Fans of zombies are living in a golden age of entertainment--the decaying objects of their enthusiasm are featured on hit teevee shows, appear in literary mash-ups, and grace countless toys, video games, items of clothing, and objets d'art. Countless gigs of internet data have been expended on the ongoing debate between slow and fast zombies, and the murmur of "braaaaaaiiiiinssss" is on the lips of just about every person in the land. There's a campy, post-modern appreciation going on here, and I am super-happy for these fans.
That having been said, a zombie movie has to make a pretty convincing case to catch my attention these days. Either that, or it has to be grandfathered into my To Watch Pile from before the Zombie Renaissance. The 1977 film "Shock Waves" passed both of these checkpoints, and was given additional credibility due to Peter Cushing's appearance as well as a creepy Nazi backstory to its ghoulish goings-on.
Our story finds a hapless quartet of travelers stranded in the ocean on a leaky boat helmed by a half-mad captain (John Carradine), his hunky-if-dimwitted second in command and a drunk cook. As darkness falls, a huge ship sideswipes the craft and upon daybreak, no evidence remains aside from a rusting hulk on the reefs of a seemingly-deserted island. The exhausted vacationers wander onto shore where they find shelter in an abandoned hotel, only to encounter a mysterious old man (Peter Cushing) who warns them of terrible events that are fated to unfold. It turns out that the old man is an SS commander who has been hiding on the island, attempting to keep his corps of murderous zombie soldiers out of view of the world.
The appeal of "Shock Waves" rests almost solely on the film's evocative atmosphere. It feels pretty weird to type this, but this is an understated movie--yes, an understated movie about Nazi zombies overrunning a group of vacationers on a deserted tropical island. The modest budget--listed on IMDb at $200,000--goes a long way, with clever use of location filming and creepy creature design playing key roles. Vibrating electronic tones make up the majority of the soundtrack, creating an air of lurking horror. There is some wonderful underwater camerawork that adds an unusual texture to the movie. These underwater scenes give a sense that there's a different world lurking beneath the surface of the one that the lead characters inhabit. It's a simple but enormously effective technique.
In its tone, the movie shares a lot of characteristics with "Tombs of the Blind Dead." So much so, in fact, that I was honestly surprised to learn that this film was not a Spanish production. Directed by Ken Wiederhorn, a director whose modest body of work includes the pretty underwhelming "Return of the Living Dead II," "Shock Waves" combines a minimalist synth soundtrack, some great underwater camerawork, and an authentic abandoned location to frame its uniformed zombies in much the same way that "Tombs of the Blind Dead" creates a life-support system for scenes featuring the Templars. Just as the viewer's interest is starting to wane while watching the protagonists flail about trying to understand their circumstances, there's a chilling shot of a goggled, wrinkled zombie slooooowly breaking the surface of the water. In much the same way that I could watch the Templars riding horses through abandoned gothic structures for ninety minutes, I could watch these undead, amphibian Nazis for the whole run time of the movie.
"Shock Waves" shares more with the classic voodoo zombie film than with movies of the post-Romero zombie landscape. There's virtually no blood, and there are no explosive moments of action. This is a film that traffics in creeping dread rather than gruesome visuals and political symbolism. The zombies are occult creatures from an unspeakable past that have to be dealt with by the living.
Skillfully marrying a spooky, found location with unusual, evil creatures, "Shock Waves" creates a unique monster movie experience. Its slow pace and sometimes strange (some might even argue "non-existent") character motivations will undoubtedly leave many viewers cold. There are long spans of screen time during which very little happens, but I found this to be an effective tension-building technique. The scenes in which characters slowly approach or submerge themselves in bodies of water were particularly eerie, knowing that the zombies could be waiting inches away.
For those seeking a change of pace from explosive, grisly zombie films, "Shock Waves" provides an excellent palate cleanser. Its dream-like atmosphere and creative use of a limited budget make this film well worth a watch.