Friday, November 2, 2018

Shock Waves (USA, 1977)

(Meander with Spoilers.) Aka Almost Human and Death Corps. Here is an interesting if flawed low-budget semi-shocker from the seventies which, like so many cult favorites, is not quite as good as its reputation but way better than it ought to be.
Trailer to
Shock Waves:
Possibly inspired by Zombies of Mora Tau (1957 / trailer),* one of the better of the many pieces of (usually) laughable but enjoyable genre flotsam directed by the prolific and underappreciated B- and C-movie meistro Edward L. Cahn* (12 Feb 1899 – 25 Aug 1963), Shock Waves, the debut feature-film directorial effort of Ken Wiederhorn, morphs the earlier film's basic idea of waterlogged killer zombies protecting the diamonds on a sunken ship into a death corps of waterlogged killer Nazi zombies that escape (?) their sunken ship and proceed to decimate a group of shipwrecked tourists.
* Trivia twice over:
1. The phrasing of the prologue scroll of Zombies of Mora Tau brims with cultural precocity: "In the darkness of an ancient world — on a shore that time has forgotten — there is a twilight zone between life and death. Here dwell those nameless creatures who are condemned to prowl the land eternally — the walking dead." 
2. Two years after Shock Waves, in 1979, another low budget feature directed by Edward L. Cahn, the sci-fi horror movie It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958 / trailer), went on to inspire the modern classic, Alien (1979 / trailer).
One of the Shock Waves' biggest mistakes is a structural one common to so many films, and one that is generally particularly detrimental to horror movies. (See, for example, The Prometheus Project [2010].) Shock Waves opens with a fisherman (Clarence Thomas) and his boy finding a floating dinghy and a parched and terrified woman we later learn is named Rose (Brooke Adams of Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1978 / trailer] and The Unborn [1991 / trailer]). She is the sole survivor of the subsequent narrative, which, as it is told in flashback, totally loses all tension regarding the question of who will and who won't survive. Which is not to say the movie doesn't nevertheless often achieve a notable creepiness and even a decent scare or two (or three), it's just that all the shocks and scares and atmosphere would have been greatly served and enhanced if it hadn't been revealed to the viewer in advance that: everybody gonna die! (Indeed, without problem the film's narrative could easily have been structured and told in consecutive progression, without the flashback structure.)
Opening intro to
Shock Waves:
Shock Waves' slightly schizophrenic opening is indecisive regarding whether the zombie horrors that subsequently transpire are follow are unnatural or science-based. The intro (above) makes the zombies' origins relatively science-based, but their sudden return from the ocean floor in the movie is decidedly supernatural, preceded by unnatural and hazy daylight, a mysteriously dysfunctional compass and radio, and a ghostly death ship that almost rams the tourist boat.* Supernatural or not, the midnight near-miss results in a slowly sinking tourist boat, which in turns forces the all those aboard to take refuge on the nearby tropic island on which the rest of the tale commences.
* The extras of the German Ungekürzte Fassung ("uncut version") DVD we watched, from Marketing Film, included photos and mention of later scenes onboard that death ship that never made it into the final film. Sad.
And it is on this island that our initial team of six boaters runs into the unnamed SS Commander (Peter Cushing of The Mummy [1959], The Curse of Frankenstein [1957], The Brides of Dracula [1960], Corruption [1968] and so much more), the man who long ago sank the boatload of Nazi zombies to the ocean's floor only to subsequently take residence in the long-deserted island hotel where the movie's fodder-six take initial refuge. Not too keen on having visitors, he grudgingly offers them a way off the island — a small sailboat — which they later lose due to basic incompetency.
Cushing's appearance, like that of fellow poster headliner John Carradine (as the tourist boat's ornery Captain Ben Morris), is much too brief, and though the two never share a scene together they are both, as almost always, a pleasure to watch on screen. Indeed, they more or less easily dominate any scene they are in, upstaging and stealing it from the rest of the cast without even trying. Cushing's German accent, however, so on-the-mark when speaking English, is completely lost and snigger-inducing whenever he barks out his few perfunctory (and very basic) German-language phrases. Not that the average English native speaker would notice….
The Nazi zombies, thank FSM's Noodly Appendages, bear little resemblance to the laughable dead of that other waterlogged killer Nazi zombie film that followed four years later, Zombie Lake (1981). The blonde, shrivel-skinned undead that rise from the waters in Shock Waves are suitably unnerving, and do indeed convey a level of disturbing eeriness and deathly danger — that is, of course, unless you happen to watch the movie with a German, who will surely giggle and exclaim, "They all look just like Heino!" (See below video.) But even without such commentary, their sinister creepiness is lessened a bit by the repetitiveness in how Wiederhorn stages their emergence: seen it once, seen it twice, seen it thrice, seen it…
Heino covers
Die Ärtze's song, Junge:
Considering the decade it is from, Shock Waves is surprisingly goreless and not at all bloody, but then, death by drowning in seldom either. Still, drowning, or being drowned, is a horrible way to go — but Wiederhorn tends to negate the horror of the event by not dwelling upon the act when it occurs, preferring instead to have the victim simply pulled below the water and a dead body shown later. And since the viewer already knows that everyone is going to die, most of the revulsion and horror that any given death should instigate is already diminished, even during the final escape scene revealing how Rose ends up alone on the dinghy. (There is also absolutely no gratuitous nudity, generally a staple of the time, but then the film does have a low female character count, and neither is a horny college student, generally the only stereotype to get nekkid in this kind of movie.)
Rose (Brooke Adams) and the captain's mate Keith (Luke Halpin) are the film's nominal hero and heroine, if only because they were, at the time Shock Wave was released, the best-known faces in the movie (outside, of course, the extended cameos of the headlining stars Cushing and Carradine).* But while both are attractive, they, like all other survivors of the cruise boat, are cyphers without any true characterization. They — like everyone in the movie — are faces, but faceless, with virtually no past or personality. Rose is little more than an attractive brunette and Keith little more than a good-looking ship's mate, while fellow tourist Chuck (Fred Buch [26 Feb 1940 – 2 Dec 2012], also found in Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare Beach [1989 / trailer]), is just some tourist in nylon shorts. The ship's cook, Dobb (Don Stout [13 April 1923 – 16 June 2004]), fares better, as he is such a stereotype — hard-drinking and working aged cook — that the stereotype actually gives him personality. Oddly enough, the used-car salesman Norman (Jack Davidson) is given a surprising amount of character-building dialogue (and thus comes across a bit like the blustery Leslie Nielsen character of Day of the Animals [1977 / trailer] but without the alpha-personality traits) considering how ineffectual he is, but his wife Beverly (D.J. Sidney) is basically never anything more than simply a stock character: "the Doomed Wife".
* Adams was an up-and-coming actress, while Halpin was still familiar from his days as a teen heartthrob arising from his character in Flipper (1963 / trailer), Flipper's New Adventures (1964 / trailer), and the subsequent TV show, Flipper (1964-67). (We here at a wasted life, however, remember him primarily as one of the many Floridian faces in the fun regional atrocity that is Mr No Legs [1978 / trailer].)
Since they are all such non-entities, it is hardly surprising that they never try to become proactive and also work so dysfunctionally as a group. No sooner does their lack of organization cost them their escape boat, do they suddenly all go running different directions amidst the mangroves. And even after Rose accidentally discovers a way to disable the zombies — by pulling off their goggles — they never try to work together to take any Nazi zombies down. (We're not talking about mutating into master samurais and decapitations, we're talking about a simple joint effort to bait & distract and pull off them thar' goggles.*) The extent to which they are dysfunctional as a group is underscored later when, after Nylon-Shorts Chuck claustrophobia-induced freak-out** and Beverly's accidental blinding, everyone just runs off and leaves Beverly behind. Like: why is anyone surprised when she turns up dead the next day?
* In itself, also an inconsistency in the movie: although two zombies are noticeably felled by the removal of their goggles, Beverly the Doomed Wife is later killed by a zombie not wearing any.
** Are we the only ones to think that four people trying to hide all night in what is probably an air-tight, walk-in refrigerator is not a good idea?
(GIF found at Scare Me On Fridays)
In the end, Shock Waves is a movie that is more than easy to eviscerate — the preceding quibbles are but a few of the many that one can harp upon should one want to write ten or more pages. But for all its flaws, the movie remains captivating and exudes a fine and atmospheric sense of doom that one seldom finds amidst the palm trees of tropical locations (outside, that is, of the average Italian zombie flick — like Zombi / Zombie II [1979], Dr. Gore / Zombie Holocaust [1980], and so many others). Quirky and different, Shock Waves is a highly enjoyable horror film, perhaps even effective if one is of a forgiving nature or simply blind to its faults. It is not a classic in any way, despite often being touted as one, but it does make for easy viewing. Give it a chance… and then tell us what you think about it... 
And speaking of zombies and Heino —
Zombie Heinos in
Otto der Fim (1985 / trailer):

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