Shock Waves (1977)
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.
by Steve Habrat
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead did not strictly send the United States alone into a frenzy over zombie horror. Italy had also taken notice and they drooled over the ultra-gory horror flicks to the point where they went to great lengths to emulate the master’s formula and success. While many of these zombie films made in Italy from 1979 through the mid 1980’s were extremely poor in the quality department, there are still a handful of them that are reputable. They even have a rare scare or three to be found among the senseless nudity, exploitation, extreme violence, and wantonness. The best Italian zombie movie is without question Lucio Fulci’s 1979 fire starter Zombie, which is one of the goriest movie I have ever seen next to 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, and Hell of the Living Dead. It’s also not the level of awfulness that is 1980’s Zombie Holocaust, which used leftover sets and footage from Fulci’s tropical island nightmare. Zombie is the true embodiment of a grind house picture, inspiring Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, which was loaded with nods to the original film. Shock rocker Rob Zombie also borrows the opening visuals of his concert from this film’s legendary trailer, which you can watch below this review. Many filmmakers have expressed affection for this film and remains one of the most talked about cult classics of all time. Not a great film, Zombie proves to be shockingly entertaining and influential.
Perhaps the most original of all Italian zombie flicks that were sent over from Italy with love, it was it’s own movie from beginning to end. Most of these other zombie films borrowed music from other zombie films (Hell of the Living Dead borrows music from Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), actual scenes (Zombie Holocaust), and even smashing together the jungle cannibal flicks (Cannibal Holocaust) with zombie films, making for some strange exploitation concoctions. I love these films, the most unusual that I have seen is without question Burial Grounds, a film that is another cult icon, one that is not sold widely and still is a movie that must be obtained under the table. I found my copy in a record exchange, the guy who sold it to me oozing with delight that a fan of these types of gorehound horror films was in his shop and even showing me other exploitation films I should own like the controversial 1976 film Snuff, a film that many people still argue features real death caught on camera. He practically reached over the counter to hug me when I told him I owned the two-disc DVD set of Cannibal Holocaust. I meet some strange individuals seeking out films like this and I love it. But Zombie is the true freak show of the group because it’s actually good!
The plot of Zombie is basically irrelevant, there only to guide us through disgusting peepshows of zombie feeding sequences, death scenes, and piss-poor excuses for two of the handful of actresses in the film to get naked. The film begins with an abandoned yacht floating into the New York City harbor, on board a handful of zombies, which immediately attack the police officers sent aboard to explore the boat. It turns out that the boat belongs to a scientist currently residing in the Antilles. A journalist named Peter (Played by Ian McCulloch) and the scientist’s daughter Anne (Played by Tisa Farrow) team up with another couple, ethnologist Brian (Played by Al Cliver) and his all-to-egar-to-get-nude explorer girlfriend Susan (Played by Auretta Gay). Once they reach the tropical island, they discover that it has been overrun with the walking dead who are seeking the flesh of the living. The group tries to round up Anne’s father and escape with their lives before they meet their demise.
The plotline is one-dimensional and shamefully foreseeable, but it’s the effects execution that makes this film a true gross-out classic. The film was advertised as coming equipped with bar bags for audience members and while watching it; it’s easy to see why those with sensitive stomachs would be running for the bathroom. Zombie does have its fair share of tense moments, which makes it better than the average Italian zombie flick. The climatic siege on a church can run with the attacks on the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead. Even at its crudest moments, like the looping of one particular scene, it still manages to be inescapably claustrophobic. Another inspired scene is an underwater attack by a zombie that ends with a zombie battling a shark. The cinematography is incisive, the choreography smooth, the editing tight, the vivacious electronic score just right, and the scares pitch perfect. It truly is an essential horror movie moment. Perhaps Romero saw the scene and was inspired for later installments (Land of the Dead) in his Dead series. The shots of abandoned villages are also hair-raising, showing wobbly villages caught in windstorms and billowing dust, rotting zombies staggering through the dirt streets. It’s probably some of the most handsome shots in any exploitation horror film.
This is not a film you see for the acting. You see it for certain moments and for how detailed the make-up and gore is. A scene with reanimated Spanish conquistadors is truly grotesque. The ghouls have worms falling out of their eye sockets, crooked rotting teeth darting at jugulars and ripping skin from throats. The ghouls are covered from head to toe in dirt and filth, blood pouring from gaping wounds. The dispatching of one zombie ends with a cracked skull and jellied brains pouring from it’s broken head. Another scene finds the scientists gorgeous wife getting snatched by a zombie and having her eye gouged out by a giant piece of splintered wood. It has to rank as one of the most unforgettable death sequences ever caught on film. It’s appalling. But Zombie doesn’t stop there. Our group of protagonists force their way into the scientist’s house only to discover a handful of hungry ghouls picking at her shredded corpse, with enough flowing blood and gooey guts to satisfy a hundred Romero zombie films.
