Shock Waves

Director: Ken Wiederhorn
Screenplay: John Harrison and Ken Wiederhorn
Stars: Peter Cushing (SS Commander), John Carradine (Captain Ben Morris), Brooke Adams (Rose), Fred Buch (Chuck), Jack Davidson (Norman), Luke Halpin (Keith), D.J. Sidney (Beverly), Don Stout (Dobbs), Clarence Thomas (Fisherman)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1977
Country: U.S.
Shock Waves Blu-ray
Shock WavesIf you grew up going to video stores in the 1980s, there is a better than average chance that you are familiar with Ken Wiederhorn’s Shock Waves, even if you’ve never actually seen the movie. Its videocassette case was omnipresent in the horror section of any video outlet, whether at your local grocery store or at Blockbuster, with its quintet of wrinkled, green-skinned, goggle-wearing Nazi zombies emerging from the ocean and tearing a yacht in half while bikini-clad would-be victims screamed in abject terror (the proportions are, of course, entirely symbolic, as the zombies in the film are not the size of Godzilla). At once ludicrous and compelling, it is a truly memorable cover, encapsulating how, at the dawn of the video age, a low-budget indie horror film could become as widely available as any major Hollywood hit.

The movie itself, of course, doesn’t quite live up to the brilliance of its cover art, but it’s still a fun, diverting bit of undead horror that can at the very least claim both originality and influence, as it is arguably the first horror film to include Nazi zombies (it was ripped off a few years later by the Spanish-Italian coproduction Zombie Lake). The zombies here aren’t your typical resurrected corpses, but rather the result of nefarious scientific experiments during World War II aimed at creating unkillable super-soldiers for the SS. They descend on a small Caribbean island, having been reawakened after spending the previous three decades at the bottom of the ocean, which gives Wiederhorn and cinematographer/co-producer Reuben Tate ample opportunity to show us the decidedly uncanny image of undead Nazis walking along the ocean floor and emerging from the waves.

The victims consist of a group of tourists on an overnight yachting trip under the command of the cantankerous Captain Ben Morris (John Carradine in one of the many cash-grab roles he took at the end of his long career). At the beginning of the film we see one of the tourists, Rose (Brooke Adams), badly dehydrated and sunburned, being rescued from a dinghy in the middle of the ocean, so know that she survives. The fate of the others, which include the boat’s handsome navigator Keith (Luke Halpin, then best known as the kid from Flipper), a squabbling married couple (Jack Davidson and D.J. Sidney), and the boat’s often drunk galley hand (Don Stout), is left up in the air once they are all stranded on a strange island whose only inhabitant is an isolated SS commander (Peter Cushing) in voluntary exile. The commander’s sole purpose in the film is to dispense exposition about the history of the zombies, which is actually redundant given that a pre-credits sequence has already laid that groundwork. Nevertheless, Cushing marshals all the sophisticated menace of his Hammer glory days and imbues the film with a sense of gravitas that virtually no one else could have realistically supplied.

Although there are a few brief bits that drag, overall Shock Waves proves to be surprisingly robust in pacing and tension, as Wiederhorn draws out the film’s rather flimsy premise for all its worth. He and the production team make fantastic use of existing locations, including two different deserted hotels that are seamlessly combined to create the commander’s cavernous jungle hideaway, as well as underwater photography that gives the zombies a unique waterlogged eeriness. There isn’t a whole lot in the way of make-up special effects, with a few fleeting zombie close-ups and not a single drop of blood spilled (gorehounds will definitely be disappointed, but I was impressed by how much violence Wiederhorn was able to suggest without showing much of anything). Unlike most zombies, these aren’t out for guts to eat; rather, they kill out of pure homicidal ideation, which is exactly what they were created for. Composer Richard Einhorn is also quite good at amplifying the tension with his off-kilter electronic score, which utilizes all manner of discordant sounds and effects that sometimes give us the feeling that we’re listening to it underwater. The result is a film that is decidedly creepy and quite clever in masking its limitations and highlighting its strengths.

Shock Waves Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
  • Audio commentary by co-writer/director Ken Wiederhorn, make-up designer Alan Ormsby, and filmmaker Fred Olen Ray
  • “Nazi Zombies on a Budget”: Interview with producer/cinematographer Reuben Trane
  • “Notes for the Undead”: Interview with composer Richard Einhorn
  • “Sole Survivor”: Interview with actress Brooke Adams
  • “From Flipper to Shock Waves”: Interview with actor Luke Halpin
  • Theatrical trailer
  • TV Spot
  • Radio spots
  • Poster & still gallery
  • DistributorBlue Underground
    Release DateNovember 25, 2014

    For budgetary reasons, Shock Waves was shot in Super 16mm and then blown up to 35mm for theatrical distribution, although in his commentary director Ken Wiederhorn notes that the complications involved in properly blowing up the image ultimately negated the cost-savings of using the smaller gauge film. Blue Underground’s new high-definition transfer looks to have been taken from one of the blow-up prints, as the graininess of the image is quite noticeable, more so than we would see with the original 16mm negative (which, from what I have subsequently read, has been lost). This results in an image that is certainly soft, particularly in comparison to what viewers have come to expect from a Blu-ray, but it looks to be a very accurate representation of what the film looked like in theatrical release, and it is a decided improvement over all existing home video versions. Even with the grain, the image boasts an impressive level of detail, particularly in close-ups, and although there are some signs of age and wear on the print used for the transfer, it is quite clean for a film of its age. Colors are natural and consistent throughout, although they look to be just a tad faded, which may be the intended look (it certainly works with the film’s tone). I certainly prefer this more film-like presentation over something that has been overly digitized and artificially sharpened. The DTS-HD Master Audio monaural soundtrack is even more impressive than you would expect, with a clean sound and robust sense of depth that gives Richard Einhorn’s creepy electronic score its full impact.
    As we have come to expect from Blue Underground, there is an outstanding array of supplements included. Ported over from their 2003 DVD is a laid-back audio commentary by co-writer/director Ken Wiederhorn, make-up designer Alan Ormsby, and prolific B-movie writer/director Fred Olen Ray, who worked on the film as a gopher and still photographer. There are plenty of amusing production stories and anecdotes to share, and my only complaint is that there are a few too many dead spaces, especially considering that there are three contributors on the track. In addition to the commentary, from the DVD we get an interview with actor Luke Halpin (8 min.), a theatrical trailer, several TV and radio spots, and a robust stills gallery that includes domestic and international poster art, newspaper clippings, and behind-the-scenes photos, including some of a special effects sequence involving a rotted corpse that didn’t make it into the film (Wiederhorn and Ormsby discuss it in the audio commentary). New to the Blu-ray are three substantial video interviews with producer/cinematographer Reuben Trane (21 min.), who offers a detailed accounting of the film’s production; composer Richard Einhorn (14 min.), who discusses his approach to writing the score; and actress Brooke Adams (7 min.), who shares her memories about working on the film.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Blue Underground

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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