Shock Waves: The Deep End of 1970s Horror
The 1970’s was a landmark decade for the horror genre. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist showed that horror could be taken seriously, while Steven Spielberg proved that horror could fill theatre seats, even in the summer months, with Jaws. It was the decade that saw Halloween, Phantasm, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Suspiria, and Alien released.
Ken Wiederhorn’s Shock Waves, released in 1977, will likely not make anyone’s ‘Best of 1970’s’ horror list. It may make the very select list of ‘Best Nazi Zombie’ horror films. This doesn’t make Shock Waves a bad film. On the contrary, Shock Waves, which has a small cult following, is atmospheric, eclectic horror selection.
As Shock Waves opens, a voice-over narration describes World War II Nazi experiments in the supernatural. The result of this experimentation was a small squadron of ‘undead’ soldiers that were never captured. Following this prologue, two fishermen find a lone, confused woman adrift in a rowboat in middle of the ocean.
We then flashback to a small commercial fishing boat carrying several tourists, including bickering couple Norman and Beverly, Chuck, and the woman rescued from the rowboat, Rose. An inexplicable encounter with a ghostly ship in the middle of the night leaves the boat sinking and its passengers and crew scrambling to an unknown island. As they explore the island, they discover an abandoned resort and its lone living resident – the SS Commander responsible for the Nazi zombie squadron.
Shock Waves Is Distinguished by Its Creepy Ambiance
No one is going to confuse Shock Waves for a classic in horror film-making. One quick glance at the grainy picture quality will tell you it’s the very definition of low-budget. Fortunately, Shock Waves is a genuinely odd and eclectic piece of cinema that actually benefits from its budgetary constraints.
Released roughly a year before George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Shock Waves offers a unique aesthetic take on the zombie mythology. While it’s clear that the Nazi zombies are played by a handful of the same actors, the leathery makeup effects, created by Alan Ormsby of Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, are both distinctly memorable and creepy. The scenes of the undead submerged or rising out from the water strike just the right nerves, never feeling silly or ‘cheap’. These scenes illustrate how a chilling atmosphere can be achieved even on a shoestring budget.
What truly sets Shock Waves apart is its midnight film vibe.
What truly sets Shock Waves apart is its midnight film vibe. Wiederhorn creates an uneasy ambiance, an overarching air of creepiness, that a big budget can’t buy. Shock Waves also stands out due to its electronic score created by Richard Einhorn. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that Einhorn’s haunting score is the best part of Shock Waves. Discordant and drawn out water-drenched chords add depth and personality to the film.
One Film, Two Horror Film Icons
Despite its low budget, Shock Waves had the distinction of netting not one but two horror film legends for its cast. Neither John Carradine nor Peter Cushing are in the film for any great length of time. Their appearances amount to extended cameos. Carradine, who replaced Bela Lugosi as Dracula in House of Frankenstein, anchors the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film as the ship’s crusty captain. Cushing turns up later in the film as the SS Commander responsible for the Nazi zombies. Looking very gaunt and sickly, Cushing still classes things up even when he’s largely just required to deliver expository dialogue.
Lack of Traditional Zombie Gore
Horror fans expecting the same level of visceral gore and jump scares characteristic of other zombie films will likely be disappointed with Shock Waves. There are certainly a few well placed scares but Shock Waves largely relies on atmosphere and mood. Most of the choreographed action is simple and clumsily staged. Most of the deaths occur off-screen leaving virtually no explicit gore of which to speak.
Shock Waves Deserving of Cult Status
While it’s certainly not a hallmark of the zombie subgenre, there’s something about Shock Waves that makes it worthy of cult status. In addition to Einhorn’s excellent electronic score, Shock Waves just has that “vibe” or feeling you associate with late-night horror films. Perhaps the best way to describe Shock Waves is that it’s the kind of movie that will remind older horror fans of being a kid and sneaking up late at night to watch a scary movie while hiding under the blankets. And it has Peter Cushing.