Color, 1977, 84m.
Directed by Ken Wiederhorn
Starring Peter Cushing, Brooke Adams, John Carradine, Jack Davidson, Luke Halpin, Don Stout, D.J. Sidney
Blue Underground (Blu-ray & DVD), Umbrella (DVD) (Australia R0 PAL), Astro (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Vipco (UK R2 PAL)
A minor cult hit on the drive-in circuit, this atmospheric zombie gem from the late '70s spawned the brief directorial career of Ken Wiederhorn, who went on to 1981's flawed but interesting Eyes of a Stranger before helmed the extremely divisive Return of the Living Dead II. Here we have a fine genre cast, including sparing but effective appearances by legends Peter Cushing and John Carradine, placed in a restrained, memorable mood piece that's short on blood but long on chills and atmosphere.
A lifeboat carrying a visibly traumatized survivor, Rose (a pre-Invasion of the Body Snatchers Brooke Adams), proves to be the only remnant of an ill-fated vacation cruise in the tropics. In flashback, Rose recalls the damage done to her companions' ship (captained by Carradine) by the submerged hull of a mysterious vessel, leaving them stranded on a remote island seemingly untouched by human hands. However, one resident, a former SS officer (Cushing), calls the island his home and uses his hidden facility to breed zombies from the bodies of his deceased Aryan soldiers. The blond, goggle-wearing members of Cushing's self-appointed Death Corps now lurk beneath the lake and ocean surfaces dotting the island, ready to drag the new visitors to a watery death.
Despite its rough edges and obvious low budget, Shock Waves is one of those buried treasures horror fans love to discover and recommend to their friends. The surreal, dreamlike setting plays like a cross between Lucio Fulci's Zombie and the haunted wastelands of Val Lewton, though in terms of structure and pacing it hovers far more closely in the territory of earlier '70s dream horrors like Messiah of Evil, The Dead Mountaineer's Hotel, and especially Let's Scare Jessica to Death. On top of that the detached, somnambulistic performances and skin-crawling electronic score make for a unique and unsettling experience. The images of soldiers rising from the water are the most memorable, but the film contains several other worthy sequences like Adams' tranquil swim across a lake and a tense showdown in a darkened laboratory. The dark little twist in the final scene isn't easy to overlook, either. Incidentally, the make-up chores were handled by director/producer Alan Ormsby, whose Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things would make a fine double feature with this one, too.
First released on U.S. videotape by Prism in a soft but watchable transfer, Shock Waves dropped out of sight for many years before popping up on British DVD from Vipco in 2001 in a typically battered, unimpressive presentation. The disc (now discontinued) carries an "18" rating, which is most likely attributable to the presence of graphic trailers for Cannibal Holocaust, Mountain of the Cannibal God, and Psychic Killer. The film itself actually garnered a PG rating in the U.S. and a "15" in Britain, though the nightmarish ambience makes it less than ideal viewing for sensitive kids. Two years later, Blue Underground presented a better anamorphic presentation from a 35mm print, looking very grainy and chunky but about as good as the format would allow at the time. That disc includes a stills and poster gallery, the trailer, two radio spots, a TV spot, and a fine audio commentary with Wiederhorn, Ormsby, and director/Retromedia head Fred Olen Ray (who shot the film's stills), covering the various shooting locations around Miami and Coral Gables, Florida as well as the wrangling of the two big name stars for such a modest production. There's also an 8-minute video interview with actor Luke Halpin, "From Flipper to Shock Waves," in which he talks about having fun on the shoot and thinking he missed out on the job thanks to a smart aleck comment.
In 2014, Blue Underground revisited the film for a Blu-ray upgrade that raised the obvious question: how good could a scrappy 1977 horror movie shot in 16mm look in HD? The answer is pretty darn good if you know what you're getting into. It's still quite grainy, as it should be, but the detail coalesces here very nicely and provides a much more vivid, film-like appearance than the DVD, with the damage minimized significantly here as well. The DTS-HD mono track sounds fine considering the film's limited range. All of the extras from the DVD (featurette, trailer, TV spot, radio spots, and commentary) have ben ported over here, with a trio of nice new goodies in HD added as well. "Nazi Zombies on a Budget" features producer/cinematographer Reuben Trane covering the inception of the idea (which would place this in between The Frozen Dead and the two Dead Snow films in the small undead Nazi subgenre), his film school collaborations with Wiederhorn, and using sign language to wrangle the cast and crew underwater. Then "Notes for the Undead" features 14 minutes with composer Richard Einhorn, a self-described monster movie buff who jumped at the chance for this early scoring gig and wanted to do a different kind of electronic score (on a short schedule) for the film. Finally the charming Adams has a good 7-minute interview, "Sole Survivor," in which she remembers getting the job while waiting tables, assessing herself as overacting in a few of her more high-pitched scenes, and enjoying the shoot in Florida. She also talks briefly about the rest of her notable horror and sci-fi career as well as her happy family life with her husband, Monk star Tony Shalhoub. A very fine revisit for an eerily effective little chiller hat sticks with you long after the last creepy drone of the closing credits.