"HEY, YOU GOT CHOCOLATE IN MY PEANUT BUTTER!"
"YEAH, WELL YOU GOT NAZI IN MY ZOMBIE!"
After colliding with a ghostly (or, possibly just plain ghost) ship, the Captain, crew, and passengers of a rusty old yacht are forced to dock on the shore of a remote island. It soon becomes clear that they are not alone as they discover that this particular island is the breeding ground for a Nazi commandant to raise a group of World War II super soldiers from the dead into his own zombie army, ready to take over the world.
The Nazis as zombie flick subgenre is populated a lot more densely than you might think. From the French/Spanish dueling sexploitation opuses Zombie Lake and Oasis of the Zombies, to the bizarrely fun Hard Rock Zombies, all the way to the more recent humor-filled Norwegian Dead Snow and its sequel, the poor Nazis just can’t seem to catch a break with horror filmmakers. It’s an easy metaphoric amalgam to make, but it’s also an effective one. We hate Nazis, and we would certainly detest zombies if given the chance, so when they occupy the same rotting, xenophobic body, we have a near perfect horror villain (it’s just a shame that, considering they both feature a ‘z’, there is no good Benifer-esque name mashup to make). The best, and classiest, of the bunch has always been 1977’s Shock Waves. Now, champions of horror on home video Blue Underground present a fantastic re-release on Blu-ray, combined with a limited theatrical run.
For me, what has always put Shock Waves a cut above the rest is the purely 70s atmosphere, sliced through with an eerie visual motif. Director/co-writer Ken Weiderhorn (director of the underrated Return of the Living Dead Part 2) creates an often dream-like quality that would not be out-of-place in the Italian zombie surge of the time. The fact that most of the action takes place during the quite brightly-lit daytime could have proven to be an unnecessary challenge when attempting a sense of dread, but the filmmakers here acquit themselves beautifully. Occasionally jarring, but creative camera angles, discordant music swells, and wonderful set design all add to the overall creepy atmosphere. Sure, there are enough close-ups of legs emerging from the water to create a drinking game and many of the early shots give the impression of stock footage, but it all comes together rather well.
The makeup effects are fairly limited, but still quite effective when called upon to be so. The deeper detail is largely resigned to the zombies who are lucky enough to be featured in close up, but they certainly get the job done. There’s no doubt that they lean more towards Nazi than zombie, as their flesh doesn’t quite approach rotting, but several shots of the baddies without their signature goggles prove to be downright creepy. It’s not just the look that separates them – these particular ghouls also don’t seem to be limited physically in their ability to get around quickly or manhandle their victims. It’s a zombie element that we hadn’t seen too much of up to that point (and hadn’t yet been exhaustively subjected to constant arguments of what does and what doesn’t actually equate to a ‘real’ zombie as defined by the Romero Bible). Some might wish that the zombies did a bit more to separate themselves from each other, but there are just enough personality tics and physical feature variances to give them each their place and purpose.
By the same token, those looking for a typically gory zombie flick with BRAAAAIIIIIIINS on the menu may walk (shamble) away a bit disappointed. The undead here don’t bite or tear flesh so much as they drown their victims. But, Shock Waves came at a time when the zombie flick was overly ubiquitous (try to think of a time when that wasn’t the case – I think there were about 3 hours in 1982 when no zombie movie was released). Weiderhorn and his crew set out to make something different and there's no doubt that they succeeded. If you're willing to let yourself, you'll quickly be engaged enough that you won't miss the blood and guts for a second. I'm not suggesting that the goals were loftier here than the typical zombie fare, but that the usual trappings and safety nets aren't employed.
As for the actors, John Carradine is seasoned at just the right level of saltiness as the Captain of the worse-for-wear ship, while Brooke Adams combines a rough and tough attitude with an excellently pitched horror scream (an attribute that doesn't seem to be valued enough in a horror movie actress). Unsurprisingly, Peter Cushing almost steals the show as the Nazi leader, but the size of his role is severely limited to slightly above that of a cameo. The horror legend goes at it with gusto and stays on the right side of campy, but there’s just not much of him to go around here. Best of all is former Flipper star Luke Halpin as a first mate whose early aloofness is quickly replaced by his necessity to become the hero of the piece.
