Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Of all the breakthrough lowbudget independent horror films of the 1970s, Shock Waves is the
least pretentious. It also has, in director Ken Wiederhorn,
a sure visual eye to hold our rapt attention without cranes, steadicams, or special
effects resources. Everyone talks about the graphic shocks of Hooper, Craven, and Raimi: Wiederhorn
is simply a natural as a director. His talent, and some unusually good acting combine
to create a fine example of basic horror, well done.
A Carribean excursion boat runs into more problems than bad navigation and
leaky decks when it breaks down just as an undersea disturbance looses a ship-ful of invulnerable
Nazi secret weapons - mutated, goggle-wearing zombie storm troopers who hide underwater and emerge
to strangle anyone they can get their soggy hands on.
What makes Shock Waves more interesting than other shoestring horror pix? It's shot on Super
16mm and is as grainy as anybody else's independent effort. The characters haven't much depth, and
the Nazi Zombie underpinning, at first glance, is borderline offensive.
The answer is The Whole Show. The script is well written, with reasonably credible speeches (a few
too many "What the Hell?"s,
perhaps) and nicely delineated characters. John Carradine and Peter Cushing are fine in their
glorified cameos, and ex Flipper star Luke Halpin anchors the film with his natural leadership.
There's no obvious hero, and although it is obvious that the zombies are going to kill most of the
cast, people aren't victimized on the basis of their personality traits. For predictability, there's a
drunken cook who steals scenes, but no cheap rivalry surfaces for lead actress Brooke Adams. Almost
without exception, the actors 'act' like people in a miserable situation, not hams in a broken-down
horror film. When there are
jokes, as when Carradine throws a broken radio overboard, they're not milked. We actually don't
learn too much about the characters, as nobody stops to tell their life story. But we share
their first-person this-is-happening experience, and that's why the film works.
You have to credit the success of this film very strongly with the director, who manages a very
creepy mood with his potentially laughable Nazi zombies. Much of the action takes place in broad
daylight, yet careful
composition and blocking make these shambling soldiers very threatening. They show up suddenly -
floating below the surface of tidepools, thrusting themselves out of the water much like Harryhausen's
skeletons pop out of the ground. The underwater views of the zombies 'walking' on the bottom
of the ocean, once you stop wondering how they hold their breath, are very arresting. We never see
one breathe, and their goggle-glasses make a good substitute for dead eyes. They march like
automatons in search of prey. When they lose their eyewear we find out that bright light
is the only thing that bothers them; then they stagger around and collapse just like Marlon Brando
does at the end of The Young Lions. Since there's no Nazi baggage to carry - the 'Totenkorps'
experimental killers would just as soon kill Germans as the enemy - the film doesn't have the
sordid aftertaste of other horror pix that exploit Nazi evil.
The music, mostly a series of electronic tones and noises, is extremely
effective, and its careful use does half the job of sustaining the sinister mood. There's not
a lot of gore, cheap sex or other common denominator genre fallbacks. This
reasonably scary horror film is rated PG! For real horror fans, that should be an
endorsement right there.
John Carradine and Peter Cushing don't have
big roles, but they're around long enough to make a real impact, unlike A.I.P's frequent use of
name actors for top billing, who are only on screen for a few seconds. Carradine is fun as a
crusty captain, and does some strenuous stunt work underwater that belies any notion that he
was uncooperative. Peter Cushing is wisely given the job of 'selling' the story's premise in
a sustained bit of Nazi exposition. He's the main reason we accept the tale of a secret Killer
Korps of zombies, a gimmick that had been tried before in a couple of 1940s films but never came
off. Cushing can walk onscreen and tell most any ridiculous tale, and his natural authority compels
us to accept it. Far from being a cheap bit, this is surprisingly a good movie for
his later period. What a pro.
A final tribute to the director of this picture ... It has a lot of 'running around in the swamp'
footage, and never once does it become dull. The wrapup has a rather good twist, that enlivens what
might have been too grim or downbeat.
Blue Underground's DVD of Shock Waves, distributed by Image, is a fine anamorphic transfer
of a film that probably never looked this good on a big screen. It's grainy, and the picture is
never as sharp as a 35mm show, but that's due to the choice to shoot it on Super 16 - the photography
actually very good. Right now we're going through a phase where filmmakers are trying to decide
whether digital shooting will achieve the quality of film; time has proven that any professionally
shot feature like Shock Waves could probably have been done as cheaply on 35mm, and looked a
lot better. Shock Waves is both visually and photographically a big improvement on
Last House on the Left, also shot in 16mm. It could also be argued that sharp, pretty images of
the obviously gorgeous Florida locations might have negated this film's creepy mood.
The stills and collected sketches, ad art, etc, are nicely presented in a gallery format. I thought
the original trailer was very poor, making the film look unnecessarily trashy and stupid. The
highlight of the disc is the commentary with the director, makeup man, and future director Fred
Olen Ray, who shot stills on the picture. Their talk is consistently lively. With stories to tell
about the cantankerous Mr. Carradine and the charming Mr. Cushing, it never
gets dull. It's also incredible to learn that many of the 'island' locations were 50 yards from
downtown Miami, and that the decrepit, remote-looking island mansion was a rundown Miami hotel! Along
with the welcome candidness, comes some saucy commentary about the actors that might have been
snipped - 'Brooke Adams was flirtatious', etc. That's talking out of school.
Shock Waves is a pleasant surprise Savant didn't expect, and I recommend it for horror fans.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Shock Waves rates:
Movie: Very good
Supplements: Commentary, stills, trailer, radio spots, art and still gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 6, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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