Review

Zombie movies and novels are all the craze right now. AMC’s “Walking Dead” is a milestone for TV drama with zombies, and there are plenty of video games to fulfill our deepest survival fantasies against zombies (Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Dead Island, etc). The genre is stronger and more popular now than ever before, equal to the popularity of Slasher/Vampire/Werewolf movies that also occupy the pop cultural landscape of horror.

Why is that? What is our fascination? Roger Ebert once complained that zombies were the least interesting monsters because they have no personalities, goals, passions or character. On the other end of the spectrum, Comedian Patton Oswalt comments that Zombies are a great monster because they are ultimately what unify us in the face of adversity. In a zombie apocalypse, he states, there are no more “Republicans vs Democrats”, “Christians vs Muslims”, “Blacks vs Whites”, etc. There is only the living vs the dead, and he makes a good point about the potential of a united human race that “rages against the dying of the light”.

Another point, made by Romero’s Living Dead films, is that zombies really represent the decay of society, the stagnant suffocation of conformity versus the vibrancy of individuality. If you get “bitten”, you become part of the crowd, you conform, and all your uniqueness is lost forever. Zombies are an engrossing metaphor for not just surviving disaster. To quote Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel “The Walking Dead”, a profound thought sums up our fascination: In a world ruled by the Dead, we are forced to finally start living.

Zombie films have a distinct advantage over usual monster films in that there are so many varieties showcased from multiple decades. Unlike most monster genres, zombies come in all shapes and sizes and speeds to suit different tastes. There are the typical undead, risen from the grave through supernatural or scientific means (Night of the Living Dead, White Zombie, among many others), there are the “infected” (28 Days Later), Alien possession/control (Plan 9 From Outer Space, Body Snatchers, The Puppet Masters), Satanic zombies (The Blind Dead), etc. There’s even undead animals like 2006’s “Black Sheep” (a film I hope to present here at a later date). And then there are subgenres that present something so unique they defy usual stereotypes. I speak of one of my favorites, 1977’s “Shock Waves”.

Shock Waves is part of the subgenre of “Nazi Zombie” style movies, and it suprises me this is not more popular. Nazi Zombies are a perfect villain for horror, next to malevolent bugs, living Nazis, aliens, etc. No need to call in the politically correct squad to make things delicate. There are hundreds of zombie movies, but very few nazi-themed zombie films out there, ranging from the cheap and terrible 1981 French film “Oasis of the Zombies” to the more stylish 2009 Sundance selection “Dead Snow” from Norway.

Here, we have a low budget thriller from 1977, an experiment in horror and terror directed by Ken Wiederhorn. The film stars TV veteran actress Brooke Adams. Curiously, it also stars Luke Halpin who played young Sandy Ricks from the TV show “Flipper” from the 1960s. The film also stars the legendary talents John Carradine and Peter Cushing, both of whom worked on the movie for 4 days for $5,000 each. Shock Waves took roughly 35 days to film. Low budget, a cast of mostly unknown but steadily working Florida actors, and the film quality has that grainy grindhouse 70s aging on it. It has many similarities to 2003’s dreadful “House of the Dead” that I reviewed a while back. Still, this is a highly underrated and very disturbing film that breaks from zombie traditions.

The film opens with a documentary style narration with an old photo of actual Nazi SS soldiers, hinting at horrible nazi experiments to create the perfect supersoldier, prepping our susceptible imaginations for what is about to unfold. The film parallel’s Uwe Boll’s movie in that the first scene starts with a lone survivor, Rose (Brooke Adams), narrating her experience as she is rescued. Like “House of the Dead”, this is a risky maneuver because it implies everyone else in the cast has died. And yet, House of the Dead is a video game action adventure that glaringly states everyone dies, but Rose’s narration in Shock Waves is quiet and mysterious. It makes you feel dread and apprehension at what happened to the others rather than totally spoiling the suspense.

Her flashback presents a deliberately bland group of vacationers: Car salesman Norman and his wife Beverly (Jack Davidson and DJ Sidney), athletic bachelor Chuck (Fred Buch), the young bikini clad Rose all traveling on an aging yacht crewed by a no-nonsense cantankerous captain (John Carradine), handsome but quiet first mate Kieth (Luke Halpin) and the sloppy alcoholic cook Dobbs (Don Stout) Through terribly rendered, cheap looking special effects, strange phenomena hit the boat at the beginning with a discolored sky above, quakes in the water below, and a ghost ship effect at night that causes the yacht to become wrecked near an uncharted island and the Nazi zombies to return to “life”. It’s never quite clear why the zombies stayed dormant for so long or what ultimately woke them up. But it’s a cheese moment that can be easily overlooked with the help of the creepy original electronic soundtrack by Richard Einhorn. The music score by itself becomes a character of the film, much like the classic “Jaws” theme, and any attempt to be amused by cheesy moments can be cut short by the atmosphere of Einhorn’s haunting work on a synthesizer before their popularity and potential was realized.

