July 16, 2011

Shock Waves (Review)


Shock Waves (1977)

Director: Ken Wiederhorn

3 / 5 zedheads


It's summer time, and I've been spending an unusual amount of time swimming. See, I don't like to get my head wet, so I usually just float around with my nose, eyes, and ears above the surface, much like the Nazi Zombies seen in Shock Waves, Ken Wiederhorn's flawed yet enduring cult horror film. Although all this swimming got me in the mind to revisit Shock Waves, I wish I could say it made a splash with me. It's not a bad film, but it's problematic at best. For a film set in and around the water, it's surprisingly dry on scares.

This is what happens when you don't wear enough sunscreen
In this low-budget zombie offering, the crew and passengers of a chartered pleasure craft off the coast of Florida (captained by genre staple John Carradine) accidentally runs aground on an island with an abandoned hotel that is home to a strange hermit (Peter Cushing). To everyone's surprise, they find themselves being hunted by aquatic, undead Nazi soldiers created during WWII when the Nazis created super soldiers out of bloodthirsty sociopaths (you're not going to see that in Captain America this summer, I guarantee it). The survivors discover that the hermit living in the hotel is the former SS Commander of this zombie "Death Corps," but he can't help when the zombies emerge silently from the murky deeps and start drowning anyone they can get their hands on. These aren't the flesh-hungry or brain-addicted undead; Nazi Zombies just want to drown you.

Nazi Zombie you’re the one,
You make bathtime lots of fun,
Nazi Zombie I’m awfully fond of you
Shock Waves has a lot of problems, but the cast isn't one. Although we get next to no back story on any of the characters, they are immediately identifiable in broad strokes:  the beautiful young woman in a bikini (Brooke Adams), the handsome but neglected hero waiting for the chance to shine (Luke Halpin), the cantankerous and contemptuous - and probably drunk - Captain (Carradine), the petulant husband and suffering wife (Jack Davidson and D.J. Sidney), etc. All the characters play off each other well and the acting is good. Even the design of the zombies is nothing to complain about. Although I'd imagine WWII era zombies would look a bit more fish-eaten after being submerged for so long, Alan Ormsby's impressive special makeup effects gives the Nazis an appropriately pale, bleached, and water-logged pallor. When they rise silently like pillars from the deep with their black goggles and bleached hair, they cut an imposing silhouette.

Honestly, I don't think that IS the Blue Man Group after all
Unfortunately, Shock Waves is all waves and no shock. The film is made with little sense of horror, or drama. The narrative just floats from scene to scene with little tension or mood . In the shock department, Shock Waves is depressingly tame. We don't see a zombie kill anyone until more than 30 minutes into the picture, and even then the majority of the deaths are off screen. There's also no blood or gore. Scenes involving blood squibs and rotten corpses were eventually cut from the film; the director admits as much on the Blue Underground DVD film commentary that he has no taste for gore or horror films. Not all horror films need to be filled to the brim with blood and guts, but if you're not going to bring gore then you have to bring tension and atmosphere. Here, Shock Waves fails too.
Luke Halpin (R) starred in Flipper.
For a pack of Players cigarettes, Carradine (L) would play flipper

Although Shock Waves uses history's greatest villains and has people's fear of death and water to exploit, the film just doesn't know how to make its zombies scary. Our first glimpse of the zombies is a teasing shot of boots walking on the ocean floor, but then we cut to a undramatic, full body shot of a plain-looking zombies tromping along the ocean bed. This completely uninteresting and blatant reveal saps the power of the "money shot" that follows: a great sequence of lifeless bodies under the surface slowly and quietly rising up, one by one, from the dark waves and then marching on the beach. This rising scene packs the most punch, but it's not only pre-empted but also over-used from then on; it's repeated again and again with diminishing returns. Like the overused rising scenes, none of the zombies attacks are very exciting either. When the zombies attack, they inevitable strangle and drown their victims. Many of the kills, however, happen off-screen. The bodies are found by the other characters in scenes of varying degrees of tension. The zombies also have little interaction with the other characters as if the human scenes and the zombie scenes were filmed on different days. Except for the kill scenes, zombies never appear in frame with their victims. Even the early electronic score that accompanies these scenes struggles to convey dread. From start to finish, there's very little scary about Shock Waves.

Mein Gott, nein. No Nazis here. Vat makes you zink dis?
Finally, Shock Waves is inexcusably sloppy and contradictory. Because of its low budget, a scene in which a sunken ship is supposed to rise and collide with another boat is shot with sloppily edited footage of a stationary freighter. Also, scenes are cut from the film that characters reference as if the audience is supposed to know what they're talking about. The scenes were cut because the filmmakers realized it doesn't make sense to have the characters talk about what was just seen, but at the same time the conversation left in the film doesn't make sense if the audience didn't see the cut footage. Worst of all, the zombies exhibit some strangely inconsistent behavior. When one zombie has its goggles torn away, it stumbles around disoriented and blinded before falling lifeless to the ground. Considerable attention is given to this fact as well as at the end of the film when it happens again. However, during scenes in which the zombies are ransacking the hotel, two zombie appear inexplicably without goggles and seem no worse for wear. Not only is the goggle connection ever explained, but its nonsensical power to kill the zombies is not even observed in parts of the movie.

Now is ze time on Sprockets vhen ve drown!
Nazi zombies! A cool, real-life abandoned hotel. Peter Cushing and David Carradine! Despite all its potential, Shock Waves is a very problematic film in which the problems outweigh the payoffs. If you want to see some Devo-looking zombies splash around in the shallows with a generally solid cast, then Shock Waves is worth viewing. But strap on your life preserver: these waves will carry you through some very watered-down scares and into the deep end of sloppy story logic.