitute (played by Pamela Duncan) is transported back in time via hypnosis. She is sent to the Middle Ages, where she now occupies the body of a witch who has been sentenced to death through beheading, but then manages to escape the deadly fate. Hayes does not play the lead character, but rather stars as the evil witch Livia, who becomes jealous of the witch played by Duncan.

The Undead

It’s a strange film to say the least, with lots of wild imagery. In perhaps the weirdest scene, three women dressed creepily in black gowns appear out of nowhere and begin to engage in a bizarre dance. The significance of the women is never really explained, but they do make an impression, as do the witches, along with a peculiar imp played by famed actor Billy Barty, an eerie gravedigger who speaks in rhymes, and Satan himself (who speaks directly to the audience at the film’s outset).

Amidst all of the oddity, Hayes stands out for her performance. With her long hair and low-cut manner of dress, she is exceedingly attractive and alluring, but she also succeeds in making Livia sinister and conniving. Even though Hayes is only third-billed in The Undead, she clearly emerges as the star of the film.

Hayes appeared in another horror film in 1957, the rather forgettable Zombies of Mora Tau. In this picture, Hayes plays Mona Harrison, the flirtatious wife of one of the men partaking in an expedition for lost treasure. The group is hoping to secure a box of diamonds contained on a sunken ship, only to realize that the crewmen, while dead, have returned as zombie-like creatures.

Allison Hayes Zombies of Mora Tau

It’s a silly film that is poorly made, and the character of Mona is hardly a groundbreaking role, but Hayes makes the best of the situation. Once again, she emerges as the best performer on screen, indicating what she might be able to do if only equipped with a better script and improved direction.

The two 1957 films led Allison Hayes to sign a contract for another B-movie that would come out one year later—a film that would become her best-known performance. In 1958, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman made its premiere. Hayes takes on the starring role here, playing wealthy socialite Nancy Fowler Archer, who is mired in a bad marriage to an unfaithful husband. While driving on a country road, Archer undergoes an encounter with an alien force, which will soon result in her growing to incredible size.

While Hayes’ character is seen early in the film, her presence as a 50-foot giant does not make its first appearance until the 56-minute mark of the movie. But then over the final 10 minutes of the film, the gigantic woman wreaks about as much havoc as possible, as she seeks out her cheating husband and his mistress, Honey Parker.

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is not a particularly good film. It’s one of those movies regarded as so ridiculous and over the top that it is actually entertaining, in a twisted and humorous kind of way. But it’s not as bad as it’s been made out to be by some critics. It’s also a movie that made a distinct impression on me when I first watched it as a child back in the mid-1970s. I found Allison Hayes’ character to be truly frightening, given not only her size, but her angry and vengeful disposition. As I recall, I had a nightmare or two as a result of seeing this enormous and enraged wife conducting a rampage of her hometown and destroying just about everything that comes in her path.

While the the film doesn’t hold up as well over time and is really not that frightening, at least not to most adult viewers, Hayes’ performance rises above the material. She is quite good as Nancy Archer, conveying her unhappiness with her husband, her initial panic over the meeting with the alien being, and then her transformation into a raging giant. Hayes makes the 50-foot woman as believe as is possible under the rather preposterous circumstances. She provides the film’s true entertainment value, making up for the lack of a quality script and the absence of high-end special effects. Thanks to Hayes, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman becomes a watchable film.

For many horror actors, individual success in B-movies has often led to parts in better films, both within the genre, but also outside of horror. Strangely, those opportunities did not come the way of Hayes, even though she had obvious acting talent and natural beauty. As the 1960s progressed, she remained relegated to B-movies and other obscure productions.

Actress Allison Hayes

The lack of better roles for Hayes coincided with growing health problems. In the early 1960s, Hayes began to suffer intense pain that limited her mobility, but the cause of the pain was unclear. In 1962, she visited a doctor, who prescribed a calcium supplement to be taken on a daily basis. By 1964, she was suffering from so much pain that she paid a return visit to the doctor. His prescribed treatment? He recommended that Hayes take higher doses of the calcium supplement.

Hayes’ situation only worsened over time. She again consulted medical help. She tried to explain her symptoms, in particular the severe pains that she felt, but her complaints were not taken seriously. It seemed that the doctors felt that she was suffering psychosomatic or imagined pain; in other words, she was dismissed as a hypochondriac. At various times, the intense pain, along with the lack of compassion from the medical world, caused her to consider suicide.

Hayes’ health deteriorated further. By the late 1960s, she was no longer able to walk without a cane. Her raven-colored hair began to fall out. One day, as she continued to search for answers, she discovered in a medical text book a phenomenon affecting factory workers, who were being exposed to metal poisoning. The symptoms of such metal poisoning sounded eerily similar to what Hayes was experiencing.

Hayes wondered if the ingredients of the calcium supplement might be causing the problem. Understandably alarmed by what was happening, she eventually decided to have her blood tested by a toxicologist, who determined that her blood contained dangerous levels of lead, almost certainly caused by the calcium supplement. Angered by the company that produced the calcium product, Hayes brought forth a protest to the Federal Drug Administration, in the hopes that the FDA would ban the supplement.

Hayes stopped taking the calcium product in 1968, but the damage had already been done. Her health continued to deteriorate, to the point that she became an invalid. And then to make matters worse, Hayes received the diagnosis that she was also suffering from leukemia, which may have been caused by the lead from the supplement.

Early in 1977, Hayes was receiving a blood transfusion as part of her treatment when she became violently ill, suffering from intense pain, chills, and extreme flu-like symptoms. Doctors transferred her to the University of California Medical Center, located in San Diego. But by now, nothing could be done to help Hayes. One day after the transfer, she died in the hospital. Hayes was only 46, still one week short of her 47th birthday.

To this day, the official cause of Allison Hayes’ death remains elusive. Did she die from leukemia, or did she die more directly from the lead-filled calcium? Or was it a combination of the two? The official answer is not known.

Sadly, Hayes did not live to see the changes instituted by the FDA against food supplements like the calcium she had been taking for so many years. The FDA sent Hayes a letter indicating the organization would more closely regulate the import and sale of questionable food supplements. But Hayes never saw the letter. She died while the letter sat in her mailbox, unopened and unread.

If there’s any consolation to a sad and tragic story, it’s that Hayes’ plight did lead to changes in the supplement industry, changes that benefited others. As horror fans, we can also take additional solace in knowing that Hayes’ best work has been preserved on film, allowing us a glimpse of her underappreciated talent all these years later. While the films themselves may not have been classics, Hayes’ individual performances elevated the material, making the movies watchable, fun, and worthwhile.

Ultimately, that’s all that a good actress, like Allison Hayes, can do.

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