Shock Waves is your basic pretty good horror movie. It's got a pretty good story, pretty good acting, pretty good direction, and it's based on a pretty good idea. The problem is, I don't really do pretty good movies. Pretty good movies don't make for very interesting reviews. But since I promised long-time reader and indispensable nerd studies correspondent Dan that I'd review it because he won the first annual Spot The Other Simpsons Reference In My Hawk The Slayer Review sweepstakes, I'm giving it my best shot.
Shock Waves is about these indestructible aquatic Nazi zombies who get trapped in their sunken ship off the coast of some Caribbean island. Then they come back to the surface for some reason, possibly related to the never-explained shock waves of the title. The DVD cover calls Shock Waves "the best of the Nazi zombie movies." I love that Nazi zombies get their own sub-sub-genre, but if this is the best one, then somebody needs to get to work on raising the bar right now. Like I said, this is a pretty good movie, but I tend to think that a movie about Nazi zombies who stalk hot chicks in bikinis should be a lot sleazier than this. Luckily, there's this German nazisploitation flick coming out called Dead Snow that looks pretty rugged. Usually, German horror movies are joyless affairs about systemic cruelty and corpse-fucking, so I'm looking forward to seeing if they can finally lighten up and make one that doesn't make you want to disembowel yourself while jerking off so that you cum geysers of blood, like in the heartwarming conclusion of Nekromantik.
Shock Waves starts with an actual still photo of some Nazi officers, looking like the Cocky Aryan Asshole Academy's graduating class of 1946. A Larroquettian narrator tells us the story of an SS unit that had been created from the corpses of dead prisoners and psychopaths. They were supposedly invincible warriors who killed with their bare hands, but since no members (Heh, I said "members") of their unit (Heh, I said "unit") were ever captured, their existence could not be verified. This little intro was clearly trying to go the Texas Chainsaw route of blatantly lying to the audience and telling them that what they are about to watch is based on a true story, even though it's total bullshit. I appreciate that kind of dishonesty in a movie.
Then the movie totally fucks with you by introducing a second narrator. As we see some fishermen rescuing a sun-damaged ingénue from a rowboat adrift in the middle of the ocean, we hear her voice telling us that only now does she remember the ordeal that put her in that situation. Then we flashback to happier times, when she was an outrageously adorable brunette in a canary-yellow bikini. She's played by Brooke Adams, whom you may remember as the chick who could make her eyeballs wobble in the first Body Snatchers remake. Already we've got two narrators and a flashback, so you'd be forgiven for thinking this flick was in trouble. That's the kind of shit Al Adamson used to pull when he'd try to combine footage from three different movies into one supermovie about bankrobbers and go-go dancers and mad scientists. But don't worry, things get much more straightforward from here, and the movie ends up being very professional for what must have been a punishingly low budget.
As Brooke warms her cupcakes in the sun, we meet all the passengers and crew members of this shitty little boat that's on its way to God knows where. Among others, there's the hunky first mate in mustache and bell bottoms, the alcoholic cook, and the captain, played by legendary thespian and Carradine paterfamilias John, who was notoriously unparticular about the movies he allowed himself to appear in. This one could clearly only afford him for a few days, because he disappears after the first 20 minutes. He's nice and crotchety in the few scenes he's in, though, so I think they got their money's worth.
This early sequence also introduces the bane of this movie's existence: the asshole character who is in the exact same predicament as everybody else, yet feels the need to complain about everything all the time as if it were only happening to him. He's a prissy bastard with a whiny voice who looks and acts like Porky Pig, minus the endearing stutter. He reminded me of my first college roommate, a middle-aged 21-year-old who smelled like the water that collects on top of cottage cheese and thought that black people were an urban legend. Both of them covered up their essential lack of social skills with an unfunny brand of petulant sarcasm that makes large groups of otherwise nonviolent people want to kill them, sink their bodies in the swamp, and never speak of it ever again. Luckily, this character is one of the first to die, but it doesn't happen soon enough, and his suffering is over far too quickly.
Anyway, after the introductions are over, the sky turns yellow for some reason and there are some bubbles in the water. I guess this is when the "shock waves" raise the zombies from their aquatic slumber. Then the boat gets lost and everybody washes up on this island, where Peter Cushing is practicing his German accent on every third or fourth line of dialogue. He's the commander of the Nazi zombies, and he's been hanging out in this abandoned hotel for 30 years, waiting for them to come back. Touch-and-go accent aside, Cushing does right by the role, as usual. One thing about Cushing, you could always count on him to give his all. Carradine might phone it in more often than not, but Cushing always gives you full value. He's about a hundred years old in Shock Waves, but he's still tromping around the jungle like an infantryman, wearing a short sleeve shirt that reveals his bony old arms, which are by far the scariest things in the movie. His forearms are so veiny they look like porn star cocks.
Anyway, Shock Waves is sort of notable in that it's a zombie movie that doesn't really owe much of anything to the Romero zombie mythology. It came out after Night but before Dawn, so it's not fully locked into the rules yet. These zombies don't eat flesh, they're not contagious, and I don't think you can kill them by shooting them in the head, although nobody ever tries. In fact, I find their whole reputation for indestructibility to be highly suspect, since they take no damage through the course of the film. They don't get stabbed, hacked, bludgeoned, shot, electrocuted, set on fire, or any of the awesome things that people like to do to zombies. The only way to kill them is to take off their stupid goggles, which makes them just sort of keel over and die. This is where Shock Waves drops the ball. Half of the fun of zombies is that, unlike werewolves, vampires, Jasons, or other superpowered monsters, their victims have a sporting chance. Get yourself a weapon and keep moving and you could probably take out your fair share before their numbers inevitably overwhelm you. That's why people love zombie movies. They get to experience the taboo exhilaration of chopping motherfuckers up with no consequences, while still getting the thrills and chills of your standard people-in-peril flick. It's the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, Shock Waves only gives you the best of one world. And not even really, since all the zombies ever do to people is drown them. There is seriously not a single drop of blood in this movie.
But what Shock Waves does have going for it, in addition to Brooke Adams' constantly displayed cleavage, is some nice atmosphere and some strikingly designed monsters. They're like Kraftwerk zombies, dressed in matching black jumpsuits and moving in synch with each other, which leads to some pretty great shots of them rising up out of the water in staggered patterns silhouetted against the horizon.
The pace of the film is slow and dreamy, its eerie ambiance aided by an early synthesizer score. One thing I liked about the way the standard cat-and-mouse suspense scenes played out was that the victims more or less had the right strategy, but then they'd completely fuck it up at the last minute. Like, they have the entirely workable idea of locking themselves in the walk-in freezer, but then the panicking claustrophobe shoots off a flare gun in there and they have to evacuate because of the smoke. Or there's a part where they're pushing a small boat out to sea. They're almost home-free, but then one of them falls down, so everybody stops and then the boat drifts away and they're suddenly totally fucked again. Stuff like this adds to the nightmare feeling of the flick. You ever have one of those dreams where you're just trying to do one little thing like put your shoes on or fuck this chick you went to high school with, but then suddenly everything changes on you? Your shoes disappear and you find yourself wandering the streets barefoot, or maybe that chick from high school suddenly turns into Steve Buscemi and you wake up questioning your sexuality? The movie's like that. Unlike the zombies, which never decompose, Shock Waves is an exercise in entropy. Everything goes wrong all the time, despite the characters' best attempts to hold it together. Sort of like life, only with less blood and way more of Peter Cushing's naked, throbbing forearms.
UPDATE: Dead Snow is in no way a better Nazi zombie movie than Shock Waves. Also, it's Norwegian, not German. I keep thinking everything's German lately.