Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Shock Waves: Nazi Typical Zombie Movie.

Sometimes modesty becomes a horror movie.

Not every fright flick needs to be the grandest, goriest, or most outrageous on the block. There's something to be said for a movie that economically, entertainingly gets the job (that's goosebump-raising here, folks) done.

Shock Waves hit theaters and drive-ins back in 1977, and it demonstrates this truism nicely. This humble little horror thriller shows its seams, but its resourcefulness and imagination make for an entertaining hour-and-a-half.

The movie opens like a sort of twisted Sunn Classics documentary, with an offscreen narrator spilling the setup (specifically, reputed attempts by the SS to create a squad of super-soldiers) as the camera pulls back on an archival photo of a Nazi squadron. It's a really effective intro (and it beat The Blair Witch Project to the mockumentary conceit by a couple of decades).

The story proper follows a small pleasure-boat as it collides with an imposing hulk of a shipwreck just off the coast of a remote island. The tourists and crew end up stranded on the island and stumble onto an abandoned hotel. The aged building's sole inhabitant--an aging SS Commandant (Peter Cushing)--created an elite corps of zombie soldiers thirty years previous: These merciless killing machines can travel underwater with alarming ease, and naturally, this long-dormant pack of the undead was roused by the seaside accident. The body count begins.

Don't expect a low-key masterpiece like Carnival of Souls here. The pacing lags in spots, and sometimes characters do Dumb Movie Character Things that totally yank the viewer out of the moment (do we really need to see another otherwise-rational character experience a spontaneous mental freakout and rush headlong into certain doom?). But there's much to love.

Director Ken Wiederhorn makes terrific use of the alternately exotic and forboding locations (Florida and Bimini, Wiederhorn reveals in the DVD commentary). The overgrown hotel that serves as the castaways' shelter, and the lush swampland surrounding it, makes for a truly alien atmosphere. A creepy and effective minimalist electronic score burbles in the background nicely, and best of all the monsters are pretty damn cool. Uniformed, goggled, and merciless, the zombies don't kill gruesomely (the R rating on the DVD cover obscures the fact that the movie was originally released with a PG), but their lethal efficiency rattles the nerves.

Wiederhorn also struck it lucky with some of his key cast members. It's always a treat to see John Carradine chew the scenery like he does as the Skipper here, and Luke Halpin (former teen buddy to Flipper) acquits himself ably as the ostensible hero despite his porn-star moustache and feathered hair. Brooke Adams' quirky appeal, meanwhile, goes a long way towards making her scream-queen character tolerable. Best of all is Cushing, adding an air of dignity and making the most of his limited screen time as the Nazi scientist.

Blue Underground's DVD sports plenty of extras, including pre-production sketches, an interview with Halpin, behind-the-scenes stills, and a fun commentary track by Wiederhorn, makeup artist Alan Ormsby, and future schlock director Fred Olen Ray (who finagled his way into a PA job as an excuse to meet Cushing and Carradine). Wiederhorn comes off as an affable and down-to-earth guy, and it's a shame his career never really took off. Shock Waves proves that, budgetary limitations and all, he had the goods.

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