24 minutes into film progression, Carradine’s captain ends up mysteriously dead (again, no true explanation to what happened), we assume the zombies got him which can either be irritating for viewers, or it adds to the creepy mystery and atmosphere), the vacationers try to explore the island and discover a rundown, abandoned hotel in the middle of the dense jungle. As they explore the hotel (an actual abandoned Biltmore hotel rented to the filmmakers for $250) they run into the mysterious scarred SS Commander played by Peter Cushing.

When the SS Commander realizes the ghost ship has risen from the waters below, he tries to warn the vacationers to leave, explaining later that he had deliberately sunk the ship and his men at the end of the war and stayed hidden on the island for decades. Peter Cushing, a classically trained actor and veteran of well over a hundred movies, is cast perfectly for this exposition scene as he goes into a monologue about horrific, sadistic super soldiers engineered and trained for all enviroments. Dressed in shabby clothes, with a cheesy scar and not-quite-German accent, he is nevertheless an impressive presence to the film. And his character is stoically calm knowing that the end of his hidden life is nearing. There is no escape for him, and perhaps it is appropriate he knows he will be punished for his war crimes at the hands of his own soldiers.

The Nazi zombies of the film are portrayed excellently. They are not the typical flesh eating hordes, but silent hunters with a semi-intelligence, stalking underwater and through the jungle and the hotel with nothing but a desire to kill with their bare hands. The 8 actors portraying this “Toten Korps” (the Death Corps) went above and beyond for the film. Wearing wool uniforms in hot sweaty august heat, in prolonged underwater scenes, with make up that was, according to the director, very difficult to see through or work with under water. They also wore goggles on top of it all and bleached their hair aryan blonde to complete the image. Without making a sound or having air bubbles appear in the water, they were truly a horrific sight. The scenes of them appearing up from the depths to hunt is perhaps the most awesome of the film. Creepy, horrifying and eventually terrifying as the survivors try to hide from them. Their only weakness appears to be exposure to the bright dehydrating sun. Perhaps not a plausible weakness, but once again the atmosphere more than makes up for the flaws in the movie.

As far as acting skill goes, horror movies tend to get a bad wrap. Most people dismiss the actors as cheesy from the start, and I suppose it’s all a matter of opinion in the end. Most zombie movies have terrible acting. Here, I think it is safe to say that the characters are as realistically portrayed as can be. The vacationers are everyday people with an every day skepticism about things like zombies. They also panic and fall apart realistically when they cannot cope with an irrational situation. We can feel their sweat, sogginess in the jungle, their claustrophobia in the hotel, and their complete meltdowns as shadowy figures watch from a distance, stalking them, popping up out of nowhere. There are a few moments where they become clumsy and perhaps a little stupid, and they get separated in their panic. It’s cliched for maximum suspense but it works, and the electronic score reminds us that there is no amusement in these somewhat cheesy moments.

Predictably, the movie ends with Rose recalling the terrors from a hospital bed, and like most lone survivors, is unhinged by the surreal experience, though it is subtle. The movie ends as quietly as it began with unnerving effect.

I will not recommend this right away. Most people shy from horror films, and this one is quite disturbing even without any blood or gore. It is, however, an excellent study in experimental film making and a must for any Grind house or zombie enthousiast. In the DVD commentary, Director Ken Wiederhorn admits he didn’t follow any typical formula because he was sort of learning how to make the movie as it progressed. It was a double edged sword, a film that was not entirely conventional but not highly marketable the way formula films usually are. Still, it has an excellent cast, a haunting music score, two very visible name actors in Cushing and Carradine who both gave 100% in their participation and charisma, and great atmosphere. It is a struggle to survive that should not be viewed in a dark room alone. A good zombie movie like this sends chills up the spine, it gives us an affirmation of life once the closing credits roll. Perhaps that is the lesson any good zombie movie teaches, that if we give up the struggle to live, we become like them. Robert Kirkman’s hero points out in his graphic novel the grisly realization about the zombie phenomenon: “You think these walls protect us from the walking dead? We ARE the walking dead!”



About the Author

Jon Hodges
Jon Hodges
Jonathan has enjoyed doing community theater since 1989, and has been involved with shows in Van Wert, Wapakoneta, Waynesfield and Fostoria as well as Lima Encore. He is a judge for the Northwest Ohio Film Festival. Jon feels that the human imagination is one of the greatest adventures to share, and it is always fascinating to see others bring something to life. The second greatest adventure to share is a good dose of chocolate.