Sunday, December 12, 2010

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Shock Waves

Having been disappointed by ‘Dead Snow’ and pleasantly surprised by ‘Outpost’ earlier this year, I decided to revisit the granddaddy of all Nazi zombie films, Ken Wiederhorn’s ‘Shock Waves’.

It had been over a decade since I’d seen it, but I remembered it as a fairly steadily paced but watchable film that at least did something with the concept of Nazi zombies. Unlike most entries in this sparsely-populated subgenre, which are content with being standard issue zombie movies except with the zombies kitted out in German uniforms.

So: how did it hold up?

The short answer is: pretty well.

Wiederhorn fumbles the ball a tad at the start, but things pick up satisfactorily within the first half hour. ‘Shock Waves’ opens with Rose (Brooke Adams) being rescued from a rowing boat adrift in the ocean by a fisherman and his son. They treat her kindly, but she is unable to answer their questions as to what happened. She stares blankly across the waves, obviously traumatized. In itself, a decent enough opening scene. Then the voiceover kicks in. Florid, overwritten voiceover that immediately tells us we’ve started at the end and the rest of the movie will be a flashback.

This immediately establishes Rose as final girl and clues in even the dimmest viewer that the rest of the soon-to-introduced cast won’t be making it to the end credits. This makes for a deficiency of tension in the second half of the film, made more noticeable by the fact that Wiederhorn spends no small amount of time setting up the characters.


The set up is: we have a rustbucket captained by an irascible old salt (John Carradine) and crewed by first mate Keith (Luke Halpin). Two couples are onboard for a pleasure cruise: Rose and Chuck (Fred Buch) and middle-aged bickerers Norman (Jack Davidson) and Beverley (D.J. Sidney). The boat is beset by mechanical problems. A strange solar phenomenon disturbs the passengers. A seemingly crewless ship hoves out of nowhere and broadsides the boat. And, oh yeah, some undead Nazis rise up from the ocean floor.

Not the ideal vacation scenario.

Our heroes pile into a rowing boat and head for a nearby island. They find it deserted but for a crumbling villa occupied by an ageing Nazi u-boat commander (Peter Cushing) who delivers some helpful expositional dialogue then pretty much orders them off the island at gunpoint.

Which is where Wiederhorn starts doing some interesting things. Already earning brownie points for having a cast of adults with established relationships rather than a bunch of smug teenagers who have no defining characteristics other than tan lines and priapic libidos, Wiederhorn wins out by not forcing them into contrived situations where they basically act like characters in a horror movie just so that another splatter scene can take place. When Commander von Cushing orders them off the island, they do their level best to get the fuck off the island.


Which brings us to the next cool thing that ‘Shock Waves’ does. Have you ever had one of those really bad days? Something like this: you fall back to sleep after turning the alarm off, wake up 40 minutes later, the adrenalin kicks in and you try your hardest to get showered, dressed, out the door and on the way to work as quickly as possible. Only Sod’s Law is working against you: the shower’s running cold, you get soap in your eyes, you stub your toe getting out of the bath, the zip breaks on your trousers and two buttons come off your shirt while you’re trying to get dressed, you can’t find your wallet or your car keys or your swipe card for the office; you’re about to leave the house and the postman wants you to take in a parcel for next door that has to be signed for; you’re finally in the car and driving to work and every fucking light is red, every car in front of you is doing 10mph, every other driver on the road is a congenital ditherer, there’s a dustbin lorry blocking the road or a bus has broken down; there’s a diversion. In short, everything that could possibly conspire to prevent you reaching your destination comes together in a symphony of disruption and frustration. Now apply this scenario to being shipwrecked on an island with a loony OAP Nazi and an advancing undead army of the Third Reich’s finest.

In a superb article on ‘After Hours’ a few days ago, Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck described Scorsese’s wincingly uncomfortable acidic comedy as “the cinematic equivalent of that old gag wherein Job asks God why these things are happening to him and God replies, ‘Something about you just pissed me off’.” In this respect, it’s possible to view ‘Shock Waves’ as the bastard B-movie sibling of ‘After Hours’.

Rose and her fellow unfortunates can run but they can’t hide (the film’s best scene has the survivors effectively fuck up their chances of evading the horde when the only available hiding place triggers a panic attack in one of their number who is claustrophobic). They can swim but … ooops, these aren’t just undead Nazis, but undead Nazi submariners. You’re in danger on land … you’re in even more danger in or on the water … and, oh yeah, you’re on an island. Short version: you’re fucked.


Like I said, ‘Shock Waves’ has its flaws. There’s not much tension when you already know that Rose is the sole survivor. Indeed, the last kill is not so much gut-wrenchingly inevitable as blandly arbitrary. Wiederhorn overuses the imagery of pasty-faced Nazis rising slowly from the murky waters. What comes across as genuinely creepy the first few times soon loses its impact. And when he stages it, late in the game, in a swimming pool, it just comes across as silly.

Still, it’s invigorating to watch a horror film whose female leads don’t run around shrieking and die like stupid bimbos; whose protagonists purposefully try to evade the threat rather than inviting it; and whose antagonists, while properly threatening, aren’t the real villain. The message of ‘Shock Waves’ seems to be Nazis: baaaaad. Fate: total motherfucker.

3 comments:

Troy Olson said...

Interesting to hear this holds up so well. I've not rewatched it since I was a kid in order to not kill my fond memories of it -- it kind of freaked me out, even as it was kind of slow. Something about undead Nazi's in the water was quite scary to me then. Anyhow, I may have to give this one another go in the near future.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I enjoyed this one, in fact, I own it. Actually, I was inspired by this movie when I decided to make my own zombie movie. My film takes place in a beach, and zombies come out of the water! My effect wasnt as spookie cause my film was a comedy, but the images of the nazi zombies emerging from the waves was inspirational to me and my crew.

Was it just me, or was music almost non existant on this film? I think it worked in its favor though, everything seems that much spookier.

Favorite death? The guy that falls on that spiked fish thing and then the zombies just shove his head on it!

Neil Fulwood said...

Troy - I think the fact that it's such a slow-burn film helps. Wiederhorn resists the temptation to play his hand for quite a while, even though the pre-credits sequence clues us into the war and Nazi-ism. When the submariners finally appear, after those few tantalising shots of them underwater, it's chillingly effective.

Franco - good call; I completely forgot to mention the almost total absence of music. It makes the scene where they find the gramophone, just before Peter Cushing appears, so much creepier.