It’s somehow already time for my yearly ritual of shoving my air-conditioner back into my window and settling in for six months of sunless movie watching hibernation. I’ve never been a fan of summer and recall as a child much preferring the giant box TV in my family’s air-conditioned upstairs rec room (complete with olive green shag carpeting, bicentennial wallpaper and a ping pong table that could be covered in sheets and used as a fort) to playing whatever impossible sport my brothers might be up to outside under the unforgiving, freckle-inducing sun. It makes little sense but somehow back in the days when you only had six or seven channels to choose from, there seemed to be so much more to watch on television. I was game for whatever horror film might be showing on my favorite local channels (17, 29, 48) and one bright summer afternoon I was thoroughly creeped out by Ken (EYES OF A STRANGER (’81), THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART II (’88)) Wiederhorn’s SHOCK WAVES. It may have been 100 degrees outside but where I sat watching this strange flick (which featured horror legends Peter Cushing & David Carradine) it was as cold and clammy as a tomb.
Having been completely mentally destroyed by the TV movie SATAN’S TRIANGLE (‘75) years earlier, I was no doubt an easy mark for the maritime madness SHOCK WAVES had to offer. The film begins with an unhinged survivor named Rose (the always great BROOKE ADAMS) being found alone in a small boat who recounts the horrible events that led her to such a state. It seems she and a group of tourists (including FLIPPER’s pal Luke Halpin) were sailing along minding their own business, when unexplainable solar flare business occurred (shades of WHERE HAVE ALL THE PEOPLE GONE? (‘74) and their navigation system went on the fritz (like every freaky Bermuda Triangle tale that loitered in my brain throughout my youth). What’s more, late at night, their little S.S. Minnow-looking boat was sideswiped by an obviously haunted colossal Nazi cargo boat (that foreshadows DEATH SHIP (‘80)) and is left slowly sinking. The luckless group evacuate to a nearby island on a lifeboat and find shelter in a seemingly abandoned hotel, but wouldn’t you know it, they are followed by an undead Nazi death squad who walk flat on the ocean floor (!) while donning (admittedly fashionable) goggles. I shouldn’t have to say this but Nazis are never a good thing and soon they’re executing the ship’s sadsack “survivors” one by one!
I’m not sure why anyone would make a PG-rated Nazi zombie movie but here we are and frankly this outing proves without a shadow a doubt that you don’t need gore and violence when you’re sporting eerie heebie-jeebies up the wazoo. Remarkably, most of the deaths are by drowning and many occur off screen. Someone might be walking about when a Nazi corpse pops up behind them and the next thing you know, the poor victim is found crammed into an aquarium or floating in a pool. You’d think that slight of hand might curb the chaos but it only seems to add another level of futility to the character’s plight.
SHOCK WAVES runs on pure ambiance and atmosphere; the electronic score weaves its way into your psyche and the stark visuals are truly unsettling. These baddies are not your typical messy, uncouth evil dead, they’ve got some kind of epic stoicism about them so it’s almost like being stalked by a half dozen Michael Myers-type figures who can pop up anywhere and totally ignore the laws of the physical world. Whatever lapses in logic or potholes that may appear are quickly doused and muted by the overall inescapable fever dream energy. Half of my brain will always try to convince myself how silly SHOCK WAVES is (that zombie walking on the ocean floor is somehow both awkwardly cringey AND eerily stunning), but the other half will forever succumb to its forceful uncanny vibe.