by Steve Habrat
If you’ve gotten sick of playing Call of Duty: Nazi Zombies and you’ve worn out your copy of the Norwegian freak out Dead Snow, you are probably looking for a Nazi zombie fix and FAST. Fear not, my dear readers, for I have the movie for you and that movie is 1977’s Shock Waves, a deeply unnerving and hallucinatory vision that has traces of Lucio Fulci’s island terror in its veins and the cynical outlook of a George Romero zombie flick in its rotting brain. What Shock Wave lacks in blood and guts (there is barely any to be found here), it more than makes up for in unsettling mood and some thoroughly ghastly ghouls. Largely forgotten by many and relatively unknown by most, Shock Waves is a true gem of the horror genre— one that I seriously cannot believe did not leave a bigger mark on the zombie genre. With its premise, you’d expect a serious camp fest that glides by on tons of gooey entrails and spurting arteries but director Ken Wiederhorn would rather slowly wrap you up in a damp and slimy grip that will curl your toes.
Shock Waves picks up aboard a commercial pleasure yacht, where a small handful of tourists soak up the sun and bicker with each other. Aboard the boat is The Captain (Played by John Carradine), first mate Chuck (Played by Don Stout), boat chef Dobbs (Played by Luke Halpin), tourist Keith (Played by Fred Buch), pretty Rose (Played by Brooke Adams), and testy married couple Norman (Played by Jack Davidson) and Beverly (Played by D.J. Sidney). After an eerie orange haze consumes the afternoon sky, the boat’s navigation system is sent on the fritz and then quits working. That very evening, the boat nearly collides with a ghostly ship that suddenly disappears into the darkness. The next morning, The Captain is missing from the ship and it is discovered that the boat is taking on water. The rest of the passengers on the boat head for a scenic tropical island where they find a deserted hotel that is inhabited by a skinny old SS Commander (Played by Peter Cushing) who demands that they leave the island. The terrified group soon finds themselves stalked by mute and decaying Nazi “Death Corps” zombies who sport wicked pairs of goggles and have risen from the ruins of a mysterious wrecked ship that strangely appears just off the beach.
Quietly intense with dreamy hallucinatory images that at times feel strangely like mirages, Shock Waves quickly takes hold of you then slowly tightens its grip. Director Wiederhorn allows his camera to act almost voyeuristic as it creeps through the trees to spy on the zombies that pop up from the murky water. They are presented as paranormal specters that are silhouetted by the blinding sun reflecting off the water. At times, we see them from an extreme distance, marching in formation and turning to barely acknowledge their gaunt commander as he pleads with them to stop their meaningless slaughter. It was these scenes that made me fall in love with Shock Waves, the film just subtle enough while every once in a while, getting right in our faces so we can see its soggy decay. We never see any scenes of mass carnage, the zombies preferring to drown their victims instead of gnawing at their flesh and sucking on their entrails. That fact that the film remains eerily tranquil throughout, never getting frantic or hurrying is what really makes this film such an effective little adventure.
For a film with such a B-movie premise, the actors all do a fantastic job being believable. Peter Cushing is at his menacing best as a scarred monster that regrets his work within the Third Reich. Carradine is perfect for the cranky old fart of a Captain who refuses to believe that passengers saw a ghost ship sail by in the night. I wish we would have gotten more of him and I would have loved to see his reactions to all the supernatural spooks that manifest. Stout plays the typical strong silent type hero Chuck who is always saving Rose from certain death. He is the thin layer of glue that attempts to hold the crumbling group together. Adams, who is mostly asked to prance around in a yellow bikini, is nice eye candy and the climax allows her to play crazy (I won’t say anymore on that). Jack Davidson playing an over-opinionated car salesman who likes to tell the Captain how to do his job is another standout. You’ll be rooting for him to come face-to-face with the undead terrors.
Shock Waves, which was made in 1977, before Fulci’s Zombie and Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, is efficient with its hell-in-a-tropical-setting approach which it fuses with Romero’s beloved idea that our unwillingness to work together will be our downfall. A scene in which our small group is forced to put their backs against the wall is nice and claustrophobic, a scene that ends in a frenzied outburst and threats made from one group member to the other. The scene plays out much like the climax of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, survivor pitted against survivor. Also notable is the way that Wiederhorn plays with the alien tropical island to give us the creeps. Much like Fulci’s Zombie, there is this heavy feel of supernatural forces at play, a trait that is expressed in the sudden moans of spacey electronics on the soundtrack. In fact, the film would play nicely in a zombie double feature with Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, or Zombie. Sounds like something I may have to try myself.
I really can’t praise Shock Waves enough even though there are a few minor imperfections to be found throughout its hour and twenty-five minute runtime. Most of these blunders can be overlooked and really are not worth mentioning here. With strong direction (Those underwater shots are stupendous!), surprisingly strong acting from everyone involved, unforgettable cinematography (those grainy zombie silhouettes will stay with me for the rest of my days) and some tingling moments of sheer terror (a Nazi zombie standing a little too still behind a closing door while a blinded victim is oblivious to its presence), Shock Waves builds itself into a sopping wet funhouse of aquatic devils leaping up from shallow waters to drag our protagonists into a watery hell. For fans of the zombie genre, Shock Waves is a true must, one that, if you have never seen it, is a macabre surprise and one that will scare the living hell right out of you.
Shock Waves is available on DVD.