What a mind-opening experience it was to hear director Ken Weiderhorn talk about his most famous film, “Shockwaves,” last week at the Coolidge Corner. Though I was thrilled to hear him speak in person about his now notorious 1977 underwater Nazi zombie film, his overall tone that night was that of a dad who was forced to talk about his son’s recent ballet recital. After hearing him sadly recount his story of how a late night CBS television screening of his film caused folks at his then television job to lose respect for him, thus making it difficult to thrive in his chosen career, I get it, he was not happy. But let’s put the potentially un-PC, career-ending subject matter aside, “Shockwaves” is a visually unique chunk of horror that can boast about a cast containing a pre-“Days Of Heaven,” Brooke Adams, and B-horror movie legends( who were only paid for four days of shooting BTW) Peter Cushing and John Carradine at their creepiest. Also, “Shockwaves” can still give you the thrill of saying to your co-workers, “well tonight I’m seeing one of those underwater Nazi zombie films” because that statement should be good for at least another forty years of bad looks.
The film begins with a father and son who rescue a sunburned, disturbed woman from her rudderless dinghy. Something horrific has happened to her and you need to know why. As she starts to recall what occurred, you begin the backtracking by placing her on a pleasure boat that is being captained by a very drunk John Carradine (he’s was really good at this) , with a salty crew of young and old, and a passenger list containing a cast of vacationers that any 70s film would be proud to have: You have the hunky curly-haired guy, the annoying know-it-all redhead, who is of course married to the whiny Herb Tarlick-styled salesman, and the radiant, raven haired, level-headed protagonist of our film, Brooke Adams, who was our gal adrift at sea whom we just saw at the beginning of the film. The boat is far from ship-shape, the meals are cooked my a man who usually eats chili with his fingers, and the captain played the always cantankerous John Carradine, who has a pony bottle of Bob’s Vodka permanently glued to his hand as an accessory. As mutiny begins to fill the air, they are sideswiped by a ghost ship which does some damage and are forced to land the SS Minnow on a desolate island that has the shell of a long since destroyed military ship off its coast. Our captain goes missing and is then found dead, and so now it’s up to the passengers crew to figure out a rescue plan.
They soon come across the lavish, dilapidated estate of a semi-retired SS Commander (Peter Cushing), I say “semi” as he almost immediately explains that his group of “Death Corps,” a scientifically created group of immortal soldiers, still roam the island. These troops were designed to be U-Boat crew members so they really like the deep blue sea and continue to live there, but as World War Two had ended some thirty years prior, they just got to kill everything they see out of loyalty or boredom once they uniformly pop up from the various rivers and ponds on the island. Armed with this knowledge, the crew find a place to hide and try not get killed before they can and make a dash off of Club Hitler the next day. I must admit the story is pretty thin but the Death Corps zombies are the most interesting thing about “Shockwaves.” These zombies (for lack of a better word) behave more like” Val Lewton” zombies and not like the Romeroesque “eat your face” zombies of “Night Of The Living Dead” which had come forth from beyond a decade earlier. More maniacal and cunning than shambolic, yes this 70s cast will not be a food source for walking meatloaves; they will be drowned and strangled by these highly trained, and oddly nostalgic, undead fascists. These choices of murder strategies that they employ were due more to budgetary restraints, than a thoughtful desire to omit bloody outcomes. In fact, as we learned from Mr. Weiderhorn that night, a lot of this film was guided by the lack of funds. Ken stated that the money people had a desire to bankroll a horror film because, “they always make their money back,” and according to our director, they did make their bread back with “Shockwaves.” Also as we all know, sometimes being restricted by funds does bring out some creative alternatives that work better than the usual, and there are several clever ways that Ken got results out of small money.
As we now know, every zombie has an Achilles Heel, and these happy go lucky denizens of the deep cannot lose their special Biggles of the Camel Squadron goggles or they go all floppy. Why? According to Ken, “we had to come up with an easy way of killing them that would not compromise their makeup, which was the biggest challenge of the shooting, as getting makeup to stay on when the Nazi’s are going in and out of water is a pain.” Still, the look of eyeless, waterlog undead creatures of the sea writhing in pain with screeching synth music playing behind their passing adds a good amount of dare I say, “shock.” Also, getting back to their particular killing style, these whimsical fascists love bringing the living back down to their murky un-graves as they seem pretty upset about having to live out eternity as overdressed bottom-dwellers, so I suppose that they want company. Unlike the flesh-eating in Romero films which I rarely found scary, these slow suffocating deaths are actually quite chilling. And the Death Corp, unlike the boogeymen of children’s stories, love walking around in plain sight during broad daylight, which I would say is pretty ballsy. Because of this brash behavior, you usually see them before their victims see them, and that too adds to the shock of “Shockwaves.”
So where did the idea for these creatures come from? I was lucky to have personally asked Ken the question of where he got his inspiration for such a strange horror film monster. Sure, these days you can’t turn on the History Channel without some program on “Hitler and the Occult” or “The Satanic Armies of the Third Reich,” but what was there in 1975 when the film was written to inspire such a creation. Ken responded that there was a book that he had read entitled “Occult Reich” that had all of this info about Hitler and his weird obsession with the Satanic rites, so from there he thought that perhaps that wacky millennialist was using these methods to fuel his campaign of world domination by creating some kind of super solider. Ken continued by saying, “Even their symbol, the swastika, wasn’t that a sacred Buddhist symbol that was perverted by Adolf and crew to go counter-clockwise?” I’m glad he answered that question and I am very glad that he showed up to the Coolidge that night, a night when a hundred or so loyal horror film fans braved some seriously cold weather to see his film, ask him some questions, and acknowledge his 1977 work as a lost and nifty film that is packed with some well-done politically incorrect instruments of terror.
Original 1977 trailer for “Shockwaves”
The good folks at Blue Underground have also acknowledged this work and just recently, they have released “Shockwaves” on Blu Ray. Pick one up, it looks great.