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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Shock Waves (1976) review


Brooke Adams (Rose), Luke Halpin (Keith), Peter Cushing (SS Nazi Commander), John Carradine (Ben)

Directed by Ken Wiederhorn

"We created the perfect soldier...from cheap hoodlums and thugs...and a good number of pathological murderers and sadists as well. We called them...the 'Toden Corps'...the 'Death Corps'. Creatures more horrible than any you can imagine...not dead...not alive, but somewhere in between."

A group of vacationers on a tour ship are stranded on a seemingly deserted island after their boat smashes into a huge ocean liner that appears mysteriously out of nowhere. The next morning, the ship is revealed to be the rotted out hull of an old vessel. Exploring the island, the group find an old hotel; the remnants of a forgotten era and its sole occupant, a former Nazi SS Commander left there in involuntary exile during the closing days of WW2. The Commander spins a terror tale to the unwitting visitors that the Nazis were working on a group of super soldiers amassed from serial murderers and homicidal maniacs. These killers could survive in any uninhabitable environment. The Commanders group was designed for the water and now that the island has fresh victims, the waterlogged Nazi undead have returned.

SHOCK WAVES is one of the most vivid experiences I ever had watching Shock Theater as a small boy. I remember this film being shown on two different occasions and both times I was unable to finish the movie as it scared me half to death. Years later I managed to buy the Prism tape after catching the trailer on the HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD VHS also out from Prism. It has since become a favorite of mine and when it debuted on DVD from Blue Underground, it was one of my most eagerly awaited DVD's of 2002. Upon seeing the film once more on the digital format brought about some minor discontentment as the print was in average shape. The print seen on the Prism tape was much better (the same print was utilized for the EP mode tape from Starmaker). Nonetheless, I was ecstatic just the same to have the film on DVD and with some welcome extras explaining the production.

Director, Ken Wiederhorn handles the film well building on the suspense creating a truly pervasive atmosphere of dread. It's one of the most chilling horror pictures I've ever seen made all the more effective by the oppressive musical score from Richard Einhorn. The music adds a whole other level of fear to the proceedings. The original trailer for the film captures this sentiment perfectly (The faster you run, the quicker you die!) so if it doesn't grab you, then the movie will likely do little to nothing for you. Possibly Wiederhorn's best film, he ported over some of the creepiness factor into his next feature, EYES OF A STRANGER (1981). Wiederhorn no doubt brought down the disdain of horror fans everywhere with one of the worst and most unwelcome sequels ever with RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 2 (1987).

Having seen SHOCK WAVES (1976) multiple times over the years, I've often wondered if John Carpenter hadn't seen it prior to making HALLOWEEN (1978). The shots of the Nazi zombies just standing stationary watching their victims from afar is very reminiscent of similar shots of Michael Myers doing the same throughout Carpenter's seminal classic. One sequence has two of the creatures watching the vacationers after they find the corpse of their cook. They slowly walk away never taking their eyes off the people.

Another scene has Peter Cushing attempting to regain control over his former troopers. A group of them emerge from the trees and begin to enter the water. Cushing yells to them in German ordering them to halt. From a distance, you can see the Aryan undead looking at him ignoring his order as they slowly submerge below the murky depths.

"The sea spits up what it can't keep down."

There were around 8 actors playing the various Nazi zombies. There are skinny ones, fat ones, tall and short ones. The way some of the scenes are edited, it appears there are far more than eight. These zombies do not just ascend from the oceans brine. They lie in wait beneath any body of water whether it be a small pond or river. The numerous scenes showing them rising from their watery graves recalls scenes of vampires awakening from their coffins.

These eerie sequences are made all the more effective by the music and the silent, emotionless goggle faced visage of the Nazi undead as they stalk the stranded travelers. Unlike the zombies of more famous and well known movies, these creatures do not consume human flesh preferring to drown or strangle their victims. The fact that these monsters were designed for the water, it is used as their main method of murder. Alan Ormsby, make up artist and actor in CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1972), provides the effective zombie effects here. A scene that was discarded featured a rotted corpse found adrift in the sea by the boaters. Stills of it are found on the DVD.

Brooke Adams was a beautiful actress who featured in a handful of television programs and had good roles in other genre pictures such as the classy remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS from 1978. She was also in THE DEAD ZONE (1983) and the creepy evil baby movie, THE UNBORN (1991) for producer, Roger Corman. She shows off her lovely frame regularly here in a bikini. Luke Halpin from FLIPPER is okay as the hero of the film, but the scene stealer aside from the zombies, is Peter Cushing. He's in relatively few scenes, but his are some of the most memorable.

Just hearing Cushing talk commands attention. His dialog recounting who and what the water dwelling murderers are makes for spooky storytelling. Cushing's presence adds an air of respectability the production otherwise may not have had. It no doubt would still be an effective chiller, but with Cushing and Carradine (who plays the grumpy ship captain) on board, it adds something special to the movie.

With a number of eerily efficient scenes found in the picture, the ending of SHOCK WAVES (1976) is truly shocking in itself ending on a somber note. Wiederhorn also infuses the picture with an air of the supernatural. Such is the case with the haunted vessel that bears down on the small tourist boat. After the boat has been damaged, it's discovered that the liner is nothing more than an old wreck despite the previous scene detailing otherwise. Also, once the tourists make their way to the island, underwater photography reveals the hull of the old wreck creaking and rumbling below the depths.

It is here we see the first glimpse of the Aryan army of Nazi zombies. It's one of many startlingly well done scenes of impending horror. One difference between this zombie film and others is that shooting them in the head isn't the preferred method. Simply removing the creatures goggles exposing them to the rays of the sun (years of being underwater proves fatal when their eyes are exposed in the daylight in another vampire parallel) does the trick.

SHOCK WAVES (1976) may put off more impatient horror fans with its relatively slow pace and lack of gore (these zombies prefer to drown their victims in whatever body of water may be in the general vicinity). The only instance of any type of grue is some close up shots of the decomposing zombies. But those who can tolerate a more slow building sense of terror filled with many tense moments will find much to enjoy here. Wiederhorn's directing debut remains an underrated cult gem and deserves some additional attention.

This review is representative of the Blue Underground DVD.


J. Astro said...

Great stuff, man!

What I really dig about SHOCK WAVES is that there's the cool night-time stuff on the boat, when they encounter the creepy rusted out hulk on the ocean... but then almost the entire rest of the thrills & chills happen in *broad daylight*. There's no typical reliance on "spooky nighttime stuff", and yet it's still a really effective film. Kinda sad, in a way, though, to see how emaciated Cushing had become by this point. :/ He is still awesome in it, though, as is Carradine.

venoms5 said...

That's an interesting observation, J! I never paid much attention to that till you mentioned it just now.

This is definitely one of those "specialty" horror pictures that isn't going to appeal to everybody. I just watched it again a few weeks ago to refresh my memory and when I was doing the screen caps, I found myself viewing it once more.

It's one of my faves and I'm sure nostalgia plays a small part in my enjoyment of the movie.

I Like Horror Movies said...

OK, how the hell have I never heard of this one?? Throwing it right up on the wishlists, it sounds amazing and right down my alley. I mean, Nazi zombies and Peter Cushing?? How can you go wrong? Thanks for digging this one up V, I dont mind a slow draw if the character development and originality pay off in the end!

venoms5 said...

Carl, the characters are drawn just enough to get a feel for the personalities. There's one guy, though, who seems to be one of the strongest of the bunch who later turns out to be a detriment to the ever dwindling group. It's easily the best of the Nazi Zombie subgenre, IMO.

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