Zombie is an experience. That I can say confidently. It’s not all that intelligent and it opts for style every chance it gets. It inspired countless other amateur Italian directors to take a stab at the zombie film. It’s extraordinary ghouls were the blueprint for films like Burial Grounds. The most vivid of all the ziti zombie offerings, it’s flawed (the end scene is absolutely hilarious, proving the budget on this film was not a large sum of cash), but somehow it adds to its allure. It’s not for everyone and I heavily warn those who seek it out. It’s brutal and relentlessly violent. The poor performances and extreme overacting will soften the blow, making the film go down easier for those who have trouble with it. One of my personal favorites around Halloween and a nice break from the complex Romero films, Zombie remains a cult icon. It will have you watching from between the cracked fingers covering your eyes and you may not want to eat anything red for a while after watching it, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a blemished masterpiece. Grade: B+
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
by Steve Habrat
By now you probably understand that I believe George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead is a towering achievement in independent and blockbuster filmmaking. It’s so sprawling and was achieved with very little. When the recent fixation with horror remakes started to show their ugly mugs, I crossed my fingers that Dawn of the Dead wouldn’t be touched. I had seen what Tom Savini did to Romero’s first outing with the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. Inevitably, the news came that Dawn of the Dead would be getting a makeover, and it came as a personal blow. How can they do this to a classic? It’s like remaking The Exorcist? Any real fan of Romero would oppose this blasphemous decision! I sulked to the theater after school on a cool spring day to be a witness to this travesty, eager to see what new they’ve done with the classic and nervous about what they got wrong. I heard that the original cast members make small appearances, it was more action packed, and not as bright as the brainy original. The lights went down in the surprisingly packed theater, the opening moments flashed across the screen, a CGI model of the original film’s helicopter glided through a war zone, sprinting zombies dashed around like marathon runners, and then came the stock footage heavy opening credits set the apocalyptic moans of Johnny Cash. I couldn’t believe my eyes. They were getting it right and giving it it’s own hellish life.
I have to applaud director Zack Snyder, who seems to be a big fanboy at heart, for respecting the original film. He had the decency to make a film with some thought and originality rather than lazily making a shot for shot duplication of a film that was already good enough. Some people like shot for shot remakes, but in terms of a horror film, if you’ve seen the original and then you see the shot-for-shot remake, there is absolutely nothing in the way of surprise. There is plenty to be surprised about in 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, a thrashing and teeth gnashing zombie film that is both undeniably freaky and coated with a thin layer of black humor. One moment you’ll be giggling over a sniper sequence, in which characters pick which zombies to shoot from the roof of the mall based on their resemblance to celebrities and the next moment, your knuckles will be white for a thrilling rescue mission that turns into a chaotic escape through a sea of zombies. The film should be described as a roller coaster ride, but the misstep of the film is the blatant lack of a social commentary. The consumerism exploration is only touched upon, seemingly to satisfy those who enjoyed the underlying message of the original, but then it’s back to entertaining the screaming tweens in the front row who snuck into it.
Dawn of the Dead ’04 begins with what could very well be the best opening sequence in any motion picture in the last ten years. Nurse Ana (Played by Sarah Polley) arrives home after a long day in the ER, where an unusually large number of people are being admitted for strange illnesses and bites. The next morning, the little neighbor girl awakes Ana and her husband while lurking in their bedroom. After her husband takes a nasty bite to the neck and is turned into a shrieking ghoul (the zombies are very similar to the infected in 28 Days Later), she flees her collapsing neighborhood and hits the raucous streets to find safety. She ends up bumping into a bad ass, shotgun wielding cop Kenneth (Played by Ving Rhames), a television salesman Michael (Played by Jake Weber), and a terrified couple Andre and Luda (Played by Mekhi Phifer and Inna Korobkina). They decide the safest place to take refuge is the local mall, where they stumble upon a group of trigger happy security guards led by the domineering CJ (Played by Michael Kelly). The group begins to coexist and soon another truckload of desperate survivors comes banging on the delivery doors to be let in. They are lead by valiant Tucker (Played by Boyd Banks) and cowardly Steve (Played by Modern Family‘s Ty Burell). The group fortifies the mall so the rotting stenches can’t force their way in, but as the group begins to crumble apart, they must make a daring escape through the zombie army just outside the doors.
Dawn of the Dead ’04 revolves around more characters than the original 1978 film did. Rather than the measly four main protagonists, we have a large group, ranging from the usual good guys to the royal pains in the ass that any group like this would be made up of. This is a smart move on Snyder’s part, but it also hinders the viewer in their attempt to allow themselves to grow attached to any specific character. It’s the quality that really drove the original film. I cared about the original characters and when one bit the dust, we mourned them as if they were real and not a part of the cinematic realm. There are likable characters to be found in this jazzed up remake, mostly Ana, Kenneth, and Michael. The reluctant CJ finally comes around in the final stretch of the film and proves himself a hero. Getting the character set up correct is an integral part for a re-envisioning of Dawn of the Dead, and this one comes up half right.
What little remains from the original is the bright colors that are used in the film, running with the claim that Romero made way back when about it being his comic book film. Here Snyder uses Dawn of the Dead to announce his chiaroscuro approach to his work. It’s always really brightly lit or shrouded in darkness. It makes the film into a funhouse, which I admired, but sometimes felt like Snyder sees the original film as pure pulp filmmaking. It’s a trait that bothers me even to this day, and I’m sure that Romero was not pleased about it either. Romero has expressed some strong feelings about the film, mainly that they never even consulted with him or asked his permission to remake it. Sure, Romero intended to make something fun, but he also used the film to say something about our society. Well, at least they kept the ending gloomy.
I like Zack Snyder’s vision here and I the entertainment value on Dawn of the Dead ’04 is out of this world. One Christmas Eve on year, my cousins and I sat around sipping beers and wallowing in the aggressive temperament of this film. It does pack a few creep out moments and the mandatory jump scare, which every horror film feels the need to apply. It is stylishly made, designed to make all who watch it will walk away deeming it “cool”. And that is precisely how to evaluate Snyder’s body of work. He does things because he thinks its “cool” and everyone will like it. This is, however, Snyder’s strongest film he’s made. Despite its flaws, it’s original and just like one of Romero’s zombies, has an immensely likable personality. If for no other reason, it wins for its opening sequence and end credits. In this case, cool is king and surprisingly scary. Grade: A-