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.
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 itself is 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: