Sunday, July 10, 2011

Shock Waves: Tourists Shouldn't Play with Wet Dead Things

Ahhh, zombies.  I love em, and I know you probably do, too.  Back in the early 70s, before everything that could have been done WAS done, low budget movies were mixing it up left and right.  I envision it as a time of wild creativity in horror films, but it's probably closer to the truth to say that people were doing it in the name of exploitation, jumbling ideas around in an attempt to find a marketable, cheaply made product.  Still, it's always a pleasure to watch a movie that you think is gonna really suck, and then suddenly you find that it's gotten under your skin somehow.  Such is the case with "Shock Waves", a nifty little drive-in movie about a small group of tourists on a pleasure cruise who find themselves marooned on an island and stalked by a horde of zombies--in particular, undead gogglefaced Nazi soldiers intent on their swift execution.

In the grand 70s Doom tradition, "Shock Waves" opens with a flashback narration, similar to "Let's Scare Jessica to Death".  The heroine in this case is Rose, played by none other than one of my all-time genre heroines, Brooke Adams.  Rose is one of four tourists on a small chartered yacht, captained by none other than John Carradine.  There's also a groovy 70s first mate named Chuck, who's a perfect romantic interest for Rose.  Before anything much can happen though, the group experiences a strange solar phenomenon where everything turns orange.  Maybe it was that brown acid.  Chuck and the Captain lose control of their navigation devices, and they eventually have to admit that they're completely lost.  After the sun goes down, the yacht is sideswiped by a huge ship that comes out of nowhere in the darkness, and the yacht is stranded on a reef.

The next morning, the crew and passengers are forced to evacuate the yacht after they discover it's taking on water.  Taking the small lifeboat to a nearby island, they find the body of their captain in the water, presumably after drowning while checking the underside of the boat.  After exploring the island, they find an abandoned hotel, and quickly discover they're not alone.  Living on the island is a hermit (Peter Cushing) with a German accent (would this make him a Germit?), who is alarmed to hear of the appearance of the ship.  His concern is for a very good reason: the return of the wrecked ship means there are now a whole lot of zombies in the waters around the island.  He eventually confesses that he's a former SS Commander, marooned on the island since World War II.  He was in charge of a squadron of experimental zombies known as the Death Corps; soldiers not living and not dead, not needing to breathe or eat, and able to kill human beings with their bare hands.  When Germany lost the war, he sank the warship and quickly settled into his new role in life in exile. As a Germit.

The zombies converge on the island and begin their stalking.  The early victims get picked off when they're alone, but as the number of breathing people on the island dwindles, the zombies become more bold and chase down their prey.  Fans of cannibal zombies will be disappointed, as these dead guys aren't hungry, they only want to murder the hell out of you.  They're not Romero zombies at all, as they're clearly intelligent and have articulated movements.  Silent and creepy as hell, they're a truly frightening group with gray wrinkled skin and black goggles that give them an eyeless effect as well.  The zombies like to hide under the water until you pass nearby, then grab you and pull you under until the bubbles stop.

Peter Freakin' Cushing!!!
Released in 1977, "Shock Waves" was actually created and filmed in 1975, which has got to make it the first "Nazi zombie" movie ever.  The dreamlike atmosphere of the film is bolstered by the strange gaps in the narrative.  Where other movies want to talk you to death, "Shock Waves" is unusually quiet.  There are no conventional introductions to the characters, the story just starts as if we already know who these people are.  The orange solar phenomenon, which coincides with the reappearance of the German ship, remains bizarre and unexplained throughout the entire film.  It almost seems as if important character development or plot exposition was edited out of the film in post-production.  The director, Ken Wiederhorn, makes the most of the Florida setting, focusing on weird isolated locations to create a disorienting environment for the characters.  A lot of the action takes place in shallow tributaries and glassy pools of water surrounded by lush green vegetation, bizarre gray brush, and weird looking sea life.  The abandoned hotel is an amazing location too; I can't imagine a better place to live in exile.  Minus the zombies, of course. 

Nazi Zombie, or Backup Dancer for Lady Goggle?
"Shock Waves" also has a lot of the creativity that's often forced by a low budget.  In one of the movie's creepiest moments, just after the yacht has been stranded on a coral reef after nearly colliding with the ghost ship, the passengers all gather on the deck and peer out into the darkness, hoping to see what they could have wrecked into.  The Captain sends up a flare, and it momentarily illuminates the hulking German ship, now looking like nothing more than the skeletal remains of what was once a seafaring vessel.

John Carradine, doing that John Carradine eyebrow thing

The underwater shots of the dead soliders are very creepy.  The first time we see one, he's walking along the metal framework of the rusted ship, across the ocean floor. I felt uncomfortable watching it, mostly because one unbroken shot shows him walking through a strange underwater landscape of coral and vegetation, and I kept thinking "That actor has got to breathe sooner or later!"

Sometimes the shots of the zombies don't connect all that well with those of the actors reacting to them, as if the cast were not all together at the same time. There's some disorienting editing and meandering passages that seem to indicate padding, mostly with shots of the zombies appearing on screen, but I think it could have been an attempt to suggest many more zombies than were actually there. It creates a weird, hypnotic atmosphere to the film that goes well with the hazy sun-bleached cinematography. There aren't many movies where outdoor daytime photography with a lot of sunlight creates an atmosphere of dread, but this one comes to mind immediately.

The doomy synth score is a memorable aspect of "Shock Waves", too.  While it consists of only a few themes and riffs repeated through the movie, it contributes perfectly to the bleak atmosphere.  And also, could I geek out just a little bit over the fact that both John Carradine and PETER CUSHING are in this movie?  Their roles, especially Carradine's, are really nothing more than guest appearances, but it's enough to lend the movie some much-needed credibility that a totally anonymous cast might have had trouble with.  In the case of Cushing, it's amusing that "Shock Waves" appeared in theaters the same year he was also on screen in a movie called "Star Wars".

Nurse? Bring me my makeup....

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