For many Peter Cushing fans, Christmas has come early this year. A month to the day in fact, because on November 25th, marks the release date of a Cushing film much sort after, rarely seen in any kind of decent condition and often if you did get your hands on a copy, it looked like it had been badly transfered using a camera lens through cheese cloth! Blue Underground's remastered blu ray and dvd release for some, will arrive with a fanfare, and a sigh relief. What's on the discs as extra features? How does the quality of the transfer hold up, where can you PURCHASE it...or indeed WIN yourself a copy... all answered here!
Peter Cushing was recommended to Queens-born director Ken Wiederhorn by British producer Richard Gordon, who worked with Cushing on Terence Fisher’s Island of Terror (1966). Wiederhorn and his partner Reuben Trane had already won an Academy Award in 1973 for Manhattan Melody, a first in the dramatic student film category, and next wanted to make a $300,000 16mm horror opus. It was originally titled Death Corps and later blown up to 35mm. We know it better today as Shock Waves (’77).
Shock Waves is exactly the kind of horror flick they might make for todays market, only now it might be intentionally funny. Like Piranha 3D (‘10), it could look like a throwback to the slapdash days of DIY guerrilla filmmaking. That's not to say that Shock Waves was intended to be bad or funny. Quite the contrary. The film seems more like a Larry Cohen/It's Alive exercise in genre rubbing rather than true drive-in exploitation fare. It's not all slapdash either. The underwater photography by Irving Pare is quite memorable, for any budget. The pulsating synth score by composer Richard Einhorn, who currently suffers from sensory neural hearing loss, is equally expressive.
The plot: a group of passengers on a chartered boat trip, captained by a cantankerous John Carradine, happen upon an island whose sole inhabitant (Cushing) is the elderly leader of an elite Nazi SS group of zombie-like U-boat soldiers who somehow survived the war. It's possibly a fallacy to call these storm troopers “zombies” even though that's how they’ve always been billed. They don’t seem interested in consuming flesh as they stalk, drown and garrote their victims.
The story is told in flashback by a battered-looking Brooke Adams (Days of Heaven, ‘78; Invasion of the Body Snatchers, ‘78) whose narration bookends the film. This was the era of Jaws (‘75) and The Deep (‘77). Shock Waves fits rather nicely into that sub-genre of suntan-thrillers. A cute bikini-clad Adams snorkeling underwater quickly gives way to the other classic horror star in the movie, Carradine. I can remember watching his imposing presence as a kid in just about every conceivable film genre there was. My favorite Carradine role will always be his sadistic guard in John Ford's The Prisoner of Shark Island (‘36). I suppose it was only fitting that ol' John should find himself once again back on the high seas toward the end of his vast and varied film career. For an actor with over 300 credits to his name, it must have seemed like just another troll around the island.
The people on board the boat actually unearth the “Death Corps”, or “Der Toten Korps”, before making their way to the island. The seafloor rattles like a radiation detector on THX overload as one of the young heroes has the nerve to say: "Did you hear something?" Equally amusing is a scene when the ship's co-pilot, a Nick Nolte lookalike, dryly proclaims: "Jesus, look at the sun" as the whole screen is awash in a piss-colored haze. Carradine, eyes bulging and slurring lines like “old fart”, makes his performance a minor classic in its own right. One must remember this isn’t The Godfather -- hell, it isn't even Disco Godfather -- but it never fails to entertain, especially when inducing chuckles.
The abandoned hotel itself is a grand setting for what could have been some truly creepy haunted house happenings. Unfortunately, they settled on some overgrown weeds scattered about the floor for unknown effect. The shipwreck setting -- the real SS Sapona off the coast of Bimini -- proves to be a far better atmospheric set piece. The Corps emerge from underneath like balletic stalkers moving in slow motion along the ocean floor. Their jackboots and blond hair give them away long before any swastika could. Their eye-goggles hide a deeper secret, but is it worth the big reveal soon to come?
