Ken Wiederhorn was no stranger to directing horror films, and in fact devoted most of his career to creating films meant to shock and scare. His most notable might Return of the Living Dead Part II (one of my favorites), but before that and even prior to Eyes of a Stranger, Wiederhorn worked on his directorial debut Shock Waves. Shock Waves isn’t a particularly well-known film despite its Nazi zombie narrative, but thankfully Blue Underground has opted to bring it to the masses with a new DVD and Blu-Ray release with 1080p transfer.
The film follows a group of passengers on a ship traveling with a hardened captain; when they hit the wreckage of an old ship in the water, they’re forced to board a nearby island in search of another means of getting back to the mainland. Once there, they find an abandoned mansion full of palm fronds, and then run into the creepy SS Commander (Peter Cushing), a man with a scar on his face and a neat handkerchief tied around his neck. He warns, like all strangers do, that it’s not safe on the island and the visitors must go at once – forgetting to tell them how to get off the island without a boat. From there, the undead rise from the bottom of the sea, and they’re not just your normal undead, but vicious Nazi undead who know only of killing, because that’s what Nazis do.
Shock Waves is schlock fun, but it’s not a traditional zombie film. Wiederhorn takes a good amount of time to build to the zombies, first introducing the characters on the ship and shaping them into quick caricatures. Obviously Keith (Luke Halpin) is the rugged everyman who coordinates the group once they’re stranded; and Rose (Brooke Adams) doesn’t have a lot of skills, but she’s pretty enough in a bikini to be the final girl. Norman (Fred Buch) is the group’s annoying whiner, complaining about everything from the captain to the mansion to not being able to take his luggage on the escape boat. The film’s opening third employs a weird approach to this horror film, utilizing Richard Einhorn’s synth score to introduce a ghost ship before the boat runs ashore.
From there, Wiederhorn works with the eerie setting to create chaos. The lack of people on the island is unsettling, and that is pronounced once the similar zombies start rising from their watery graves. It’s hard to watch Shock Waves with the unbiased perspective of what zombie films used to be; the makeup effects are rudimentary on these undead, more shriveled than anything else, and at times the Nazi regalia makes the enemy look funnier than they should be portrayed. But Wiederhorn sticks to the format, opting for slow-moving zombies who have little interest in anything but murdering whatever gets in their way. They don’t eat people, but they do want to drag them into the sea in whatever way possible.
That the zombies of Shock Waves are so unwavering makes them a touch scarier, but there’s always humor in the way the film plays out. Norman gives comic relief in his absurd overreactions; the Nazi association is relatively unexplored and, more than that, there’s little reason given why now is such a bad time for Keith and company to be on the island, as the SS Commander hints before things really start getting bad.
Still, the way the zombies lithely slip back into the water gives a few different shocks, especially allowing them to pop out of the water at any given moment without warning. Wiederhorn doesn’t really utilize this to full effect, a la Jason the kid in the original Friday the 13th; there aren’t many pop-up scares, with the zombies slowly creeping up behind the characters with Einhorn’s score trilling instead. There are still a few good moments, including a zombie hiding behind a freezer door and the makeup effects on a zombie with burning red eyes; just don’t expect to be clutching your seat in fright.
Shock Waves is certainly not one of the better zombie movies, and it seems to sit more comfortably within the slower-paced flicks like White Zombie rather than the violent zombie films that peaked at the same time as Shock Waves‘ release. But if you’re in the mood for a slower burn, with a great synth soundtrack and a watery setting, then Shock Waves is your film, especially to watch a raggedy Luke Halpin wade through the water in his acid-wash jeans.
Blue Underground’s treatment of Shock Waves isn’t great; there’s quite a bit of fuzz in this 1080p transfer, especially in certain shots with whiter colors or night scenes. That background noise is jarring at first, but you’ll get used to it; still, it doesn’t look as good as some would like, especially on Blu-Ray. The rest of the package, though, is pretty grand – a Blu-Ray case with a slipcover, chapter outlines!, and a flap to keep the case closed.
The special features are kick-ass too. There’s a 20-minute interview with cinematographer Reuben Trane that takes a close look at the background of the film and both his and Wiederhorn’s debuts in the world of cinema. Another longer interview with Richard Einhorn, who did the film score, touches on the film’s all-synth soundtrack and the Korgs that were used to produce it. Finally, both actress Brooke Adams and Luke Halpin give quick interviews looking back on their time with Shock Waves.
Then Blue Underground goes further. There are theatrical trailers, commentaries, and a gallery of stills and artwork. That’s quite a few specials for a film such as this, and it helps to make up for the transfer quality.