Presented in 1.85:1 Widescreen, with 1080p HD resolution, Shock Waves has, quite frankly, never looked better. A lot of HD presentations of lower-budgeted horror movies (especially from the 70s) have a tendency to clean up the image too much, losing much of the gritty charm and letting a lot of the ‘strings’ show on the well-meaning, but limited effects, but the appeal is kept perfectly intact here. The establishing shots look gorgeous, while the underwater photography is suitably creepy. Occasionally, the static, single character shots drift a little into the blurry side, but it doesn’t remain an issue for long.
Richard Einhorn’s score combines cheesy sereneness and synthy, electronic menace and each note comes through loud and clear on the DTS HD Mono soundtrack. The music and dialogue levels blend smoothly – you’ll not miss a single word here. Also available are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish for those of you that can read (if you can’t, then how are you ingesting this article?).
Audio Commentary – Weiderhorn makes his only substantial appearance in the extras as he shares mic time with makeup designer Alan Ormsby and filmmaker Fred Olen Ray (who served as somewhat of a PA on this film). Weiderhorn understandably dominates the conversation, while Ray keeps the pace moving and demonstrates his obvious love for the film. There’s no real downtime here and it makes for an excellent listen.
Up next are a series of interview with various participants. Wisely, they break up the ‘talking head’ style interview with plenty of footage from the film on top of the chit-chat. In a fun turn, they each have their own opening titles using either the familiar Shock Waves imagery or their own ‘grindhouse’ style cards - proof that a lot of love went into this release. They are:
Nazi Zombies on a Budget – This interview with Producer/Cinematographer Reuben Trane allows him to give a brief overview of his start in the business and his partnership with Weiderhorn, but quickly moves into even more interesting territory when going into detail about the genesis and creation of this film in particular.
Notes for the Undead - Composer Richard Einhorn gets his opportunity to talk about the music he created. One of the most fascinating facets of filmmaking is the combination of music with visuals, and Einhorn gives quite a bit of insight into his process on this particular film, including the fact that this is one of the first electronic scores.
Sole Survivor – Lead actress Brooke Adams chats about her experience making the film (don’t worry – the title is not a spoiler, as the film opens with her character’s rescue). At only about 8 minutes, it’s brief, but Adams is quite engaging (and still looks great) and talks about how being a great sport is an important attribute when filming a horror movie.
From FLIPPER to SHOCK WAVES – In a seemingly older interview, actor Luke Halpern hasn’t changed much since filming (even sporting the same mustache) and remembers his experience quite fondly. Even shorter than Adams’ featurette, we could have used a couple more stories, but it leaves you wanting more.
Additional Items – Also included are the films Theatrical Trailer, TV Spot, Poster/Still gallery, and radio spots (always a welcome addition for me). Horror trailers in the 70s were an art form in and of themselves (generally being decidedly more action-driven than the films themselves), and this is one of the most fun.
For me, Shock Waves, has always been the best of the Nazi-zombie genre, and this excellent release from Blue Underground does absolutely nothing but reinforce that opinion. It's certainly a slow burn during its first act, but it drips so much creepy Italian zombie atmosphere (while not being an italian production), you'll quickly fall under its charms. The usual staples of gore and nudity are nowhere to be found, but when the rest of the pieces come together as well as they do here, you find that you don't miss a lot of those surface materials. For a relatively obscure feature like this, we'd be understanding of a bare-bones release, but as per usual, Blue Underground delivers a fantastic release with a great audio/visual presentation and an amazing slew of bonus material for a very deserving film.
As an added bonus, Shock Waves will be making a limited return to theaters. If you happen to live in the Houston or surrounding areas, you just might run into yours truly at the November 24 screening at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park. Feel free to corner me in the lobby or the bathroom and strike up a conversation about your favorite zombie/evil historic figure mash-up as we both nod our heads awkwardly! I’ll be the guy not quite yet nodding his head awkwardly.