The underwater action shots with mounting score really are quite fascinating. The expressionless head with waterlogged skin slowly rising from the water is almost as indelible an image as the foot-long scar across Cushing's face. His entrance is perhaps one of the most perplexing of his entire career. A swell of orchestral music starts playing on a phonograph off screen, the halls seem deserted, and the not-so-bright looking cast members wander around wondering where the source of the outburst is coming. The nerdy guy in the plaid shorts and his annoying wife stumble upon it first. The others appear not soon after and stare at the antiquated player as it immediately begins to cease functioning. The music dies and that familiar voice booms from out of nowhere: "I am near, but also far." A little like his pseudo-German accent in the film that also comes and goes.
The troupe's exchange with the off-screen Cushing is at once painful and comical. They seem like models that have wandered in off the boxes of Wheaties cereal ads. Then he appears silhouetted on a balcony in the distance, says a few words and disappears again. When next we see him a few moments later he is running through the island brush as lithe as a cat on the prowl. This is all soon eclipsed by one of the Death Corps walking straight into the water until completely submersed. The film is not without it's memorable moments, such as Cushing staggering around the beach like a scarecrow on Romney Marsh. He often looks positively exhausted in the part and allegedly agreed to take it because he thought his name might help the modest little project along. One wonders if he enjoyed anything about his four-day shoot at Florida's Biscayne Bay other than the buckwheat pancakes he obsessed over at the nearby IHOP. The sad truth is, this may be the last satisfying straight horror performance Cushing ever gave, not counting his last hurrah for Hammer Films with the Hammer House of Horror episode Silent Scream (’80).
It's long in the tooth at times and the over acting from the ensemble is more than occasionally grating. Yet, it somehow remains satisfying on a zero-expectations sort of level. That “zombie” photography really is superb. I am also convinced the movie TRON (‘82) borrowed heavily from this soundtrack. Eventually, it all degenerates into a student film version of Deliverance (’72), with the not-so-frightened but pensive cast rowing -- and at one point trudging along the ocean floor -- in a small boat. My favorite laugh-out-loud moment in the entire film might be when the guy with the James Caan hair freaks out in the giant refrigerator room. He then inexplicably ends up in a swimming pool filled waste-deep with murky water and pseudo Nazi zombies. Eventually poor Brooke Adams and a dingy are all that's left.
"Shock Waves is really a throwback to a simpler kind of horror movie. There’s nothing overly complicated or ambiguous about it. Despite the fact that it’s about Nazi zombies, monsters that could (and have) been given a far more visceral and shocking treatment, the movie is surprisingly non-exploitative. The movie chills more than it horrifies, sneaking up on you with lingering imagery you won’t soon forget. It’s far from perfect but it’s a ride worth taking.
Blue Underground first released SHOCK WAVES on DVD in 2003, and the transfer was taken from the director’s own vault print since the original negative mysteriously disappeared, so the film seemed an unlikely candidate for a Blu-ray facelift. Now freshly transferred and fully restored in High Definition from the only surviving materials, for a film shot in Super 16mm and blown up to 35mm, it looks quite nice and greatly improved over the previous DVD. Presented in 1080p and in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, detail is greatly improved, especially in the daytime outdoor scenes and underwater scenes, which now have a good amount of depth to them. Naturally, grain is present and heavier in some of the night-time scenes, but never excessively problematic, and colors have a nice saturation to them. The audio is presented in a DTS-HD 1.0 option and is well balanced, with sound effects and music coming through fine and dialog being clear. Optional subtitles are included in English SDH, French and Spanish.
“Shock Waves” is as cultish as horror films get. It caters to a niche audience that does not care for glamorous over-produced horror fare, but instead appreciates the raw inspiration and translation of a vision. Typically, these kinds of films get the short-shrift by studios and never make their appearance on Blu-Ray or, if they do, their release, quality and features are very limited. Not here. Blue Underground once again sticks to its guns and impresses us with a top notch presentation for such a small and obscure film, and with extras that are nicely put together with a touch that shows love and appreciation for the movie. Nazi zombies aren’t something you see every day, and with the veritable Peter Cushing in one of the leads, you know that you’re getting some solid acting, so make sure you give this disc a try when you’re in the mood."
'The real delight of Shock Waves is that the monsters work so well! The Death Corps troopers are genuinely creepy!'
'A master piece in the genre of zombie cinema. Not since the original Night Of The Living Dead' have zombies been so frightening!